Is Starbucks Killing the British Tea Hour?

Yet we too easily forget the long British tradition of coffee houses, and especially that they hosted the greatest British minds of the 18th century. Long before Starbucks, London's 18th century coffee houses were nicknamed "penny universities," because for a penny, the price a cup of coffee, one could get an education mingling with writers and philosophers.

American patriots are said to have planted the seeds of the Revolution in places like Lloyd's coffeehouse, where men discussed business. (Lloyd's became a bank in 1771 and is today one of the U.K.'s largest.) Apparently, coffee houses also made great sobering stops for yesteryear tavern-hoppers.

The huge explosion of coffee houses across Britain does not concern Bill Gorman, executive chairman of the U.K. Tea Council, who sees coffee as "an honorable competitor."

The consumption of coffee is still well behind that of tea in Britain, where about 120 million cups of tea are sipped each day, against 80 million cups of coffee, according to Allegra Strategies. Part of the explanation, according to Gorman, is that it is easy to boil a kettle of hot water, but difficult to make a decent cup of coffee from an instant machine.

"Starbucks does an excellent coffee," he sums up, "but you cannot replicate it at home."

On the very top end of London society, the tradition of tea is not losing speed either. Manager of the Ritz's tea room, Michael Kotb, explains that family, friends and business partners have rediscovered the pleasures of gathering around a pretty tea set. Women enjoy dressing up to bask in the luxury of the beautiful lounges of London's poshest hotels like the Ritz, Claridge or the Savoy.

As a result, one must book three weeks in advance to enjoy an afternoon tea at the Ritz, and that is only during weekdays. Weekend tables must be reserved two to three months in advance.

"No matter how poor or rich you are, we make people feel really good, like at home," explains Kotb.

British writer Simon Fanshawe sums it up best when he says that tea is either absolutely everyday or the ultimate in class.

Unless Alexander Litvinenko's alleged poisoning with contaminated tea at the Millenium Hotel provokes a drastic backlash, the centuries-old tradition is likely to remain for centuries to come.

There is no way to escape the custom, and foreigners easily pick it up. Having lived in England for little under a year, I now often accept a "cuppa tea" at the office or at a friend's house. After all, tea is cheap and easy to make. The good news is, if tea is not your cup of tea, a good ol' pint of lager is never far away.

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