Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

April 30, 2012

Tea: the Drug Epidemic that Ruined Families and Home Breweries

Filed under: food, Vinting — Tags: , , , , — paragardener @ 4:06 am

This isn’t the first time I’ve floated caffeine as a hard drug. In The Devil’s Bean, I imagined a world where caffeine is illegal, and people see it as an addictive, life-ruining drug.

Too bad I hadn’t read William Cobbett’s tract on homebrewing — I could have really punched up my anti-caffeine propaganda. Cobbett, political champion for the poor and a noted hater of potatoes, wrote a book published 1824, called “Cottage Economy.” It’s basically a DIY manual for England’s laborers, who have a little land to grow their own crops on. In it, he argues that England’s poor are being ruined by a switch from homebrewed beer to tea.

“Only forty years ago,” laments Cobbett, “to have a house  and not to brew was a rare thing indeed.” By 1824, money printing had eroded workers’ purchasing power, and the sale of malted barley and hops was severely taxed. Yet, “even at present prices , home-brewed beer is the cheapest  drink that a family can use, except milk , and milk can be applicable only in certain cases.” (Note that drinking water was out of the question!)

Tea, subsidized by England’s global imperial might, was generally replacing beer. Tea has no nutritional value, and “besides being good for nothing, there is badness in it, because it is well known to cause a want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards.”

By Cobbett’s analysis, workers spent approximately one-third of their income on tea and the associated sugar, milk, tea tackle, and fires. “But I look upon the thing in a still more serious light. I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age.” Any good and scary drug steals peoples’ money, health, and drive. Tea takes its users all the way down into the moral ruin, as well, since “the gossip of the tea table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel,” and England was filling up with hopeless young women who knew no skills except the tea-making ritual.

Tea causes workers to arrive late and die early: “He was up time enough; but the tea kettle kept him lolling and lounging at home; and now instead of sitting down to a breakfast upon bread, bacon and beer, which is to carry him until the hour of dinner, he has to force his limbs along under the sweat of feebleness… … to the wretched tea kettle he has to return at night with legs hardly sufficient to maintain him; and thus he makes his miserable progress towards that death which he finds ten or fifteen years sooner than he would have found it had he made his wife brew beer instead of making tea.” Wow! I think I’ll pass on tea and stick to methamphetamine and crack! (Scientific studies pretty consistently show that caffeine has no effect on overall life expectancy. It can, however, exacerbate stress.)

It’s funny how Cobbett’s Evil Tea story sounds just like an Evil Marijuana story, or an Evil Cocaine story, or so on and so forth. The real-world differences between drugs seem to be infinitely mutable to tellers of tales. That said… imported tea was probably a worse staple beverage than home-brewed beer. It is less nutritious for those in search of calories, and taking it with sugar causes tooth decay (did laborers in 1824 brush their teeth?). The worse tragedy was for people in Britain’s empire, who often went from some kind of homesteading, village life, into hard labor on sugar and tea plantations.

I had to share my weird encounter with the opposition to tea, there. What I’m more excited about is Cobbett’s homebrew recipe — it’s from before the time of Louis Pasteur, sterilization and the dried yeast packet! That’s what you might call a traditional sour-mash method of brewing. Until I get that going, I’ve got a Mr. Beer kit with its plastic barrel fermenter (bubbling away on an end table in the living room), and envelopes and cans of premixed ingredients. At least that will be enough to keep me away from drinking tea!



  1. Where on earth do you find this stuff? Thanks for the laugh! I will never be able to look at a cup of tea without thinking about this. heehee!

    Comment by Kris — April 30, 2012 @ 9:00 am

  2. Hilarious stuff! I believe tea does have chemicals in it that improve mood… the Brits called it “the genial beverage”. Sounds like a dangerous euphoriant to me!

    On an economic level, though, I can see his point. Why buy stuff from India and China when you could be using neighborhood plants & providing calories and nutrients besides?

    Comment by freelearner — May 3, 2012 @ 2:40 am

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