I’ve often heard beer be described as Britain’s ‘real national drink’ – in fact, I’ve probably lazily typed those words myself (there’s only so many ways in which you can describe it, after all). When used, it’s fairly obviously a dig at what undoubtedly is our national drink – tea. Yes, in the same way that beer and food pairings are promoted to give beer a credence of respect in social circles, we also try and get it noted in the same breath as these island’s favoured stimulant to convey on beer the same qualities; that it is homely, omnipresent, and just so damn British. I’ve got no problem with this at all – a) I love them both, and b) at least the majority of the ingredients for beer actually grow in this country.
According to the UK Tea & Infusions Association – who have a rather fetching ‘tea-totaliser’ whirring around with the number of cups consumed in the UK each day – together these wet and windy isles consume 60.2 billion cups of tea per year. That’s over twice the amount of coffee. Clearly, we are a nation of tea drinkers – which is something that we all knew already. But let’s just suppose for a minute that the multitudinous properties of tea were increased by a single addition; a small tweak in its nature. How would it affect beer then, and how would both be viewed?
What if tea were alcoholic?
Well, it would very much make us a nation of homebrewers, as every time you flicked the kettle on, that’s pretty much what you’d be doing. With tea bags now containing dried leaves that you could make alcoholic with a simple addition of water, creating your own booze that you had to ferment and leave to condition would take a very definite back seat to its new competitor – the conditioning time for tea taking only as long as it does to idly skim-read half the back of a cereal packet.
What else would change? People would start to take more of an interest in teaspoons – there’d be personalised ones, you’d be able to actually buy them individually instead of boxes of twenty, and office workers would very much care where the last one went. That raises an interesting point – to avoid a Lord of the Flies-style descent into anarchy at your local call centre, tea would have to be banned from the workplace. You’d spend most of Monday worrying that Eric from the corner office smelled Darjeeling on your breath when you said “Good Morning” in the lift.
In terms of beer, though – our other national drink would instantly take a pounding in terms of sales and interest. A new form of alcohol had arrived to take its place – and one that is already interweaved into the fabric of British society. Beer would become second best overnight. But – maybe not. This isn’t the 1920’s – maybe the current desire for provenance and all things cool (not that people say that, ever) might give beer a fighting chance. It would have to go underground, though…
Pubs would have a choice – either install enormous boilers of water for the expected tea-rush, or carry on with beer and become a niche, hipster market. Proudly proclaim that ‘no hot beverages are sold here’; stick to their beery guns. Beer could become even more of a foodie-type product (much to the annoyance of many), but it could be the only way to ensure that the public still drink it. Native styles like porter, pale ale and barley wine would see a huge revival – but with one beer style, as now, way out in front.
Yes, British brewers would have a secret weapon up their hop-crusted sleeves. The India Pale Ale. IPA is the poster child for craft beer, as well as the English style the modern world has forgotten, but the more on-the-ball beer marketeers would swiftly realise the irony of its history versus where tea comes from. The New World journey reversed. They send us tea, we send them IPA, etc. It may revive the fleet of British clippers, carving to the subcontinent with beer on board, returning with cargoes of leafy gold.
I’m not sure anything good would really come of a world where tea was alcoholic – for instance, supermarkets would have yet another windfall as everyone would switch to getting their boozy fix, 80 bags at a time. People who just enjoy a decent mug would still tut at young guys with beards ordering a half-cup of Oolong. Shares in Mcvities would go through the roof. It would be a very different country (and world) compared to the one we all inhabit today. But speaking as a lover of both drinks, not necessarily a good one.
Oh, and Women’s Institute meetings would become even more raucous…