what did the british drink before tea
what did the british drink before tea

Ah, the British and their beloved cuppa! But have you ever wondered what quenched the thirst of those tea-loving Brits before the delightful infusion of leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant swept the nation? Allow us to take you on a journey back in time as we uncover the historically enticing beverages that once graced the cups of our ancestors. From the invigorating robustness of beer to the comforting warmth of hot chocolate, the British palate had much to savor before tea’s reign. So grab your mug, settle in, and prepare to uncover the tantalizing drink choices of yesteryear.


Tea is an integral part of British culture, cherished and enjoyed by millions of people across the country. However, there was a time when tea was not the beverage of choice for the British. In this article, we will explore the fascinating history of what the British drank before tea became a popular and beloved beverage.

Prehistoric Era

In the prehistoric era, the British Isles were inhabited by ancient tribes who found ways to quench their thirst. While the exact details are uncertain, it is believed that these early Britons consumed various beverages derived from plants and fruits. These beverages were likely consumed for their nutritional value, hydration purposes, and possibly for their medicinal properties.

Early beverages

The early Britons made use of natural resources such as berries, herbs, and roots to create their beverages. These drinks were often brewed by steeping or boiling the ingredients in water, resulting in a concoction that provided sustenance and necessary hydration. While specific recipes and ingredients may have been lost to time, it is safe to say that the early Britons’ beverages were simple yet effective solutions to their thirst.

Introduction of alcoholic drinks

As civilization progressed, the British began to explore the production of alcoholic beverages. It is believed that during this time, the art of brewing and fermentation was discovered, leading to the creation of alcoholic drinks such as mead and ale. These beverages were likely enjoyed for their intoxicating effects and were a significant part of social gatherings and celebrations.

Roman Influence

The Romans arrived in Britain around 43 AD and brought with them their sophisticated culture and culinary practices. The Romans held wine in high regard and it quickly became a symbol of status and luxury. Wine became an essential part of Roman Britain, particularly among the higher classes.

Importance of wine

The Romans saw wine as a cultural marker and its consumption was associated with sophistication and refinement. Wine was imported from various parts of the Roman Empire and became a symbol of wealth and status. The Roman influence on the British perception of wine was significant and it continued to be a popular drink for centuries to come.

Introduction of beer and mead

Alongside their appreciation for wine, the Romans also introduced beer and mead to the British Isles. Beer, or cervesa as the Romans called it, was made by fermenting barley and water. Mead, on the other hand, was a type of honey-based alcoholic beverage. These drinks became popular among the Roman soldiers and eventually spread to the wider population.

Anglo-Saxon and Viking Period

With the departure of the Romans, the British Isles went through a period of significant change and turmoil. During this time, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings had a lasting impact on what the British drank.

Ale and mead consumption

Ale and mead continued to be widely consumed during the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period. Ale, a type of beer made from malted barley, was a staple in Anglo-Saxon society. Mead, which had been introduced by the Romans, remained popular as well. Both beverages played an important role in feasts, religious ceremonies, and everyday life.

Herbal and medicinal drinks

In addition to alcoholic beverages, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings also had a tradition of consuming herbal and medicinal drinks. These drinks, often made from various herbs, roots, and other botanical ingredients, were believed to have healing properties. They were used to treat ailments, boost energy, and promote general well-being.

Medieval Times

The medieval era saw significant developments in the brewing industry and the introduction of new beverages.

Beer breweries and alehouses

Beer emerged as a dominant beverage during the medieval period. The establishment of monasteries played a crucial role in the production of beer, as many monastic communities had their own breweries. Alehouses, where beer was sold and consumed, became popular gathering places for locals to socialize and relax.

Introduction of cider

Another significant development during the medieval period was the introduction of cider. Apples were cultivated in the British Isles, and their juice was fermented to create a refreshing and slightly alcoholic beverage. Cider quickly gained popularity, particularly in regions with favorable apple orchards.

Tudor and Stuart Era

The Tudor and Stuart era saw significant changes in what the British drank, with the introduction of new beverages and the rise of coffeehouses.

Rise of public coffee houses

Public coffee houses began to appear in Britain during the 17th century. These establishments served coffee, which was a relatively new beverage at the time. Coffeehouses quickly became social hubs, where people from all walks of life gathered to discuss politics, business, and engage in intellectual debates. Coffee became a favorite drink for many, offering an alternative to alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol consumption: wine and spirits

Wine remained a popular drink among the upper classes during the Tudor and Stuart era. Spirits, such as brandy and gin, also gained popularity. Gin, in particular, experienced a craze during the 18th century, leading to concerns about excessive consumption and the subsequent rise of temperance movements.

Colonial Connections

The British colonial connections brought new beverages to the shores of the British Isles, broadening the tastes of the nation.

Introduction of cocoa and chocolate

Through their colonial expeditions, the British encountered cocoa and chocolate, which were consumed by indigenous peoples in their colonies. The popularity of cocoa and chocolate quickly spread in Britain, and it became a favored hot beverage.

Coffee houses and trade

The British colonial ventures also had an impact on the coffee trade. Coffeehouses became the epicenter of business and trade discussions, as merchants and traders gathered to exchange information, strike deals, and stay updated on the latest news from across the British Empire.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution brought about significant changes in British society, including the consumption patterns of beverages.

Increase in tea imports

Tea was first introduced to Britain in the 17th century, but it was during the Industrial Revolution that its popularity skyrocketed. The availability of tea increased as trade routes expanded, making it more affordable and accessible to the masses. Tea quickly became the beverage of choice for the British, loved for its refreshing taste and stimulating properties.

Role of coffeehouses in society

While tea became the dominant beverage, coffeehouses still played an important role in society. They continued to be places where people gathered to socialize, exchange ideas, and conduct business. Coffeehouses remained hubs of intellectual and cultural discussions, attracting artists, writers, and thinkers.

Gin Craze and Temperance Movements

The 18th century saw a surge in gin consumption, leading to concerns about public health and excessive drinking.

Rise of gin consumption

Gin became the drink of the masses during the 18th century, leading to what is known as the “Gin Craze”. The affordability and accessibility of gin made it a preferred choice for many, with devastating consequences for public health and social well-being.

Calls for temperance and abstinence

The negative impact of excessive gin consumption led to a growing call for temperance and abstinence. Temperance movements emerged, advocating for moderation in alcohol consumption and the promotion of alternative beverages.

Victorian Era and Beyond

The Victorian era witnessed a shift in beverage consumption, with the rise of afternoon tea and the introduction of soft drinks.

Popularity of afternoon tea

Afternoon tea became a popular social ritual during the Victorian era. It was a time for people to come together and enjoy a cup of tea along with sweet treats and sandwiches. Afternoon tea was a symbol of upper-class sophistication and became deeply ingrained in British culture.

Introduction of soft drinks

Alongside the tradition of tea and the continuing popularity of alcoholic beverages, the Victorian era also witnessed the introduction of soft drinks. Carbonated beverages, often referred to as “fizzy drinks”, gained popularity and were enjoyed by people of all ages.

In conclusion, the journey of what the British drank before tea is a rich tapestry of evolutionary tastes, influences, and cultural shifts. From early herbal concoctions and Roman-imported wine, to the rise of coffeehouses and the gin craze, each period in history brought its own unique blend of beverages and customs. Today, while tea remains an iconic symbol of British culture, it is essential to acknowledge the diverse and fascinating history of what the British enjoyed and savored long before tea became the nation’s beverage of choice.

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Hello, tea lovers! My name is John Richard, and I am honored to be a part of the tea community here at Tea Hee. As an Tea Consultant and Tea Expert, I have dedicated my life to exploring the vast world of tea and sharing my knowledge and passion with others. With several esteemed prizes and awards under my belt, I am humbled to have been recognized for my expertise in the industry. This recognition has further fueled my commitment to providing you with the highest quality tea experiences and helping you discover new flavors and sensations. With a wealth of experience in the tea industry, I have had the pleasure of working with renowned tea masters and tea gardens from around the globe. This has allowed me to develop a deep understanding of the intricate art of tea cultivation, processing, and brewing techniques, which I am thrilled to share with you through our carefully curated tea selections.