Industry and Intoxication

Hog's Back Beer Tap: TEA
Hog’s Back TEA (Traditional English Ale)

One of the most pleasurable ways to recover from the ardours of researching tea by day is to drink beer by night.  It was serendipitous a year or two back to discover Traditional English Ale, a beverage that embodies that very transition by appropriating the former in its acrostic name, while supplying a copper, hoppy bitter by way of the latter.  TEA is brewed by Hog’s Back in Tongham, Surrey, and I’m happy to recommend their products – but that isn’t really the point of this post. Because it seems to me that in conflating these two drinks, Hog’s Back has tapped into a provocative and enduring cultural juxtaposition that both pits sober tea against intemperate ale, and at the same time signals the ways in which the social practices of daily life are loaded with deep significance. What could be more ‘English’ than a cup of warm tea? What, indeed, than a glass of warm (well, OK, room temperature) beer?[1]

Certainly by the second half of the nineteenth century both tea and beer were fundamentally integrated within the British diet.  Moreover, their relative moral valuation – tea as sober, sociable, spur to industry, beer as an intoxicating draught of the indolent – was increasingly in focus.  In particular, a concern for the spiritual health of the nation and the economic interests of land-owners and manufacturers combined to generate a new attention to labourers’ wellbeing.  The Oxfordshire JP and temperance campaigner T. Bland Garland opted in the 1870s to stop his customary practice of supplying harvesters in his fields with a perquisite of refreshing beer, and instead determined to increase their wages and to rehydrate them using complementary tea.  The effect, in his experience, was more productive and less quarrelsome workers, who went home with larger pay-packets and clearer heads.  The minor Victorian poet Charles Barwell Coles retrofitted this sense of tea’s physiological superiority onto his account of Dutch traders encountering the beverage for the first time in China, imagining how (having overcame their initial ‘prejudice’) they

Ventured to sip, then drank the liquor up
And felt a genial glow pervade the frame,
Exhilarating as their native beer—
But stupefying none[.][2]

Such views seem characteristic of nineteenth-century morality, but similar notions were expressed in much earlier periods.  In Duncan Campbell’s ‘Some Objections against TEA, Answered, by Way of Dialogue, between Dick Rosy-Face, and Amy Sweet-Lips’ (1735), the tippling Dick is persuaded by his sweetheart to prefer the heterosocial delights of the tea-table for her sake, headily singing that

I cou’d relinquish Wine and Beer,
Strong Brandy, Punch and Ale;
Drink TEA with you, my only Dear,
’Till I grow Fair and Pale.[3]

Yet the alimentary choice that Dick conceived as his right – he can decide for himself whether to drink tea or beer – was simply not available to most consumers during the eighteenth century.  In its early decades, tea’s luxury status and high price (upwards of 10 shillings per pound, a reasonable week’s wages for a labourer) meant it was out of reach from the majority, who relied on locally and cheaply produced ale. Yet curiously, by the 1790s, social commentators were remarking that this dynamic had been inverted.  In The Case of the Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered (1795) the clergyman David Davies noted that the rising cost of malt meant that small-beer – once ‘reckoned one of the necessaries of life’ – was now out-of-reach in comparison with tea.  This was no cause for celebration however, as it might have been eighty years later for Bland, but rather was to bemoan for its social and nutritional consequences:

I have no pleasure, however, in defending this practice of tea-drinking among the lower people; because I know it is made the occasion of much idle gossiping among the women; and also because the money thus expended, though far from sufficient to supply a family with beer, would yet go some way towards it.[4]

Davies exemplifies a view that might at first appear quite surprising.  His complaint is that the labouring poor are refreshing themselves with gossip-inducing tea when they might formerly have turned to hearty ale.

This trope is in fact fairly commonplace in the eighteenth century, a view contrary to the temperance of the nineteenth century. Beer is demarcated as a robust native liquor, which is in danger of being supplanted by an enfeebling foreign luxury.  Tea’s ultimate prophet-of-doom was perhaps William Cobbett, but other voices had led the way.  Simon Mason, author of The Good and Bad Effects of Tea Consider’d (1745) opined (like Davies) that tea and its rituals of feminine association and conversation were socially destructive.  He therefore urged ‘the low and poorer Sort’ to abandon afternoon tea in favour of ‘a Draught of good Ale, with a Piece of Bread and Cheese, or Cake, &c.’.[5]  Similarly the medical writer and translator James Kirkpatrick – generally a champion of tea and an habitual imbiber himself – put on record his

serious objection to the too extensive use of tea […] by washer-women, chair-women, and other laborious females in the lower class of life, who I think must pinch themselves in their most necessary meal, to purchase a corrupt dirty sort of tea.  Now I imagine an infusion of what we suppose very good in its kind, must be much less proper for them, at or after their hard work, than a moderate quantity of good malt liquor.[6]

Beer, in other words, is invigorating, healthful, and more socially appropriate a beverage for the lower orders: part of Mason’s and Kirkpatrick’s (though not Cobbett’s) anxiety seems to be that a reliable social marker is being erased.  For others, it was the non-indigenous quality of tea that demanded its avoidance: British drinks for British workers.  As the Scotsman Godfrey MacCalman put it, ‘[t]he folly of the poorer classes is to be more particularly regretted in tampering with this infusion at all’: they should substitute for tea ‘such things as providence and nature are pleased to put otherwise in their way, viz, milk, butter-milk, beer, mead, ale’. China, he implies, should have no place in provisioning a British ‘chambermaid’s breakfast’.[7]

If tea and beer were variously celebrated and condemned by moralists and commentators across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were also those who could find little to recommend in either.  An anonymous Essay on […] Modern Luxuries (1777) excoriated in a single breath ‘Fine Flour, and Bread and Butter, together with Tea and Sugar, to which I subjoin Spiritous Liquors, as Geneva, &c. and Ale-house Strong Beer’.  These malicious commodities, the writer declaimed, ‘are the foundation of almost all the poverty, and all the evils which affect the labouring part of makind, and are replete with all the miseries and misfortunes which can possibly issue from Pandora’s box’.[8]  Tea and ‘Strong-Beer’ here go hand-in-hand as beguilers and destroyers of productive time, health, and wealth.  Meanwhile, for the Irish temperance activist James Henry, the effects of caffeinated tea were directly analogous to those of inebriating alcohol.  ‘The peculiar state of mind and body which tea and coffee produce, and which I have called intoxication, follows the use of those substances as regularly as vinous intoxication follows the use of spirituous liquors.’[9]  Like the drunkard, Henry argues, the tea-addict’s experience is a progress from the pleasurable to the distressing, a compulsive tendency to consume ever greater quantities, and a sacrifice of general well-being to the deleteriousness of consumption.

The history of the socio-cultural relationship between tea and beer in Britain is more complex than we might at first intuit.  Whereas writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often appear to have read the use and significance of these beverages as a matter of their direct competition for the palates and stomachs of Britons, the settlement achieved in the twentieth (and persisting into the twenty-first) century was to ascribe to each its proper province in time and space (a social trend codified above all in the licensing provisions of the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act).  Tea is now firmly established as a drink of daylight hours, the domestic breakfast table; a workplace lubricant, an afternoon restorative.  Beer is commonly recognised as a sociable evening indulgence, uniting friends or colleagues in public houses as they debrief from more professional, productive lives.  One cannot respectably sup beer at one’s desk in most employments; neither would many of us order tea in a bustling night-time bar.  In most circles, to drink beer on a lunch-break is as socially awkward as a Friday night cuppa in the pub.

For all the concerns (moral, physiological, economic) that persistently accrue to our decisions about what to drink, there is now widespread acceptance of the benefits of ‘a well-regulated diet, in which beer, wine, and tea, bear their just proportions’.[10]  It is important nonetheless to understand that this an historically and culturally contingent convention, one that remains subject to changing values, attitudes, and ideas.  It is also necessarily one that will yet be further transformed. As a recent collaboration between Eteaket and Barney’s Beer demonstrates, the boundaries and distinctions that we taken for granted in relation to these two staples are more permeable than they seem.

Barney's Lapsang Smoked Porter and Eteaket's Breakfast Brew
Barney’s Lapsang Smoked Porter and Eteaket’s Breakfast Brew, a recent Edinburgh collaboration

[1] Although TEA describes itself as ‘Ale’, the use of hops for flavouring means that strictly speaking it is a beer.  Of course neither beer (introduced from the Low Countries) nor tea (shipped initially from China) is really an ‘English’ drink at all.

[2] Charles Barwell Coles, Tea: A Poem (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1865), ll. 160-63.

[3] Duncan Campbell, A Poem Upon Tea. […] Also, the Objections against TEA, Answered; the Complaint of the Fair Sex Redress’d, and the Best Way of Proceeding in Love-Affairs: together with the Sincere Courtship of DICK and AMY, &c. (London: Mrs Dodd et al, 1735).

[4] David Davies, The Case of the Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered (London: G. G. And J. Robinson, 1795), p. 39.  The work of Davies’s contemporary Sir Frederic Eden in The State of the Poor (1797) supplies a number of specific case-studies that bear out this observation.

[5] Simon Mason, The Good and Bad Effects of Tea Consider’d (London: M. Cooper, 1745), p. 51.

[6] S. A. Tissot, An Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons, ed. by J. Kirkpatrick, 2nd edn (London: J. Nourse, and Edward and Charles Dilly, 1768), p. 150 (editor’s note).

[7] Godfrey McCalman, A Natural, Commercial and Medicinal Treatise on Tea (Glasgow: David Niven, 1787), pp. 118-19.

[8] An Essay on Tea, Sugar, White Bread and Butter, Country Alehouses, Strong Beer and Geneva, and other Modern Luxuries. (Salisbury: J. Hodson, 1777), p. 7.

[9] James Henry, A Letter to the Members of the Temperance Society showing that the Use of Tea and Coffee cannot be Safely Substituted for that of Spirituous Liquors and Proposing for their Adoption a Rule of Diet from which those Substances are Excluded. (Dublin: Hodges and Smith, 1830), p. 34.

[10] George Gabriel Sigmond, Tea; its Effects, Medicinal and Moral. (London: Longman, 1839), p. 140.


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