Why English Breakfast Tea Hasn't Caught On in America

If you pay attention to the portions of the internet that deal a lot with international travel and cultural differences, and if you watch for patterns, certain questions emerge. This is one of the lesser ones, but it's persistent: British people come to America, and they go to the grocery store and find the tea aisle, and they look for the specific teas that they are used to buying at home. This usually includes something called English Breakfast, and they don't always find it. Why, they want to know, is such an important staple tea so uncommon here?

There's some history that's worth knowing here, and I'll talk about that, but first I want to focus on the present situation. First of all, English Breakfast tea is available here, but it's one of several hundred named teas. It has to compete not only with such old standby teas as Constant Comment, but also with the explosion of flavors we've seen in the tea aisle in recent decades. If you go to any large grocery store (say, Meijer) and find the tea aisle, you're going to see hundreds of shelf-feet of different teas, ranging from the mundane (three or four different orange teas, three or four different lemon teas, three or four mint teas, chamomile, ...) to the peculiar.

Some of the most peculiar teas that you will find on the American grocery store shelf belong to a category that I am going to call gift teas. As far as I know, no one else calls them that, but the only time I have ever seen these sorts of tea, other than on the store shelf, was when they were purchased by one person and given to another. Rather than trying to formally define the category, I'm just going to give a couple of examples, and hopefully the idea will become clear.

I was once given a box of tea for Christmas, the exact name of which I no longer recall, but it had Christmas in it. It might have been something like Christmas Brunch or Country Christmas, or some similarly vague holiday-themed name. It was a flavored black tea, meaning that someone took ordinary black tea and added flavors to it. (This in itself is not odd. The aforementioned Constant Comment is a flavored black tea, and it's perfectly normal and reasonable and good.) Unfortunately, I don't remember the exact list of flavors it had in it: there were at least six, and I'm certain that almond and cherry were among them. If it had just been an almond and cherry flavored black tea, that might have been good, but there were several other flavors as well, and it just came out as a muddle. I only ever made one cup of it, which I didn't finish.

My mom currently has in her cupboard a box of Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride, which was, of course, also a gift. It's an herbal blend containing, again, at least half a dozen different flavors. Among them are, I swear on Dave Barry's soul that I am not making this up, thistle and barley. It's been in the cupboard for at least a year. It was a gift, and you can't throw away a gift. Realistically, nobody's ever going to drink it.

Given the existence of these sorts of teas, with vague, non-flavor-related names, can you begin to get a picture of why Americans see English Breakfast tea and don't immediately think that sounds good, we should try that. Frankly, most Americans are more likely to buy this product for someone they know who is planning a trip to England, than for themselves. Oh, you're interested in England? Well, here you go, here's a gift tea that has England in its name, so even if it's no bloody good, you'll know that I was thinking about you and what your interests are. It's the thought that counts, right? And no, to preempt an obvious question, I don't think most Americans are aware that English Breakfast tea is a thing in England. We get lots of things here that purport to be of various national origins and in fact are not. Why should this English tea we've never heard of before be different? The only way people are going to know otherwise, is if they see British people talking about it on the internet. Which, admittedly, is now possible.

I've glossed over something, though: how is it that Americans have not previously heard of English Breakfast tea?

The really weird thing is, if you look up the history of English Breakfast tea, it is believed to be of American origin. Well, the name, English Breakfast is believed to be of American origin, though it's hard to be quite certain of the particulars. As odd as it may seem, this is a clue. It is worth noting that the blend that went by that name in nineteenth-century America, is not the same blend that goes by that name in England now. In fact, it appears to have been composed of teas imported from China. (The British English Breakfast tea is, according to Wikipedia, made of teas from India, Sri Lanka, and Africa.) Why is this relevant? The thing is, pretty much all American teas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were made of local American products (sassafras, mint, etc.), black tea (mostly pekoe grade) imported in bulk from China, or some combination thereof. Going across the Pacific, China is just plain closer than India. Also, prior to the advent of containerized shipping, it was cheaper and more practical to get all the tea from one port of origin, because you had to fill an entire bulk hauler with nothing but tea if you wanted the shipping to be at all affordable. Today, an importer can fill a single shipping container with palettes of various goods; but that is a relatively recent development.

We didn't start to see imported named teas in our stores until the nineties, by which time we already had several major competing tea companies (Bigelow, Celestial Seasonings, Arizona, Nestea, Snapple, and of course the old standby Lipton, which ironically enough was originally British), each pushing their own line of teas (some more bottled-and-served-cold than others). We already had a pretty well stocked tea aisle. All of the real, tea-containing teas on the aisle had certain things in common, but this was not obvious from their names alone, and of course there were always the herbal teas. Into this mix we now add green tea (which we started to see in stores in the nineties), oolang tea (some time around the turn of the century), white tea (subsequently), and any number of imported blends and specialty teas. But they don't have a long history here, and they have to compete with everything that's already on the shelf. Earl Grey got free publicity from Star Trek, but that doesn't help English Breakfast.

Of course, it's early days yet. If we've only been getting imported named tea blends here for less than a generation, it follows that some that haven't yet caught on, still may do so in the future.