Last year I was queuing with my tea-loving mum at the Marks & Spencer’s cafe. “Did you know they’ve stopped using the cup and saucer?” she sighed. “It’s a mug now. So sad.” Kitchenware isn’t usually something to get emotional about, but on this day I could see her point.
Before then, tea at M&S cafes had been served in a pot to pour into a delicate china teacup with its matching saucer. It was a touch of elegance on the high street, enabling nearly anyone to treat themselves to the ceremony of a raised pinkie; a drink that felt considered, and as if it were served with care (hence, a saucer to rest your teaspoon: an additional piece of washing up, but worth it for your comfort). And now it was a mug. A mug! A functional, joyless mug that, sure, saves on energy amid rising bills, because more can fit in the dishwasher (as M&S itself reasoned), but also says that ordinary people just can’t have nice things.
However, as new research suggests this week, it may simply have been a sign of things to come: coffee has overtaken tea as the UK’s preferred drink. Sixty-three per cent of consumers say they regularly drink coffee against 59% saying they regularly reach for tea. I’m guessing the trend has largely been driven by millennials (such as me) and Gen Z, who prefer coffee to a classic builder’s brew – though not exclusively. If we vote with our pound, we’ve elected coffee supreme, but is it cause for celebration?
What’s so good about coffee anyway? Could it be that coffee is innately more versatile? Iced coffee, lattes, flat whites, espresso martinis – coffee can fit all manner of occasions and has the added option of latte art for those who prefer their rocket fuel with a bunny on top. But given the popularity of iced tea, alcoholic tea cocktails, bubble tea and the hundreds of herbal tea flavours consumed in other parts of the world, I’m not sure we can state this as fact.
What about coffee shops? These are immensely popular, and magical in my view; one of the few places in the UK where you are just as likely to see suited workers having business meetings as A-level students cramming for exams or groups of mothers and toddlers meeting for coffee mornings. It’s hard to imagine that happening in a tea shop, so often styled as they are like a Britain of the past, and about as relatable as a theme park. Notably, though, the vast majority of coffee shops also serve tea.
How about the theory that younger people love coffee because they hate Britain, and prefer to emulate their liberal, coffee-drinking European counterparts? As a latte-sipping lefty millennial myself, I’m not sure this stands up to scrutiny. Both tea and coffee are produced in the global south, often for pay and conditions that need urgent improvement. So, between coffee and tea, neither is exactly the “social justice” drink of choice.
And what’s more – hear me out on this one – with its high caffeine content rousing even the most fatigued, surely coffee is the drink of capitalism? For the daily grind, for the constantly working, coffee is relied on by many to help them to keep on producing. Not like tea, which acts like a pause button, to soothe yourself, or another. It’s why, in EastEnders, when someone bursts in with some news – “Barry is dead!” – they know to say, “I’ll put the kettle on”, not “I’ll fire up the Nespresso.”
It’s true that few quotidian things provoke such emotion as a cup of tea, though I’m not sure it’s the drink itself that’s worth arguing over. Interestingly, in the US – traditionally a coffee-drinking nation – younger demographics are increasingly opting for tea, so perhaps the strongest explanation for our change in drinking habits, and theirs, may simply be novelty.
Perhaps, instead, what really matters is everything around our beloved hot beverages. The little break they afford us, the little kindness we allow ourselves, and the chance to commune with others, sharing a cafetiere or a teapot. Or the opportunity to delight in a joyfully kitsch espresso cup or dainty teacup, our heads held high and our pinkies up.
Source : The Guardian