Tea vs. beer: does it have to be all or nothing?

Glass of kombucha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While most people don’t think that beer and tea have anything in common, in the 18th century and early 19th century, they were at the center of a national controversy in Great Britain! Beer and ale were the traditional daily drinks of both the working and leisured classes through the early 19th century, until the industrial revolution started to work together with politics to change things.

The problem of drunkenness had long been considered a social and moral evil, and many people were inclined to associate the regular drinking of beer with workers’ inefficiency, crime, malnutrition, and abuse of women and children. With more and more people heading to the new factories, and fewer people available to work the land, the barley and other grain supply began to go down, with the result that beer began to become more expensive (as did bread). At the same time, the expansion of the British Empire, and new trade agreements, made tea – already popular among the upper and middle classes — much more affordable and widely available. Plus, tea gave a renewed sense of energy to working classes already dealing with smaller meals. The result was that tea began to gain in popularity among all classes.

Some people looked on this trend as a good one, while others railed against the downfall of English tradition, and prominent men wrote letters, books and articles on both sides of the subject. People who supported the use of beer rather than tea argued that since beer and bread were both made from grain, they were equally nutritious and suitable for all ages, while tea was not only not nutritious, but it was repugnant and morally inferior because it was associated with women, and, like opium, it was foreign. People who advocated tea argued that it improved workers’ efficiency and made them think clearer, while being healthy because it was made with boiled water, yet did not intoxicate and promote violence. While I drink much more tea than beer, I am not going to get into this historic argument, because beer and tea are equally popular in the U.K. these days, even among the same people! American beer drinkers, at least the ones that I know, are much less willing to drink anything but beer, and many still hold to the antiquated prejudice against tea. Therefore, I would like to personally welcome American beer drinkers to the tea world in the 21st century!

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.

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