What's in a cuppa?

When you think of Britain, tea is often one of the first things that comes to mind. Brits are famed for being heavy tea drinkers and a cuppa or a brew is offered as a soothing remedy in all kinds of situations. Although “builder’s tea” such as Tetley’s PG Tips or our favourite, Yorkshire Tea, is more common for the day to day, Twinings might be the brand that first springs to mind when thinking of British tea. And if you’ve visited London, you might have even been to their flagship store on the Strand. 
Twinings began its life as Tom’s Coffee House back in 1706. The Coffee houses were a staple of London life where men (not the ladies!) would gather to sip the brew of choice, but also to chat, socialise, do business, gossip and even debate politics or literature. In these establishments, the guys drank coffee, gin, ale, never water, and certainly not tea. Why not? It was simply too expensive.
It hadn’t been around that long when Twining comes to town. It was apparently made popular in England by the Portuguese wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza in 1662. It became a very fashionable drink among the ladies, but with such heavy taxes, it remained an aristocratic pastime. To give you an idea, in 1707, 100g of a Gunpowder Green Tea would set you back about £160 in today’s money. Worth it?
Crafty Tom Twining had had some dealings with the East India Company and knew a thing or two about tea, something he thought had the potential to become the fashionable drink of the day. He still catered to the wealthy, they were the only ones who could afford it, but he was incredibly successful, selling dry tea that the ladies could take home and serve in their drawing rooms.
What a lovely story of quirky aristocratic fashions and savvy entrepreneurial skill, resulting in a cup of what might be considered the most British of all rituals and traditions. But take a closer look at Twining’s front door and you’ll see a reminder of a more sinister tale behind the nation’s favourite beverage. Above the door, on either side of the lion, are two Chinese gentlemen, to indicate that the origins of tea in Britain come from trade routes with the East. But I’m sure you were aware of this, you’ve likely heard the expression “for all the tea in China”. However, we don’t often think of the darker side of the tea trade when we sit down for our morning cuppa.
At the time Catherine was sipping tea with her girlfriends, Britain did not yet have a proper trade route with China, so any tea coming in was from the Dutch, who charged exorbitant prices as mentioned.
As demand for the herbal brew grew and grew, the Brits were aware they were spending an awful lot of money on the stuff so, surely there was something they could sell to China in return? Nope, there was nothing on the isles that took China’s fancy! No matter, the East India Company did some digging and soon found a product the Chinese did like to consume – opium.
Opium was produced in India and taken off to the Far East creating a huge problem among the population due to the highly addictive drug. It got so bad, the opium trade in China was banned, but that didn’t stop the British, who smuggled it in, instead. 
When the Emperor said enough is enough in 1839 and confiscated 20,000 chests of the stuff, this sparked the first Opium Wars between Britain and China, resulting in China being forced to pretty much trade in everything they had. All for a bit of tea! 
Still, wouldn’t it be great if tea could be produced somewhere within the Empire? Then we wouldn’t have to pay top whack for it and we could have as much as we like, thought the Brits. The answer, of course, was India.
Tea plants had already been taken out of China and over to India, but the discovery of tea in Assam in 1823, made it even easier. At first, people used to the Chinese tea were not so keen on the Indian variant, but nothing a little marketing campaign couldn’t sort out. And sure enough, by the 1880s, much more tea was coming from India, cementing the country’s reputation as the main tea supplier, naturally glossing over the appalling conditions for the labourers on the tea plantations.
Speaking of plantations, the British also managed to successfully bastardize China’s national beverage, cha, by adding sugar, now cheap as chips thanks to the Transatlantic slave trade. They went even further when someone came up with the idea of adding milk. 
So, you don’t have to ponder Britain’s bloody colonial past as number one slave traders and the world’s best drug dealers every time you sit down with a soothing cup of tea, but maybe every now and then it’s worth remembering.
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