- - Tuesday, September 25, 2018

LONDON — The British are known for tradition — they will often tell you it’s what they do best: the monarchy, the Beefeater guards, the stiff upper lip, the unique sense of humor.

But now, one of the realm’s most venerable customs — drinking tea — is coming under threat. Younger Britons are eschewing the traditional cup of strong black tea with a dash of milk in favor of trendier herbal infusions.

In fact, British tea consumption fell by 5.9 million pounds compared with last year, according to data compiled by the consultancy firm Kantar Worldpanel. That equates to about 870 million fewer “cuppas” in the nation of 65 million.

“It’s an older demographic that drinks tea,” said Chris Hayward, a consumer specialist at Kantar Worldpanel. “The classic English breakfast tea is in a challenging place.”

The younger generations are fed up with the same old concoction and are driving the trend.

“I drink ginger tea,” said Stephanie Fowler, a 29-year-old full-time mom from North Yorkshire. “It’s much more refreshing than black tea.

“It’s more trendy, it’s different, and I think herbal teas and green teas are marketed as being good for you in terms of antioxidants,” she said.

Major tea brands have noticed.

The traditional tea market is deteriorating, said Ben Newbury, senior brand manager at Yorkshire Tea, which is best-known in the United Kingdom for its luxury black tea blend Yorkshire Gold. But he insists there is still life in the old brew yet.

“Traditional black tea remains extremely popular and is still loved by the nation,” he said. “But today’s consumer has a huge amount of choice when it comes to drinks.”

While the British still drink a lot of tea — only the Turkish and Irish drink more cups per capita — that love affair is cooling. In 1974, Britons were drinking an average of 23 cups of tea a week. These days, that figure is closer to 10 cups a week, Mr. Hayward said.

So what gives? Ms. Fowler said it’s driven by questions of health. “I think people are more aware of their caffeine consumption, which I think has driven a lot of people to swap,” she said.

It’s also about a change in culture, said Mr. Hayward. Fewer Britons are taking the time to sit down for breakfast and instead are rushing out the door in the morning. Breakfast is when the majority of traditional tea is traditionally consumed, Mr. Hayward said.

“We’re more of a grab-and-go culture now,” he added.

Loose leaf tea, which requires more effort to brew, is falling out of favor much quicker than the more convenient tea bag. Purchases of loose leaf tea have plummeted by 11 percent from last year.

Like almost everything else in the United Kingdom at the moment, there is a Brexit angle to the tea revolution. Those supporting a divorce from the bloc across the English Channel are clinging to the conventional cuppa.

Those in favor of quitting the European Union buy on average 20 percent more traditional tea than those who voted to stay, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

Analysts who study demographics aren’t surprised. Age was one of the biggest fault lines between the two camps on Brexit. Black tea drinkers are more likely to be older, which correlates with the age dynamics of those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Meanwhile, Remain supporters are 27 percent more likely to buy Champagne (French) and prosecco (Italian).

That’s where black tea’s problem lies, observers say. It has to appeal to the younger, trend-conscious, champagne-quaffing, cosmopolitan Britons if it wants to reverse the decades of decline.

To do that, the tea industry need look no further than another British staple: gin.

Not too long ago, gin had a severe image problem: It was widely derided as a drink of stuffy old women. Now, after a committed upscale rebranding effort, gin consumption is on the rise and has become the hipster’s beverage of choice.

Tea, take note.

“Look at the renaissance of gin in this country,” Mr. Hayward said. “It’s now our most popular spirit again, and that’s because it’s gone high end.”

Ordinary gins still face challenges in the marketplace, he said, and tea brands need to diversify and become more luxurious to flourish.

“When you’ve got something that’s well-branded at a premium, then it’s relevant to the consumer,” he said.

Mr. Newbury said Yorkshire Tea has recognized this reality, which is why his is the only major black tea brand in the U.K. to continue its growth.

“We know that consumers are mixing up their drinks repertoires, and this was the inspiration behind our recently introduced range of specialty brews: Breakfast Brew, Bedtime Brew and Biscuit Brew.”

Tea drinking may be less popular, he said, but the British don’t give up on tradition easily: “We’re still a nation of tea drinkers.”


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