what did the english drink before tea
what did the english drink before tea

In the quaint and charming English countryside, a beverage steeped in tradition held court long before the first sip of tea was ever taken. Before the golden-hued liquid became synonymous with English culture, our ancestors had a different elixir gracing their teacups. Join us on a journey through time as we uncover the surprising drink that once carried the nation’s collective thirst, offering a glimpse into the fascinating history and evolving tastes of the English people.


Tea is deeply ingrained in English culture, regarded as the country’s national beverage. But it wasn’t always the case. English tea culture has a rich and diverse history, with the influence of various factors that shaped the drinking habits of the nation. From Medieval times to the present day, the English have enjoyed a wide array of beverages, each era leaving its mark on the evolving landscape of English tea culture.

Background on English tea culture

In order to understand the significance of tea in English society, we must first explore the origins of English tea culture. Tea was introduced to England in the mid-17th century and quickly gained popularity. However, before tea arrived, the English had a long-standing tradition of consuming various other drinks, each era reflecting the influences of the time.

Importance of tea in English society

Tea has become synonymous with British identity, symbolizing afternoon tea, social gatherings, and even the stereotypical stiff upper lip. It has evolved into an integral part of British society, deeply embedded in daily routines and social interactions. From the simple act of offering a cup of tea as a gesture of hospitality to the elaborate traditions of afternoon tea, tea has a significant role in English culture.

Medieval Period

Ale and mead

During the Medieval period, the English drank a variety of beverages, including ale and mead. Ale, made from malted grains, was a staple in everyday life, with the brewing industry playing a vital role in medieval society. Mead, a honey-based drink, was also popular, especially among the upper classes.

Honey-based beverages

Honey-based beverages were widely consumed by the English, both for their perceived health benefits and their delectable taste. These beverages, often mixed with herbs and spices, provided a refreshing alternative to alcoholic drinks and were often seen as medicinal.

Herbal infusions and tisanes

Herbal infusions and tisanes were another common choice in medieval England. These beverages were made by steeping various herbs, flowers, and leaves in hot water. Often consumed for their perceived medicinal properties, herbal infusions and tisanes were a precursor to the popular herbal teas enjoyed today.

Tudor Era

Introduction of coffee

During the Tudor era, coffee was introduced to England, creating a new addition to the English drinking culture. Coffee houses began to emerge, serving as gathering places for intellectuals, merchants, and socialites. Coffee gained popularity for its invigorating properties and stimulating effects on the mind.

Milk-based drinks

Milk-based drinks, such as possets and syllabubs, also became popular during the Tudor era. These creamy concoctions were often flavored with spices, fruits, or even wine. They were enjoyed by both the aristocracy and the common folk, offering a sweet and indulgent treat.

Imported wines and spirits

With increasing trade and exploration, the Tudor era witnessed the introduction of imported wines and spirits. These beverages, including French wines and Spanish brandies, became a status symbol for the elite. The English began to develop a taste for foreign alcoholic drinks, expanding their options beyond the traditional ale and mead.

17th Century

Growing popularity of coffee houses

The 17th century saw a significant rise in the number of coffee houses in England. These establishments became hotbeds of intellectual and philosophical discussions, attracting people from all walks of life. The coffee house culture played a crucial role in creating a sense of community and fostering the exchange of ideas.

Drinking chocolate

Drinking chocolate also gained prominence during this period, introduced to England by the Spanish. Chocolate houses were established, offering rich and indulgent beverages made from cacao beans. Drinking chocolate was especially popular among the upper classes, often served with spices and sweeteners.

Herbal and medicinal beverages

The English continued to embrace herbal and medicinal beverages during the 17th century. These concoctions, made from various herbs and botanicals, were believed to have healing properties. They were consumed both for their potential health benefits and for the pleasure of their flavors.

18th Century

Rise of tea as a fashionable drink

The 18th century marked a turning point in English tea culture, as tea became a fashionable drink among the upper classes. It was no longer solely consumed for its medicinal properties but was enjoyed for its taste and social significance. Tea became a symbol of refinement and sophistication.

Coffee still in favor

While tea rose in popularity, coffee remained a favored beverage in England. The coffee house culture thrived, attracting a diverse range of individuals who sought intellectual stimulation and social connections. Coffee houses provided a vibrant space for lively debates and discussions.

Cocoa and drinking chocolate

Cocoa and drinking chocolate continued to be enjoyed in the 18th century. These rich and velvety beverages served as decadent treats, often flavored with spices or sweeteners. The love for chocolate persisted, with chocolate-based drinks becoming more widely accessible and enjoyed by people of all classes.

Colonial Influence

Introduction of new beverages from colonies

With the expansion of the British Empire, the English gained access to a variety of new beverages from their colonies. Drinks such as tea from India and coffee from Jamaica added to the diversity of the English drinking culture. These colonial influences brought new flavors and traditions to England.

Rum and punch

Rum, derived from sugarcane grown in the colonies, became a popular spirit among the English during this time. Rum was often used as a base for punch, a communal beverage enjoyed at social gatherings. Punches were made by combining rum, fruits, spices, and other ingredients, creating a delightful and often potent concoction.

Fruit juices and cordials

The English began to embrace the consumption of fruit juices and cordials, made from locally grown fruits. These refreshing beverages offered a welcome alternative to alcoholic drinks, especially during the summer months. Fruit juices and cordials became staples in English households, enjoyed by people of all ages.

Victorian Era

Tea becomes the dominant beverage

The Victorian era marked a turning point in English tea culture, as tea transitioned from being a fashionable drink to the dominant beverage of choice. Tea became an integral part of everyday life, with specific rituals and etiquette surrounding its preparation and consumption. The Victorian era saw the establishment of afternoon tea as a social event.

Varieties and rituals of tea drinking

With the rise of tea’s popularity, a wide variety of teas became available in England. Black teas, green teas, and herbal teas were enjoyed for their distinct flavors and properties. Tea drinking was accompanied by specific rituals, such as using fine china, serving cakes and sandwiches, and adhering to strict tea etiquette.

Alcoholic drinks in moderation

Despite the dominance of tea, alcoholic drinks still had a place in Victorian society. However, there was a growing emphasis on moderation and temperance. Spirits, wines, and beers were enjoyed in smaller quantities and under strict social codes. Non-alcoholic beverages such as lemonade and ginger beer also gained popularity.

World War Period

Rationing and scarcity of imports

During the World War period, England faced rationing and scarcity of imports, which significantly affected the country’s drinking habits. The availability of traditional beverages such as tea and coffee was limited. This period brought about a shift in the nation’s drink choices as alternative options had to be sought.

Substitutes and local alternatives

To cope with the scarcity of imports, the English turned to substitutes and local alternatives. Chicory coffee, made from roasted chicory root, became a popular coffee substitute. Dandelion tea and nettle tea were also consumed, made from foraged ingredients found in the countryside. These alternatives provided a sense of comfort during challenging times.

Shift in drinking habits

The World War period brought about a significant shift in drinking habits, as resources became scarce. The English had to adapt and explore new alternatives, embracing beverages that were readily available within their own borders. This period highlighted the resilience and adaptability of the nation’s drinking culture.

Post-War Era

Return of imported teas

After the war, the English resumed their love affair with imported teas. Traditional black teas, along with new varieties such as herbal blends and fruit infusions, regained popularity. The nostalgia for pre-war comforts and the increased availability of imports allowed English tea culture to flourish once again.

Instant coffee and convenience

Post-war advancements in technology led to the popularity of instant coffee. This convenient and quick option revolutionized the way coffee was prepared and consumed. Instant coffee gained widespread acceptance, offering a practical alternative to brewing traditional coffee.

Emergence of soft drinks

The post-war era saw the emergence of soft drinks as a popular choice among the English. Carbonated beverages, fruit juices, and cordials became widely available and enjoyed by people of all ages. Soft drinks offered a refreshing and non-alcoholic option, reflecting a growing interest in healthier lifestyles.


The evolution of English drinking habits reflects the changing times and influences that shaped the nation’s cultural landscape. From the Medieval period to the present day, the English have embraced a wide array of beverages, each era leaving its mark on the enduring legacy of English tea culture. Tea, with its rich traditions and rituals, remains at the heart of English society, symbolizing hospitality, refinement, and a sense of togetherness. While the English may have started with ale and mead, the journey through centuries has led them to their beloved cup of tea.

Previous articleDoes Tea Help With Weight Loss?
Next articleWhat Is The Role Of Tea In Japanese Tea Ceremonies?
John Richard
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.