Tea drinking

Why are the Brits constantly putting the kettle on?

It’s always time for a ‘nice cup of tea’


A cup of tea has miraculous healing powers in Britain. The hot drink is regarded as the go-to fix for minor physical ailments, such as scraped knees and migraines, and complex psychological ills, such as trauma following the loss of a loved one.


Tea was introduced to the British as a healthy alternative to alcohol by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese queen to Charles II. She believed that tea cured headaches, promoted longevity and kept one alert.


The UK Tea and Infusions Association clarify that while Catherine did not actually introduce tea to Britain, she had much to do with it becoming a popular beverage.


British tea drinking A cup of tea has proven to instantly de-stress
Unsplash / Padurariu Alexandru


A recent study by psychologist Dr Malcolm Cross at City University London found that even one cup of tea dramatically reduces anxiety levels after a stressful experience.


When volunteers were placed in a stressful scenario, those who did not recieve a cup of tea immediately after the test demonstrated a 25 percent increase in anxiety, and those who did showed a four percent reduction in stress.


“When in doubt, put the kettle on”


Besides its ability to soothe and sedate, tea can also be a remedy to revive and energise a tired body or mental state. In fact, any situation or mental state calls for a cup of tea.


‘Putting the kettle on’ is often considered a means by which British people fill awkward silences or uncomfortable social situations.


Anthropologist Kate Fox explains that a universal rule among Britons is: “When in doubt, put the kettle on.”


British tea and kettle, credit Flickr Tea helps the Brits 'Keep Calm and Carry On'
Flickr / Dave Crosby


Drawing from this, Psychologist Dr Malcolm Cross believes the instinctive act of putting the kettle on taps into a collective conscious and symbolism.


"The ritual of making and drinking tea - particularly during times of stress - is at the very core of British culture, " he says.


Anecdotal research from Direct Line claims that Brits are prompted to put the kettle on mainly by the promise of comfort and warmth (60 percent) and the means of psychological escape (41 percent).


But why do the British love it so?


One widely publicised theory is that the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria, invented the concept of Afternoon Tea in 1840 as she got hungry each day around 4pm. She sent her maid to fetch her tea and bread and butter to fill the gap until dinner at 8pm.


She discovered it was the perfect refreshment and invited others to join her. Afternoon tea quite quickly became a popular social event (initially first for upper-class women in ball gowns, which then trickled down to the rest of society).


Tea and social class


Middle and upper classes

Folk of the upper-middle and upper classes tend to drink weak tea the colour of dishwater, such as unsweetened Earl Grey.


However, those trying to prove that they aren’t drinking anything remotely resembling working-class tea are more likely to drink Lapsang Souchong without milk or sugar, explains anthropologist Kate Fox in her book, Watching the English.


Lower to middle classes

Lower-middle and middle-middle classes are known to drink a pale ‘posh’ version such as Twinning’s English Breakfast.


sugar in tea, credit to Flickr Taking sugar in tea is considered a 'lower class' habit
Flickr / Stephen Shrubsole


Lower-class habits


-Putting the milk in the cup first

- Noisy stirring

-Taking a spoon sugar in your tea is a sure indication that you’re lower class (or born before 1955)

-Taking more than two spoons shows you are working class


Obsessive tea drinkers of our time


George Orwell, who considered tea to be one of the “mainstays of civilisation”, identified 11 rules for perfect tea-making which include the rule that tea is ruined by sweetening.


He outlines them in this sound clip:



Orwell’s final two rules include the 'milk in first or tea in first' dilemma and the question of sugar.


“Indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.


“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it?”


Cool in British tea consumption


While the tea-ometer on the Tea Council UK website clocks an impressive 100,000 cups of tea being drunk by midday across the UK each day, research indicates that tea consumption in the UK has dropped by over a fifth since 2010.


In fact, the volume of tea sold has dropped from 97 million kilograms in 2010 to 76 million kilograms in 2015.


It appears that tea’s hottest rival, coffee, has been stealing consumers, according to market research firm Mintel.


But the Brits aren’t throwing their tea bags out entirely, as it is estimated that value of the market will increase later in 2016.



Header image: Bino Storyteller


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