Story: Tea, coffee and soft drinks

From the early days of European settlement, tea was drunk by everyone from society ladies to bushmen. In the 2000s plain black ‘gumboot’ tea was sold alongside a plethora of flavoured and herbal teas, and coffee consumption was at an all-time high.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Simmonds & Osborne drink labels

Story summary

All images & media in this story


Tea is a hot drink made by infusing plant leaves (usually Camellia sinensis) in hot water. Black tea was a staple food item brought to New Zealand by Europeans. Mānuka leaves were sometimes used as a substitute.

Tea was popular with people of all social classes, and morning and afternoon tea breaks were organised around it. A testing regime was set up in 1882 to make sure tea was pure.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries New Zealanders drank more tea than people in Britain did. Black tea consumption declined over time – from 3–3.5 kilograms per person annually between 1910 and the early 1960s to 0.6 kilograms in the early 2000s.


Coffee is a hot drink made by infusing roasted, ground coffee beans in water. Coffee (often mixed with chicory root) was available in New Zealand in the 19th century, but was much less popular than tea. Coffee stalls sold hot drinks and food.

Coffee became more popular in the 1940s when US servicemen were stationed in New Zealand. European immigrants also drank coffee. Cafés serving espresso coffee opened from the 1980s, and in 2009 New Zealanders each consumed 4 kilograms of coffee per year.


Traditional Māori communities and early European settlers got drinking water from natural sources. In the 1860s town water supplies were set up and drinking fountains were built in towns. Bottled water became more popular in the 1990s.

Mineral water, from springs which contain minerals, was available at health spas from the 1870s, and was thought to improve health.

Carbonated drinks

Fizzy water-based drinks such as ginger beer and lemonade were imported and manufactured locally from the 1830s. Coca-Cola was made in New Zealand from 1944, and local brands included Lemon & Paeroa and Foxton Fizz.

Fruit juice and cordials

Cordials – concentrated fruit syrups – were manufactured from the 1830s. Most people had fruit trees, so they could make fruit juices and cordials at home. In the 2000s commercially made juices were most common.

Milk drinks

Cows’ milk is drunk alone, added to tea and coffee and made into milkshakes. Milkshakes were drunk from the early 1900s. Milk bars opened in the 1930s, and milkshakes became even more popular when American servicemen were in New Zealand during the Second World War.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Tea, coffee and soft drinks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 September 2013