Steam, smelly steam brought the tea trade into the industrial age. An age-old handmade product could now be manufactured by steam powered machinery and delivered (via Suez) by steamships in half the time of the fastest, most glamorous clipper ship, which required a picked crew, a high freight rate, and a lot of luck. In the last (1871) clipper race the legendary Cutty Sark made the run from Shanghai to London in 107 days, but Calcutta’s tea reached London in just forty-five days by steam.

Black tea of the Assam variety became a standardized, industrial-strength commodity. Orthodox manufacture – albeit mechanized – notwithstanding, India and Ceylon tea was more powerful and pungent than China black teas, and it required blending at first to win a market. The English author and occultist Aleister Crowley studied Buddhism in Ceylon in 1906. “There seems to be something in the climate,” he remarks in his Confessions, “that stupefies the finer parts of a man if he lives there too long. The flavor of the tea seemed to me somehow symbolic. I remember pleading with the local shopkeeper to find me some Chinese tea. It chanced that the owner of a a neighboring plantation was in the shop. He butted in, remarking superciliously that he could put in the China flavor for me. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but can you take the Ceylon flavor out?'” Such tea snobs were simply overwhelmed; between 1860 and 1914 the only investments in the British Empire more profitable than tea estates were South African gold and diamond mines. British working people were urged to “buy Empire” black teas. Most of these were designated not by leaf type – pekoe, souchong – or origin – Keemun, Bohea – but by brand name: Mazzawattee, Brooke Bond, Ty-phoo, Liptons and Lyons, the tea shop brand.

It’s hard to understand why nobody in England thought of the tea shop before 1884, but nobody did. The first was a space in a bakery near London Bridge, and the idea caught on. There are things English people like to do in the absence of the opposite sex (through no lack of love, to be sure), but drinking tea is not one of them. This accounts for the phenomenal success of the Lyons chain of tea shops, which became a national institution overnight, and ever since the British have found it impossible to imagine a time when the tea shop did not exist.

To be continued in Black Tea Takes Over – Part 2