GBR190918BP003LONDON—The British are known for tradition – they will often tell you it’s what they do best: The queen, stiff upper lip and a unique sense of humor.

But now, one of the realm’s oldest pastimes – drinking tea – is now coming under threat: Brits are eschewing their traditional cup of strong, black tea with a dash of milk in favor of trendier, herbal infusions instead.

In fact, British tea consumption fell by 5.9 million pounds in weight compared to last year, according to recent data compiled by the consultancy firm Kantar Worldpanel. That equates to about 870 million fewer cups of tea 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 fulltime 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,” added Ms. Fowler.

Major tea brands have noticed.

The market is deteriorating, conceded Ben Newbury, senior brand manager at Yorkshire Tea, a company best-known in the United Kingdom for its luxury black tea blend “Yorkshire Gold.”

But he insists there’s 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.”

Still, while Mr. Newbury is correct that the British still drink an awful lot of tea – only the Turkish and Irish drink more per capita – that love is fading: Back in 1974, Brits were drinking an incredible 23 cups of tea a week. These days that figure is closer to an average of just 10 cups a week, according to Mr. Hayward.

So what gives? Ms. Fowler said it’s about 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 Brits are taking the time to sit down for breakfast and are instead rushing out the door in the morning. That’s a problem because breakfast is when the majority of traditional tea used to be consumed, said Mr. Hayward.

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

For example, loose leaf tea, which requires more effort to brew, is plummeting out of favor much quicker than the more convenient tea bag. Loose leaf tea purchases have fallen by 11 percent compared to last year.

But like almost everything else in the U.K. at the moment, there’s a Brexit angle to this too.

Brexit supporters are sticking 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.

That’s not too surprising when you consider the demographics of Brexit, analysts say: Age was one of the biggest fault lines between the two camps. Black tea drinkers are more likely to be older and that chimes 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 and prosecco.

That’s where black tea’s problem lies, say observers: It has to appeal to the younger, trend conscious, champagne-quaffing, remain-voting Brits if it wants to stem the decades of decline.

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

Not too long ago, gin used to suffer from a tough PR image – seen as a stuffy old woman’s drink. Now, gin consumption is on the rise, and it has now become the hipster’s beverage of choice.

Tea, take note.

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

He says tea brands need to diversify and become more luxurious to flourish again.

Ordinary gins are still challenged, he said. “But when you’ve got something that’s well branded at a premium then it’s relevant to the consumer,” he said.

Mr. Newbury says Yorkshire Tea has recognized this new reality, which is why his is the only major black tea brand in the U.K. to still enjoy 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 added, but the British don’t give up on tradition easily: “We’re still a nation of tea drinkers.”

Photo: Sept. 14, 2018 – London, United Kingdom – Outside of Fortnum & Mason in central London, a supplier of tea to Buckingham Palace.
Credit: Benjamin Plackett/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: September 25, 2018

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times.