LONDON (AFP) — Just when the humble cup of tea seemed to be slipping out of fashion in Britain, its health benefits have seen it undergo a renaissance.
In a world filled with distractions and temptations, British life has for the past century had at least one constant -- the country's oft-caricatured fondness for a 'cuppa'.
"Drinking tea is something very chic to do on the continent (in Europe)," William Gorman, the executive chairman of the UK Tea Council, told AFP.
"Here it's like breathing, we just do it automatically."
A hundred years after the invention of the tea bag, the average Briton consumes 2.5 kilogrammes of tea a year, second only to the Irish globally; in China and India, per capita consumption of the beverage is less than half a kilogramme annually.
That represents an average of more than three cups of tea a day for every Briton, including children -- a staggering 165 million cups of tea daily for the country's population of 60.2 million.
Those figures actually represent a decline in recent decades -- in 1970, the average Briton drank four cups a day, but with the introduction of new drinks, that figure has dropped.
In recent years, though, a more image-conscious society has turned back to tea as evidence has emerged of its health benefits.
"We have a seen a steady decline for the last 30 years but in the last few years, the decline has stopped because the health messaging of tea and the scientific evidence on its health benefits has grown dramatically," Gorman notes.
"Many women, in particular between the age of 25 and 40, are driving a resurgence of tea drinking because they are tired of water -- water is very boring."
In the British cup of tea's favour is the fact that it is mostly made up of water, is rich in anti-oxidants, is hydrating, low in calories and has a low level of caffeine.
But that on its own is not enough to explain the resurgence in consumption of the drink made fashionable here in the 17th-century by Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II, and which exploded in popularity with the Industrial Revolution.
"In the same way that our wine selection improved over the last 30 years, tea companies are now offering wonderful ranges of speciality teas," Gorman notes. "The range that is available has grown dramatically."
From flavoured teas to green teas, adaptations to the staple have brought new consumers to the fray, but the British palate still prefers black tea with milk, which is what can be found in 90 percent of mugs.
And what of the challenge from the cup of coffee, with the proliferation of coffee shop chains across the country?
"Coffee has never been a threat to tea and never will be a threat to tea," Gorman insists, noting that Britain consumes around 70 million cups of coffee a day. "Coffee is an honourable competitor, but as a nation we're still dominated by tea."
Curiously, though, tea may not have survived had it not been for a misinterpreted promotional campaign that led to the invention of the tea bag.
"The tea bag saved the industry," Gorman says.
In 1908, a tea merchant in New York, Thomas Sullivan, sent samples of his tea to prospective customers in small silken bags.
The customers, many of them unfamiliar with the beverage, put the bags into hot water instead of emptying their contents, thereby leading to the development of the tea bag.
It was not until 1953, however, that the sachet traversed the Atlantic and began selling in Britain.
In the early 1960s, tea made from sachets represented less than three percent of sales, but 96 percent of tea sold in Britain today is in tea bags.
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