Distribution of Tea Consumption in the 20th Century

At the end of the 19th century some significant changes were taking place in tea drinking habits. In England there was a dramatic shift from buying tea of Chinese origin to buying tea from British owned plantations in India, Ceylon and Africa. This also led to an increase in tea drinking at the source, in India, and the birth of Masala Chai. Meanwhile in America the drive for convenience which characterised the 20th century created many new innovations such as iced tea and the tea bag which have today become the main modes of preparing tea. In America over 80% of all tea drunk is iced while almost 96% of British tea consumed is in tea bag form.

In Britain tea was ubiquitously consumed by all levels of society at breakfast and an occasion in fashionable circles of high society in the afternoon. As the industrial revolution progressed it became part of the main meal of the day which shifted from midday to the evening as the long factory shifts or the new school day made it less convenient to have a hot meal at lunch time. It was even suggested that tea facilitated the industrial revolution since the stimulants in tea combined with sugary snacks that were served in the afternoon tea breaks gave workers the energy they needed to complete the working day. As the tea in Britain changed from being 90% purchased from China in 1870 to 10% in 1900 with the rest coming from British owned colonies in India (50%) and Ceylon (33%) so did the traits of the English industrial revolution travel to India. Despite being an indigenous plant, tea consumption in India remained relatively low until the British owned Indian Tea Association begun an aggressive promotional campaign in the early 20th century encouraging tea breaks for factory, mine and textile mill workers. Being a British campaign it promoted tea in the English way, with small amounts of milk and sugar. Independent vendors then started to improvise, greatly increasing the proportions of milk and sugar and adding other spices to create an entirely new form of tea known as masala chai. This form of tea was initially frowned upon by the Indian Tea Association who were upset that the extra ingredients meant they were using less tea leaves per liquid volume but its unique taste has established itself not just as a popular beverage in India but spreading throughout South Asia and across the world.

Meanwhile in America some new and important innovations were taking place. The first of these would dramatically change the tea drinking habits of America. During the hot summer of 1904 Richard Blechynden, the Indian Tea Commissioner and Director of the East India Pavilion at the World Fair in St. Louis found customers were shunning his product because of the heat. It is said that in desperation he iced the tea and fair-goers suddenly welcomed the cool brew. Iced tea was certainly known of in America before this time, being made into alcoholic tea punches since the mid 19th century, and Blechynden probably heard of it from previous years at the fair where it was served on most restaurants menus, but he was the first to commercialise the product when he later took his equipment to New York City and offered free iced tea to shoppers at Bloomingdale Brothers Department Store. This set the trend for America’s tea drinking habits as almost all tea drunk in America today is now in iced form. Since it can take a long time to create requiring either cooling the hot tea or up to an hour infusing at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator, iced tea is often served ready made in bottles like a soft drink or occasionally from concentrate. Since its popularisation in America iced tea has spread around the world taking on many local styles, especially in hot countries.

The second development from America that would revolutionise the tea industry was the invention of the tea bag. Although designs were patented since 1903 the first recorded use of tea bags comes from New York tea importer Thomas Sullivan. His invention was accidental as he only intended to send small samples to potential customers in hand sewn silk muslin bags to be removed and brewed. Many of his customers did not realise this and brewed the tea in the bags. When they placed larger orders they were disappointed that the tea did not come in the small sacks. He heard their complaints and quickly invented some gauze sacks that could be machine sewn in larger numbers and begun the first tea bag industry. These immediately took hold in the convenience orientated culture of America but the English were more reserved about changing their tea habits. There were often horror stories from America about being served a cup of tepid water accompanied by a tea bag on the side for dipping and tea was a far too important affair for the British to risk their time tested traditions with new inventions. In fact tea was so important to the British that in both World Wars the government took control of stocks and protected reserves in case they were destroyed by military action. Even so tea had to be rationed during World War II and the tea bag only really took hold in the 1950s when tea rationing finally ended.

Tetley drove the first tea bags into the UK market in 1953. At first cautious, the convenience of the tea bag has slowly taken hold of English consumers. In the 1960s only 3% of the English tea market was tea bags, by 2007 almost 96% of all tea sold in Britain was in bagged form. This is in part due to some impressive marketing drives and innovations on the design of tea bags in the last few decades including the pyramid shape introduced by Lipton and PG Tips in 1996. This overcame the concerns of many tea aficionados that regular flat tea bags did not give enough room for the tea to expand and the water to circulate. The use of tea bags also enabled modern processing equipment such as the “cut, tear, curl” or CTC machines to be used to produce bag grade tea quickly. Designed in 1930 by W. McKertcher, these machines spread in popularity throughout African and Indian tea plantations in the 1950s to 1970s as tea bags rose in popularity. Even some high quality teas would be processed this way and put into bags as the drive for convenience over tradition influenced even connoisseurs of fine tea. Today 80% of all tea from India is processed in the CTC method including some from the Darjeeling region, often considered to be the champagne of teas.

It is thanks to the advancements in technology of the 20th century that tea has become an ubiquitous aspect of almost every culture around the world. From its origins as a drink mainly enjoyed by the Chinese, Japanese and British it has spread to the Americas in the form of iced tea, across the Indian subcontinent in the form of chai and caught on around the world. As the modern age demanded more convenience, innovations like the tea bag caught on to ensure that even in a busy office a cup of tea is easily available. Today, as we enter the 21st century a new trend is emerging: a revival of fine teas in both Europe and America. People are becoming more interested in the origins of their drink and of the different varieties available. Even traditional serving methods are being explored where time and cost permits and other tea-like infusions such as rooibos and mate are being investigated by people who would never have heard of these 20 years ago. Tea might have reached every corner of the globe and every strata of society but people are still finding new ways to enjoy this ancient beverage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *