Last Updated on August 18, 2023 by Barry Gray
Coming from the UK, I’m well aware of how popular tea is in the country. Let’s face it, drinking tea is something the UK is known for around the world, but not every country has the same sort of love for tea as we do here.
Take the US as a prime example. I think it’s reasonable to state that the US is not a big tea-drinking country, but have you ever thought about why that’s the case?
There are several reasons why tea is not as popular in the US. It’s mainly due to historical reasons and how tea was then perceived at the time of the American Revolution, and those ideas surrounding tea have become embedded in society even centuries later.
Now, I admit I’m a bit of a history guy, so I became intrigued about the reasons behind this almost boycott of tea in the United States. However, I know not everyone loves history, so I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.
The Difference is Not as Big as You Think
But before I dive into the historical reasons, I need to hit you with a bit of a surprise. The difference between the percentage of people that drink coffee daily in the United States is not that different from those that drink tea on a daily basis.
This stunned me. I had this vision of the percentage of tea drinkers in the US being almost in single digits, but it’s nothing like that.
Instead, a 2020 survey discovered 62% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 would consume coffee daily. At the same time, 47% would drink tea daily, and I’m sure you will also find that percentage higher than anticipated.
But I get that this figure could change depending on who you ask. I also believe no survey would ever find that tea came out on top. Well, unless you surveyed people at some tea convention.
Yet, this is still a different picture from what you see in Asia and various other parts of the world where tea reigns supreme. So, it’s time to dive back into history and see what’s going on.
What Role Does History Play with Tea in the US?
I don’t think it will surprise people that the American Revolution has a lot to do with how tea was viewed in the US. After all, it was a distinctly British thing, and the Brits were not the most popular people in the world, at least in the eyes of the Americans.
Yet, even here, the picture is a bit more complicated than people realize.
Tea Tax Started It All
The negativity surrounding tea in the US actually began thanks to that thing we all hate: tax.
Back in 1767, the British parliament actually brought into law a new tax that would be placed on tea imports into British colonies. That meant the new world of America was included in this tax, and nobody enjoys paying tax at any point.
But many historians believe it was actually an attempt to put some economic pressure on colonies and increase their need to lean more heavily on the British government to survive. It was an approach that backfired, and it did so quite spectacularly.
The Boston Tea Party
I will jump forward from 1767 to 1773 now, as that’s the year of the Boston Tea Party. For those that think it involved people having a huge party and drinking lots of tea, you are wrong.
Instead, this was a protest against the tea tax, and the solution was to throw a vast amount of tea into the sea to show the people were not willing to pay the tax.
In a sense, it seems like a lot of fun, and the image you get of people throwing a massive 92,000 pounds of tea into the sea is pretty impressive. But many believe this act was the initial spark of what would become the American Revolution.
But the Boston Tea Party would also mark a turn in how tea was viewed in the US. It went from being a drink everyone loved and enjoyed to becoming something of a symbol of the British and their attempt to control everything in the New World.
When something becomes viewed as a negative, it can stay like that in the minds of many for an extended period. But the aftermath of this event is something that still exists today.
John Adams and the “Traitor’s Drink”
This idea of tea being viewed as a British drink, and therefore something to avoid, was something that John Adams really pushed forward in a letter to his wife. He saw drinking tea as being the drink of a traitor, and anybody that indulged was really on the side of the British.
This did, in turn, result in what many viewed as a kind of “unofficial” boycott of tea, and it didn’t take long for this idea to really gain momentum.
Yet this had an interesting twist to it all. Thanks to an influential figure describing tea as a drink for a traitor, people had to switch it to something else, and that drink was coffee.
Actually, it led to people stating they would only serve coffee in their homes, and this is a huge reason why coffee managed to overtake tea as the drink of choice in the country.
A 10-Year Boycott
This boycott of tea lasted for a decade since the Boston Tea Party was in 1773, and the American Revolution ended in 1783. A decade is a long time for a change to become established, and there was pretty much no way that tea would be able to fight back against coffee and the stranglehold it now had.
But tea was still viewed in a negative light when it came to the British, even after the revolution had come to an end.
Did John Adams Make Such a Difference?
To me and many others, John Adams made a huge difference in how tea was viewed across America. There’s an actual argument that if he had not come out and called it a drink for traitors that life would be very different.
Actually, historians think tea would still be the dominant drink in the US if it wasn’t for what John Adams wrote in that letter to his wife.
The Boycott and Changing Taste Preferences
I want to put the anti-British sentiment to one side because the history lesson is now over. Well, almost.
The decade long boycott of tea in the US did result in something else happening: a change in what people preferred from a taste perspective.
This is less surprising than you think. If you don’t consume something for year after year and instead begin to consume something that tastes completely different, then something has to change.
Caffeine Hits Possibly Helped
Both tea and coffee contain caffeine, but there’s no doubt coffee does manage to deliver more of a caffeine hit that is way more noticeable than tea. That caffeine kick had to make a difference in the whole drinking experience, and the buzz of energy that people then got from it would be something they wouldn’t forget.
But coffee is also viewed in the US as a drink that helps you get going in the morning. Tea is viewed as something slower-paced, and US culture in the morning is to kickstart the day as fast as possible.
People now view coffee as the catalyst for that boost, and that is something that will never change.
Tea is for the Elite?
I’m still sticking with the cultural aspect here, but going for a cup of coffee at a coffee shop is something that is undoubtedly ingrained in American culture. It’s viewed as more of a social event; the same cannot be said about tea.
For some people, tea is just not as social. It takes longer to brew and serve tea, so it does not fit in with the fast-pace of life in the US. Again, it kicks back to the concept of tea being taken at your leisure, and then there’s the concept of tea with cucumber sandwiches and scones.
How much of that view harks back to the time of the American Revolution is difficult to say. Still, I would certainly argue it played a major role in creating that initial thought. It seems aspects of that idea have never really gone away.
Other Cultural Norms with Coffee
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to state that the way in which tea has taken a hold in British culture, the same can be said for coffee in American culture.
I’ve already mentioned how the concept of the coffee shop is huge, but so is the idea of having a coffee break at work. People take coffee with them to work; they stop for some coffee, and they brainstorm ideas over a cup of coffee.
When you really think about it, coffee is everywhere. At times, it feels the popularity of coffee is only increasing.
My Recap on Why Tea Isn’t as Popular in the US
I found it interesting diving into this topic, and I’m sure I’m not the only individual that has wondered why tea is viewed almost with some disdain or confusion in the US. Well, here’s my recap on the key points I uncovered.
- Tea is not as unpopular in the US as you think
- History plays a major role in why it’s unpopular
- It all started with the tea tax
- The Boston Tea Party involved throwing tea in the harbor
- John Adams referred to tea as a drink for a traitor
- The boycott of tea led to people drinking coffee
- Since then, coffee has maintained its position as the drink of choice
- Coffee is now such an integral part of American culture
Even though there are certainly a lot of tea drinkers in the US, there’s just no way tea will ever be able to usurp coffee from its position as the favorite drink.
I cannot say only one thing resulted in coffee overtaking tea as the most popular drink in the US. However, it was certainly a build-up of events and situations that resulted in tea losing its number one spot.
From tea tax laws to protests and being viewed as a drink for a traitor, different things led to tea being viewed with some scorn. Sure, tea is still popular, but it does lag behind coffee, and that’s never going to change.