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.
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.
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.