April 2024 meeting: Tea, Coffee and Chocolate – how the British first fell in love with caffeine

Melanie King gave a lively talk on how our favourite drinks originated outside Great Britain but all arrived on our shores between 1650 and 1657. They had a lasting impact on our diet and societal norms. These beverages were often met with controversy during their early years and much fake news surrounded them – that tea affected marital harmony, coffee affected fertility in men, and excessive chocolate consumption by pregnant mothers might turn their babies brown. Thankfully none of these myths held true.

Tea (Camellia sinensis), an evergreen shrub, is native to East Asia and likely originated in the borderlands of southwestern China and northern India. A Chinese legend says that Emperor Shen Nung accidentally discovered tea when leaves from a nearby plant blew into a pot of boiling water; it is well-documented that tea consumption in China likely goes back thousands of years. In the early 1600s, the British East India Company started bringing it back from Asia and tea was first sold in a London coffeehouse in 1657, although its consumption was limited to the elite (royalty and aristocracy). In 1706 Thomas Twining opened the first dedicated tea shop in London and, by the mid-1700s, falling prices allowed the working class to start enjoying the beverage. By the 1800s the popularity of tea secured it forever as a national drink. Tea remains an important part of British culture enjoyed throughout the day from breakfast to afternoon tea.

Coffee (Coffea or Arabica coffee) is a shrub or small tree native to Africa, Madagascar, South Asia, South-east Asia and Australia. Legend says that it was discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder who noticed how energetic his goats were after eating the berries and decided to try it himself. It was later adopted by monks to help them stay alert during the long hours of prayer. In the late 1500s coffee arrived in Britain via the Dutch East India Company and the first coffee house in England was established in Oxford in 1650. Coffee houses flourished and became centres for enlightenment, where writers, artists and thinkers gathered. By 1700 coffee houses become ingrained in British social life and even faced suspicion from the government because of the political discussions that happened within. Coffee consumption and houses later declined due to government regulations and the growing popularity of tea. Today there are a variety of coffees on offer and specialist coffee houses seem to be growing again in popularity.

Chocolate (Theobroma cacao), a small evergreen tree, is native to the tropical rainforests of the Americas. The cacao pods containing the seeds grow directly from the trunk. Its name meaning ‘food of the gods’ originated in Mesoamerica with the Maya and Aztecs, although their drink was bitter and made from ground cacao beans, cornmeal, chilli peppers and spices. Spanish conquistadors brought the cocoa beans back to Spain and Europeans transformed the bitter spicy beverage into a much sweeter one that might be recognised today. While hot chocolate houses thrived initially, chocolate bars eventually became the more popular form. Chocolate today remains a popular warm, comforting and indulgent drink enjoyed by many.

So, next time you raise a cup, remember the fascinating journeys these drinks have taken!