Black tea getting weaker in Britain

The traditional English brew loses sales to juices, coffee, even water.

June 09, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - For centuries, Britain has been characterized by its abysmally dank weather, its oddly refreshing warm beer, its dysfunctional royal families and, perhaps above all, its almost fanatical love for a steaming hot mug of strong black tea.

The weather here still stinks, the beer is still unchilled and Britain's royal family remains energetically unbalanced. The role of traditional black tea in Britain, though, apparently is weakening.

Sharing the headlines here with stories about the Iraq war, North Korean nukes and the disintegration of the European Union has been the news that sales of traditional British teabags fell by 16 percent over the past two years, while loose tea sales dropped 9 percent.

As a headline in The Times of London summed it up: "Coffee and Fizzy Drinks are Now Our Cup of Tea."

"The problem is that young people see tea as something for pensioners and just aren't drinking it," said Amanda Lintott, a spokeswoman for the research group Mintel International, whose report of a weakened tea industry grabbed headlines in virtually all of the country's national newspapers.

"The tea industry really needs to wake up a bit and focus on why they're losing their market. Tea is up against a lot of competition, trendier drinks, but it has held tight to rather a stodgy image."

Younger people, Mintel's study found, are opting for energy drinks, juices and plain old water, which somehow has been transformed from bland to fashionable merely by being put in little plastic bottles.

And, perhaps most sacrilegious to the romantic loyalists of black tea, a fair number of Britons have switched to herbal teas and fruity hot drinks that are marketed as tea, much to the consternation of the "proper" tea industry.

"Those drinks are honorable competitors but you cannot with any truth call them teas," said William Gorman, executive director of the Tea Council, a trade group representing trade producers. "And the real tea is as strong as ever."

He disputes the Mintel report, saying it was based on flawed methodology. Sales of black tea might have leveled off in recent years, he concedes, but the industry remains strong and has begun marketing campaigns targeting younger people.

Tetley Tea, for example, is attempting to warm its appeal through a new spokeswoman, Kim Cattrall, best known for her hyper-caffeinated sex drive as Samantha in the television show Sex and the City.

Slumping sales

Paul Rickard, a researcher for Mintel, said sales numbers support his company's findings.

The researchers found that the trend in weakened tea sales goes back at least 1999, he said. Then, Britons spent about $1.3 billion on black tea, Mintel reported. Last year, they spent $200 million less.

"I drink a lot less than I used to," testified Katy Fawcett, 34, who was sipping - sure enough - a cup of coffee outside a cafe in Central London yesterday. "I do quite like the tradition of tea, but I also quite like my coffee."

She still drinks tea occasionally, especially when calling on friends "because that's all that's ever offered."

Not surprising.

If the tea culture is going down the drain, it will take a while before tea becomes scarce. Despite Mintel's findings on sales, the report estimates that upward of 80 percent of Britons still drink it regularly.

And the Tea Council reports that almost 180 million cups of tea are downed in Britain every day. That's about three cups for every man, woman, child and infant in the country.

What traditional black tea has going for it, backers point out, is its social importance, which it gained a mere 100 years or so after arriving on Britain's shores in the mid-17th century.

The word "tea," in fact, is not reserved here solely for the plant used to make the drink.

Tea in Britain - particularly in England - can mean many things. To "have tea" in the north of the country refers not just to the drink but to the American equivalent of dinner.

In most of the rest of England, to "have tea" is to enjoy a cup of the stuff about 4 p.m., frequently with cookies, called "biscuits" here.

Social occasion

And then there is perhaps the ultra-British "tea," a meeting of friends having their sips in a tea house, the brew accompanied by dainty cucumber sandwiches and scones.

The mother of all teas in Britain is held at the Ritz London, where a cup of tea with sandwiches the size of a baby's fingers go for a cool $62 per person.

But nobody, in truth, believes they are paying for the drink. They are paying for "tea," the social occasion.

"I would say, yes, tea is very much a social enjoyment for me," said Evelyn Darby, 72, who was sipping tea and nibbling on scones with her friend, Carol Cowling, 58, at tea time at the House of Frazier, which, like many upper-scale stores in London, serves tea and scones daily.

"When I'm home, I don't touch it. I drink bottled water. When I'm out, often I'll have three cups. You visit somebody and they offer you tea, and, of course, you say, `Please, thank you.'"

Cowling, on the other hand, said she drinks about seven cups of tea a day - "proper tea, not the fruity kind" - and could not see her life any other way.

"This, for us, is just a little treat," she said. "Oh, some people might go for other drinks, but for tea, like this, I suppose nothing could ever really replace it for being British."

Even a warm beer with Prince Harry in the rain.

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