The evils of tea (and the virtues of beer)

If you have ever wondered about which is better: tea or beer, this piece should put your mind at rest. It is extracted from William Cobbett's Cottage Econony, published in 1822. His reasoning is hard to challenge. Apart from the selection of specific sections, the text is otherwise unaltered. In 1822, it would seem, the short paragraph had not yet been invented.


Section 23: tea has come to supply the place of beer; tea is a weaker kind of laudanum (opium); huge cost of tea; waste of time and of the best part of the day.

Section 25: beer much cheaper than tea; suitable for all but the smallest children; up to five quarts a day enough for all but drunkards.

Section 29: tea destroys health and causes effeminacy; tea has little of the nutritional value of beer.

Section 30: undeniable proof: tea kills pigs.

Section 32: tea leads men to idleness; and women to the brothel.

Finally, stirring references.

Section 23

The drink which has come to supply the place of beer has, in general, been tea. It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce 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. At any rate, it communicates no strength to the body; it does not in any degree assist in affording what labour demands. It is, then, of no use. And now, as to its cost, compared with that of beer. I shall make my comparison applicable to a year, or 365 days. I shall suppose the tea to be only five shillings the pound, the sugar only sevenpence, the milk only twopence a quart. The prices are at the very lowest. I shall suppose a teapot to cost a shilling, six cups and saucers to cost two shillings and sixpence, and six pewter spoons to cost eighteen pence. How to estimate the firing i hardly know, but certainly there must be in the course of the year to hundred fires made that would not be made, were it not for tea drinking. Then comes the great article of all, the time employed in this tea-making affair. It is impossible to make a fire, boil water, make the tea, drink it, wash up the things, sweep up the fireplace and put all to rights again in a less space of time, upon an average, than two hours. However, let us allow one hour; and here we have a woman occupied no less than three hundred and sixty five hours in the year; or thirty whole days at twelve hours in the day; that is to say, one month out of the twelve in the year, besides the waste of the man's time in hanging about waiting for the tea! Needs there anything more to make us cease to wonder at seeing labourers' children with dirty linen and holes in the heels of their stockings? Observe too, that the time thus spent, is, one half of it, the best time of the day. It is the top of the morning, which, in every calling of life, contains an hour worth two or three hours of the afternoon. By the time that the clattering tea-tackle is out of the way, the morning is spoiled, its prime is gone, and any work that is to be done afterwards lags heavily along. If the mother have to go out to work, the tea affair must all first be over. She comes into the field, in summer time, when the sun has gone a third part of his course. She has the heat of the day to encounter, instead of having her work done and being ready to return home at an early hour. Yet early she must go to; for there is the fire again to be made, the clattering tea-tackle again to come forward; and even in the longest day she must have candle light, which never ought to be seen in a cottage (except in case of illness) from March to September.

Section 25

I have here estimated every thing at its very lowest. The entertainment which I have here provided is as poor, as mean, as miserable, as anything short of starvation can set forth. And yet, the wretched thing amounts to a good third part of a good and able labourers' wages. For this money, he and his family may drink good and wholesome beer; in a short time, out of the mere savings from this waste, they may drink it out of silver cups and tankards. In a labourer's family, wholesome beer, that has a little life in it, is all that is wanted in general. Little children that do not work, should not have beer. Broth, porridge, or something in that way, is the thing for them. However, I shall suppose, in order to make my comparison as little complicated as possible, that he brews nothing but beer as strong as the generality of beer to be had at the public- house, and divested of the poisonous drugs which that beer but too often contains; and I shall further suppose that he uses in his family, two quarts of this beer, every day, from the first day of October to the last day of March inclusive; three quarts a day during the months of June and September; and five quarts a day during the months of July and August; and if this be not enough, it must be a family of drunkards. Here are one thousand and ninety seven quarts, or two hundred and seventy four gallons. Now, a bushel of malt will make eighteen gallons of better beer than that which is sold at the public-houses. And this is precisely a gallon for the price of a quart. People should bear in mind, that the beer bought at the public-house is loaded with a beer tax, with the tax on the public-house keeper, in the shape of license, with all the taxes and expenses of the brewer, and with all the taxes, rent, and other expenses of the publican, and with all the profits of both brewer and publican; so that when a man swallows a pot of beer at a public-house, he has all these expenses to help to defray, besides the mere tax on the malt and the hops.

Section 29

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, and engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age. In the fifteen bushels of malt there are 570 pounds weight of sweet; that is to say, of nutritious matter, unmixed with anything injurious to health. In the 730 tea messes of the year, there are 54 pounds of sweet in the sugar, and about 30 pounds of matter equal to sugar in the milk. Here are eighty four pounds instead of five hundred and seventy, and even the good effect of these eighty four pounds is more than overbalanced by the corrosive, gnawing, and poisonous powers of the tea.

Section 30

It is impossible for anyone to deny of this statement. Put it to the test with a lean hog: give him the fifteen bushels of malt and he will repay you in ten score of bacon or thereabouts. But give him the 730 tea messes, or rather begin to give them to him, and give him nothing else, and he is dead from hunger, and bequeaths you his skeleton, at the end of about seven days. It is impossible to doubt in such a case. The tea drinking has done a great deal in bringing this nation into the state of misery in which it now is; and the tea drinking, which is carried on by "dribs" and "drabs", by pence and farthings going out at a time; this miserable practice has been gradually introduced by the growing weight of the taxes on malt and on hops, and the growing penury amongst the labourers occasioned by the paper money.

Section 32

It must be evident to everyone, that the practice of tea drinking, must rended the frame feeble and unfit to encounter hard labour or severe weather, while, as I have shown, it deducts from the means of replenishing the belly and covering the back. Hence, succeeds a softness, an effeminacy, a seeking for the fireside, a lurking in the bed, and in short, all the characteristics of idleness, for which, in this case, real want of strength furnishes an apology. The tea drinking fills the public-houses, makes the frequenting of it habitual, corrupts boys as soon they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the tea-table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel. At the very least, it teaches them idleness. The everlasting dawdling about, with the slops of the tea-tackle, gives them a relish for nothing that requires strength and activity. When they go from home, the know how to do nothing that is useful. To brew, to bake, to make butter, to milk, to rear poultry; to do any earthly thing of use they are wholly unqualified. To shut poor young creatures up in manufactories is bad enough: but there, at any rate, they do something that is useful; whereas the girl that has been brought up, merely to boil the tea kettle, and to assist in the gossip inseparable from the practice, is a mere consumer of food, a pest to her employer, and a curse to her husband, if any man be so unfortunate as to affix his affections upon her.


There is much on the internet about beer. Less on tea. However, there is a very interesting web site devoted to tea which does not seem to have many health warnings and you can learn about the history of it. The adventurous may wish to learn about The Chinese Tea Ceremony.
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