Drinking Conventions

<em>Find out what, when and where British people like to drink...</em>

Tea and Coffee

The common cup of tea (a basic black tea) is a British institution - a daily, often hourly, ritual for millions. Taken with a splash of milk, it's the nation's favourite drink. The Chinese have been knocking the stuff back for 5,000 years but tea didn't hit British shores until the mid 17th century, made fashionable by Catherine of Braganza, the tea-mad Portuguese wife of Charles II. The drink really took off when the East India Company began importing tea from China, before Britain introduced tea cultivation to India, Ceylon and Kenya in the 1830s. Coffee appeared in Britain at a similar time to tea but its fortunes have been less consistent. Like tea, coffee carries its own social and cultural weight, even while it is, perhaps, silently adjudged less 'British' than tea because of its popularity in the rest of Europe. The first coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650 and the coffee shop or bar has been an important social unifier ever since, somehow more bohemian than the humble tearoom. In recent years the unstoppable rise of international coffee house chains has - depending on your worldview - broadened or narrowed choice. Today Brits drink about twice as much tea (165 million cups a day) as they do coffee, although the gap narrows every year.

When and Where do the British Drink?

Most Brits come round to the smell of tea or coffee in the morning, a caffeine crutch that continues to provide support to millions throughout the day, although many office workers will reach as readily for the water bottle as for the mug these days. A glass of wine isn't unusual as an accompaniment to food in the evening but most Brits still save their alcohol consumption for dedicated drinking 'sessions' in the pub or, less often, at home. Friday and Saturday nights are still the main contenders for a pub visit.

When Brits socialise they often do so with an alcoholic drink in hand - chit-chat over an evening coffee is rarely the British way. Such habits begat the public house, integral to popular British culture for centuries. The nation's 60,000 pubs, declining in number each year (by the rate of 36 a week at the last count), provide a place to meet after work, to catch up with friends or to enjoy a meal with the family. They still account for two-thirds of all beer consumed in the UK, although drinking at home is increasingly popular - the number of pints pulled in pubs dropped nearly a fifth between 2005 and 2008. Most pubs outside built-up areas are now reliant on food sales to make ends meet. Reputations are built on the quality of food served, and the addition of beer gardens, live music and pub quizzes all keep the punters coming - despite an indoor smoking ban, in force since 2007. Licensing hours were revamped in 2005 to accommodate 24-hour drinking yet most pubs still open at 11:00 and close not long after 23:00.

Extract from Speak the Culture Britain, a Thorogood publication, supported by the British Council Speak the Culture series website / Buy online Copyright ® 2009 Thorogood Publishing