Are Britons going off their cup of tea?

The Guardian

London, May 18:

It is, according to George Orwell, one of the mainstays of civilisation, while William Gladstone intoned, “If you are depressed, it will cheer you”. Its milky charms, the first response in a crisis for many a stout Briton, did indeed provide constant ‘cheer and vigour’ for Edmund Hillary during his ascent of Everest in 1953.

Yet in 21st century Britain, it seems the traditional British cup of tea is in decline - pushed increasingly to the side of the refreshment trolley by its herbal, fruit and ‘speciality’ upstart cousins.

According to the market analysts Mintel, sales in the UK of standard tea bags plummeted by 16 per cent and loose tea nine per cent over the past two years, while sales of herbal and fruit teas rose by 30 per cent between 2002 and 2004.

Speciality varieties such as green tea, promoted for its health benefits, sold 50 per cent more over the same period.

While tea overall remains easily Britain’s drink of choice — 165 million cups will have been drained by the end of today (for a population of 60 million) — the research suggests traditional varieties are facing tough competition not only from coffee but also soft drinks, bottled water and fruit juice.

Over the past five years the total tea market dropped by 12 per cent. The main culprits appear to be younger drinkers.

Ellen Shiels, senior market analyst at Mintel, said young people were attracted by the proclaimed health and wellbeing benefits of fruit teas and, in particular, green tea, promoted as containing high levels of antioxidants and beneficial in cutting the risk of heart attacks. Even this could be elbowed aside by its newer rival, white tea, which claims to contain three times the number of antioxidants.

She added, “Basically, tea drinking is a ritual and people have it for their comfort, but younger people are not buying into the ritual any more.”

Women, executive director Bill Gorman suggested, were attempting to follow health advice recommending they drink two litres of water a day, which did not leave room for other drinks.

“If you are drinking that much water, plus wine, beer and tea, then you are going to spend all day on the loo.”

But some young women substituted some of their water quota with herbal or speciality teas, Gorman said.

Gorman insisted his own reading of the tea leaves did not forecast doom for the tea industry. He said the growth in speciality teas was making up for any decline in the traditional brew. Tea continued to hold its own admirably against rival beverages, he said.

“Forty years ago half of the daily fluid intake of Britons was tea, and now that is just under 40 per cent.” Mintel acknowledges that tea is still popular overall.

Almost 80 per cent of all Britons are tea drinkers, according to its survey of 25,000 consumers carried out between 2002 and 2004. This rises to around 85 per cent of people aged 65 and over, but drops to 72 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds.

Tea facts

• Tea is made by infusing the leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) in hot water

• The three main categories of tea are green, black and oolong.

• The temperance movement proposed tea as an alternative to alcohol as it sought to cut excessive boozing in Britain in the 19th century

• “Sex? I prefer a cup of tea,” said the then Culture Club singer

Boy George in 1983 - not entirely truthfully.