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Tea, coffee and soft drinks

by Kerryn Pollock

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.

Tea and coffee


Tea is a hot drink produced by infusing dried plant leaves in hot water. The leaves are most commonly from the Camellia sinensis shrub, but tea can be made from any non-toxic, palatable leaves. Tea drunk in New Zealand is mainly imported – Sri Lanka is New Zealand’s foremost supplier – and is predominantly black tea.

Gumboot tea

In New Zealand, ordinary black tea is sometimes called ‘gumboot tea’ – the equivalent of the UK’s ‘builder’s tea’. A fairly recent New Zealand idiom, it probably arose when more exotic blends of tea like Earl Grey became popular. The New Zealand Dictionary Centre’s first citation for ‘gumboot tea’ is from 1997.

Black tea was one of the staple food items brought to New Zealand by Europeans and became a national drink. Sealers and whalers, who first came to New Zealand in the late 18th century, were sometimes paid in tea and other desirable foodstuffs. When tea was in short supply the leaves of the mānuka tree were used as a substitute. British explorer James Cook and his crewmen were the first Europeans to drink mānuka tea, and Cook referred to mānuka as ‘The Tea Plant’ in his journal.1

Tea became steadily cheaper throughout the 19th century as New Zealand’s population grew. It was universally popular with rich and poor, from society ladies to bushmen, and was endorsed by temperance (anti-alcohol) movement followers as a non-intoxicating, healthy drink. Eating times – morning and afternoon tea – were organised around it.

Chastity tea

In his 1980 autobiography Sage tea, painter Toss Woollaston reported that his mother brewed the aforementioned tea to curb his sexual impulses, even though he was married. ‘She had read somewhere that it was “good for chastity”, as she put it. Every time I approached the back door she stood across my way with a wry smile and arms akimbo, until I drank it. It was like Holy Communion adapted to a practical purpose.’2 It doesn’t appear to have worked.

Unscrupulous tea suppliers sometimes boosted their profits by adulterating dried tea leaves with things like graphite and Prussian blue pigment, or by sweeping up leaves from the factory floor along with dust and other undesirable items. The Tea Examination Act 1882 outlawed the adulteration of tea and set up a specific testing regime. By the end of the 19th century tea sold in New Zealand was reliably pure.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries New Zealanders drank more traditional (black) tea than their British counterparts, though not quite as much as Australians. In 1892 Pākehā New Zealanders consumed 2.9 kilograms of tea leaves per person each year, compared to 3.6 kilograms in the Australian states of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and 2.1 kilograms in the United Kingdom. In 1910 New Zealanders drank 3.3 kilograms per person and Australians 3.4 kilograms.


During the Second World War, tea was seen as an essential food commodity alongside butter, sugar, eggs and meat and was rationed. Tea was first rationed in 1942 and restrictions remained in place until 1948.

New Zealand’s black tea consumption declined over time, from 3–3.5 kilograms per person between the 1910s and early 1960s to around 2.5 kilograms in the 1970s. By 1984 per-head consumption was less than 2 kilograms. It steadily dropped to reach an average of 0.6 kilograms in the first decade of the 21st century, compared with 2.2 kilograms in Britain. A wider range of hot drinks, including herbal tea, and the popularity of coffee contributed to tea’s decline. Tea bags were introduced in the 1970s.


Coffee is a hot drink produced from the infusion of roasted, ground coffee beans in hot water. Coffee was available in New Zealand in the 19th century but was far less popular than tea, in part because imported beans were taxed more than tea leaves, which made it expensive. It was often mixed with dried chicory root.

In the mid- to late 1890s New Zealanders consumed an average of 0.2 kilograms of coffee and chicory per year, compared to 2.6 kilograms of tea. Nevertheless, coffee stalls were open in urban centres by night, providing people with hot drinks and food.

Flat white debate

New Zealand and Australia both claim to have invented the flat white – a double-shot espresso coffee topped with heated and frothed milk. It seems likely that it originated in Australia but was perfected in New Zealand, particularly in Wellington– it is a trans-Tasman invention which is now available around the world.

Coffee found more favour in the 1940s, when American servicemen were stationed in New Zealand during the Second World War. Coffee had long been popular in the United States, which was not a great tea-drinking nation. European immigrants also brought an appreciation of good coffee to New Zealand. Recognisably modern cafés first opened in the 1950s and served mainly coffee. The advent of instant coffee in the 1960s further broadened coffee’s appeal because it could be easily prepared at home.

Cafés declined in popularity in the 1970s after liquor laws were relaxed, but re-emerged in the 1980s. Coffee knocked tea off its pedestal – in 1980 coffee and tea consumption were the same (2.5 kilograms per person per year). After 1980 coffee consumption rose and tea consumption declined. Cafés serving espresso coffee opened throughout the country in the 1990s and 2000s, heralding a new coffee culture. In 2009 New Zealanders consumed 4 kilograms of coffee per person per year.

    • J. C. Beaglehole, ed., The journals of Captain James Cook. The voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772–1775. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society, 1961, p. 138. Back
    • Toss Woollaston, Sage tea: an autobiography. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2001, p. 267. Back

Water, soft drinks and milk drinks

Drinking water

Traditional Māori communities drew their drinking water from natural sources, as did early settlers. By the 1860s growing towns required official town water supplies, so dams, reservoirs and artesian wells were constructed. Drinking fountains were also constructed in urban places in succeeding decades.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, doctors debated whether water should be drunk with meals or not – some believed it was fine, while others suggested drinking water before and after meals.

The drinking of water with meals is not well documented in New Zealand. Hotels have always provided water with meals but how much was drunk is not known. A national food survey conducted in 1962 found only 2% of people drank water with dinner.

Bottled water became more popular in the 1990s. Prior to this, the bottled-water market was small and dominated by imported brands. A number of local bottled-water brands were launched in the early 2000s. In 2005 New Zealanders drank 14 litres of bottled water per person, compared to 63 litres per person in Australia.

The tyranny of tea

In 1905 the government balneologist, Arthur Wohlmann, commented about Paeroa’s mineral water spring that ‘I am afraid … that the universal use of tea in the Colony makes the demand for such water very limited.’1

Mineral water

Mineral water comes from springs which contain minerals. It can be still or sparkling.

Bottled mineral water was first available at health spas in the 1870s. It was believed to have beneficial effects such as preventing the formation of kidney stones and relieving indigestion. Though the health-related claims of modern bottlers are more modest, mineral water retains an air of exclusivity in the 2000s.

Carbonated drinks

Carbonated drinks are effervescent (fizzy) water-based drinks with added sugar and flavouring. Carbonated drinks like ginger beer and lemonade came to New Zealand with European settlers. These drinks were imported and manufactured commercially in New Zealand from the 1830s and were also made in the home.

Coca-Cola, arguably the world’s best-known carbonated drink, arrived in New Zealand during the Second World War. It was imported for American servicemen stationed in New Zealand and manufactured in New Zealand from 1944. Pepsi-Cola was first available in New Zealand in 1958, followed by Fanta in 1961. Local brands included Lemon & Paeroa and Foxton Fizz. Caffeinated energy drinks like V were introduced in the 1990s, and in the 2000s drinks made with organic ingredients were also available.

In 2011 New Zealanders drank around 93 litres of carbonated drinks per person.

Buyer beware

In 1896 Mrs Taylor of Riverton, Southland, was charged with selling alcohol without a liquor licence. She had sold plum wine in her confectionery shop, assured by the manufacturer that it contained only fruit juice, water and sugar, but the mixture had fermented. She was convicted and ordered to pay court costs. The case was widely reported because a follower of the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement had purchased the entire stock, believing it to be non-alcoholic.

Fruit juice and cordials

Fruit juice is the juice squeezed from fruit and is sometimes mixed with water and sugar. Cordials are sweet, concentrated fruit syrups drunk diluted with water. Cordials were produced by carbonated-drink manufacturers from the 1830s and also made by home cooks.

In the days before refrigerators, fresh fruit juice did not keep and had to be drunk soon after preparation, so juice was sometimes bottled and preserved in boiling water. Despite the name, fruit wines were not always alcoholic, and were a good way of using up surplus fruit. Because most New Zealanders had fruit trees in their gardens, making fruit juice and cordials was easy.

In the early 2000s commercially prepared fruit juice was common. New Zealanders consumed 25 litres of fruit juice per person per year.

Dairy drinks

Cows’ milk is drunk alone, added to tea and coffee and mixed with powder or syrup to create milkshakes. New Zealanders drank raw, untreated cows’ milk until around 1937, when schoolchildren were given free pasteurised (heat-treated) milk. Milk was mainly drunk pasteurised after the Department of Health banned the commercial sale of raw milk in 1953. People could buy up to 1 gallon (5 litres) of raw milk directly from farmers (this was still the case in the 2000s).

Lemon milkshake

Here is a 1908 recipe for a milkshake: ‘To two-thirds of a glass of fresh milk add enough sugar to taste and a little lemon-juice. Fill up the glass with scraped ice, cover lightly, and shake until it is light and foamy’.2

Milkshakes (cold flavoured milk shaken and made frothy) were drunk in New Zealand from at least the early 1900s. Milk bars started to open in the 1930s and became popular spots with young people, who would meet there over a milkshake. The American servicemen stationed in New Zealand during the Second World War further popularised milkshakes.

Malted milk drinks like Horlicks were popular hot beverages.

Despite the importance of the dairy industry to New Zealand’s economy, New Zealanders drink less milk than comparable nations. In 2005 New Zealanders drank 90 litres of milk each, compared to 113 litres for the United Kingdom, 106 litres for Australia and 95 litres for Canada.

    • Quoted in Ian Rockel, Taking the waters: early spas in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printing Office, 1986, p. 176. Back
    • Star, 1 February 1908, p.3. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Tea, coffee and soft drinks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2023)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 Sep 2013