India and China might produce the most tea, but if there is one country above all which has a reputation for drinking the most tea then it is the UK. But the great British tea-drinking tradition is apparently on the wane, according to a new report from market analysts Datamonitor, and there are some surprising pretenders to the tea-drinking throne.
British consumers bought 127 million kilograms of normal teabags in 1997, but by 2002, consumption had decreased to 114 million, according to Datamonitor. But coffee, perhaps the most natural alternative to tea, is not filling the gap - instant coffee sales are falling, and even sales of ground coffee fell in 2002.
Instead, British consumers appear to be turning to more flavoursome or healthy alternatives, such as fruit and herbal teas, consumption of which increased by almost 50 per cent between 1997 and 2002. One exception to this rule, however, is decaffeinated tea and coffee, sales of which fell even faster than regular coffee.
But Britain is not the only country where tea and coffee consumption is undergoing something of a revolution. Instant tea and coffee sales all over the world appear to be in decline, according to Datamonitor.
In Japan for example, where instant tea has long been popular, consumers are returning to the more traditional green tea, not least because of the growing body of evidence about the health benefits of the drink. Instant tea sales dropped by over 6 per cent a year between 1997 and 2002, and instant coffee sales in Japan are also expected to decline over the next few years.
But one tea-based drink is increasing in popularity across the world - ice tea - which in the UK alone last year sold 14 million litres, and that despite the poor summer weather. With the weather this year already looking much better than in 2002, consumption of ice tea across Europe could rise even further, but Datamonitor stressed that it was unlikely to reach the dizzy heights of the US, where tea is almost always drunk over ice.
Americans also have a reputation as major coffee drinkers, not least because of the proliferation of coffee houses such as Starbucks across the world. But the Datamonitor report shows that it is not the Americans who top the coffee consumption league, nor even the French with their pavement café culture. In fact, it is the Scandinavians who come out on top, led by the Danes, who drink an average of 7.5 kilos of coffee per head in 2002, the equivalent of around 75 regular-sized cups of coffee. Norway, Finland and Sweden take the next three places in the global listing, showing that Scandinavians like nothing better than a hot cup of coffee to give them a buzz.
"This [high coffee consumption] could partly be explained by high alcohol prices," said John Band, Datamonitor consumer analyst. "Caffeine can be a far more cost-effective way of getting wired than drinking. A shot of home-drunk espresso in Denmark costs six US cents, while a 250ml beer at home costs almost ten times as much."
Among the coffee-producing nations, Brazil tops the league, according to Datamonitor, with per capita consumption of 3.5 kilos fresh ground coffee drunk per person in 2002. Brazil is in fact the only non-European country to appear in the coffee consumption top 10 (and the only developing country in the top 20). In fact, according to the report, most major coffee producers do not actually drink much of their produce. Although Vietnam is the third-largest coffee exporter, its domestic consumption is in the bottom 10 of the 52 countries surveyed by the market analysts.
Another country which is surprisingly low down in the coffee consumption league, despite its reputation, is Turkey, with just 110 grams of coffee consumed per capita each year. But this is partly because Turkey is the world's largest consumer of tea according to Datamonitor, with some 2.3 kilograms per capita drunk each year.
Turkey is only just ahead of the UK, which consumed 2.2 kilograms per capita last - more than a thousand cups - but the UK was once far ahead of all its rivals, with 1997 consumption topping 2.6 kilograms per head. In fact, Datamonitor predicts that Indian tea consumption will outstrip Britain's by 2004.
But it is not all doom and gloom in the UK tea market. The two leading brands, PG Tips (owned by Unilever) and Tetley (owned by India's Tata Tea), both increased their sales in the UK in 2002, and it is the lower-priced supermarket labels which have lost out as British consumers turn increasingly to non-traditional teas. British consumption of fruit and herbal teas has risen by more than a third over the last five years, and green tea consumption in 2002 was more than 20 times the 1997 figure.
This is partly down to skilful marketing, claims Datamonitor, as fruit teas were once looked down on as a drink for new age puritans but have gradually acquired mainstream credibility as a healthier alternative to tea or coffee. But it remains unclear whether health concerns alone have a large impact on hot drinks consumption - after all, sales of decaffeinated coffee are declining in the UK and the USA.
"It's more about image," commented Band. "A stereotypical decaf drinker is a recovering caffeine addict, while a stereotypical fruit tea drinker is perceived as 'stable', 'modern' and 'with it'."
Convenience is also playing a less important role in the UK market. Sales of instant tea in the UK have declined far faster than sales of regular tea - and sales of instant coffee have fallen at 1 per cent a year even as volumes of ground coffee and coffee beans showed overall growth.
"While we may focus on health and convenience more than ever, we are no longer willing to settle for something that's fast or caffeine-free but unpleasant. People increasingly prefer to pay for a take-out of premium coffee, rather than making instant at home - and if consumers are avoiding caffeine, they would rather drink strawberry tea than fake coffee," Band concludes.
For further details of Datamonitor's reports, click here.