Thursday, April 20, 2006

The role of trade in the global spread of tea

Here's another excerpt from Green Gold: The Empire of Tea. Here, the author writes about how foreign trade flows explain the great imbalance in the adoption of tea drinking in the 17th and 18th centuries between the British, who took to tea like a fish takes to water, and the Germans, Italians, and other Western Europeans who ended up incorporating coffee into their culture instead.

Why was tea largely restricted to the British at first? ... Why did tea not take off in France or Germany? One might surmise that the peculiar set of conditions that encouraged it in England—the abhorrence of drinking water, the rising price of beer because of the malt taxes, the trade system based on tea—led to a different outcome. If we add to this the relative affluence of the British middling sorts, who could afford to experiment with the new drink, the fact that the British were already used to hot drinks such as heated ale, possets, toddies and punches, and the enormous push given to tea by the East India Company, who had a monopoly of the import, we can see some of the reasons for its success. As is often the case in history, starting from almost imperceptible differences, the gap grew greater. So the French drank coffee as their luxury, as did the Germans. The fact that the Dutch and the British had interests in the Far East, where tea grew, while the French, Germans, Italians and Portuguese, in so far as they had trade connections, mainly focused on Africa, parts of India and South America, is clearly very important. [pgs 72-73]

—Mellow Monk


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