What Makes a Proper Yorkshire Brew? – Lucinda Maitra

This piece was inspired by our Comfort Foods series.

What Makes A Proper Yorkshire Brew?

When I first moved to London to start university, I quickly learned that my coming from Yorkshire was to be a part of my identity which I repeated over and over again in response to the typical line, ‘so where are you from?’. I am lucky enough to have a skin tone which doesn’t make this question as particularly loaded as it can be for many people. However, my Indian surname can make things a little more complicated to reconcile with a simple answer. It comes from my paternal grandfather who came to the UK in the 1960s, making me a (very tenuous) third-generation immigrant. I had never really thought much about the region that I’d spent the majority of my childhood growing up in until moving away to start a new life outside of it.  And it was through these introductions to new people as a ‘Yorkshire lass’ that the theme of Yorkshire Tea began popping up in conversations. I found myself ardently arguing that Yorkshire Tea was the best tea and I wouldn’t listen to anyone else’s arguments. This — along with the giant Costco bag of 500 Yorkshire Tea bags which my mum had bought for me that stood proudly in my room in halls, declaring my regional pride to all visitors — apparently became a part of my personality. I’ve probably spent hours with various people debating the hierarchy of British tea brands. As someone who is very much against patriotism, this sudden burst of regional pride was strange and perhaps this made it all the more funny. But in all this joking around, I never really stopped to question why I was so proud of this particular brand of tea bags. After all, despite the green Yorkshire landscapes that grace the packaging, they aren’t actually grown there. A quick Wikipedia search informs me the brand grows its tea in various places in Africa and India. So why aren’t there scenes of Sri Lankan tea fields all over the boxes?

Owned by Bettys & Taylors Group, Yorkshire Tea came about through the particular blend of English breakfast tea developed in the 1970s. Initially designed for the region’s particular type of water supply, the blend gradually gained popularity on a national scale and is now one of the biggest tea brands in the UK.

So, the labour and extraction of resources from Africa and India to produce the tea are not important, but rather we should be proud of ‘our’ special regional blend of these resources? As a legacy of the British colonial history of tea production, Yorkshire Tea is part of a global tea industry which relies on the exploitation of labour and resources from countries in the Global South — overwhelmingly from ex-colonial outposts — who gain only a tiny fraction of the profits. When Charles Taylor began his business in 1886, the British Empire held a position of dominance in world trade. Now Bettys & Taylors Group is one of a host of multinational tea corporations whose growing techniques in these areas, such as the overuse of pesticides, cause huge damage to biodiversity — an issue whose impacts will hit these countries in the Global South hardest.

Hearing all of this, my previous theatrics of regional pride fall flat. I realise that my pride sustains a discourse of erasure which eliminates the history behind the product. The substitution of Kenyan tea fields with images of sprawling English countryside becomes all the more significant considering the important of landscape imagery to nationalist rhetoric. The packaging symbolises a romanticised view of British national identity claiming cultural dominance over a product which originates in colonial trade.

So, the truth is that my pride in being from Yorkshire, based on the belief that we make and drink the best, is not a pride rooted in the place itself, but instead in the product of labour which is ultimately (and necessarily) distanced from the very place it is supposed to represent. This distance is upheld by the idealised view of British national identity symbolised by the romantic landscapes on Yorkshire Tea boxes which provide an illusion of sentimentality while masking the deeply unequal relations of production.

The irony runs deeper when noting the reliance on tropes of the family business as a selling point for the product. Somehow, I doubt this idea of family extends to the Indian, Sri Lankan and Kenyan farmers and labourers harvesting the tea leaves. Rather, it is Taylors of Harrogate who make use of these imported materials, making themselves a ‘proper brew’ which belong to this family. When unpicked, this seemingly innocent phrase ‘a proper brew’ reveals a replication of colonial values related to notions of civilisation through the implications that tea-producing countries lack the knowledge and expertise to develop this superior concoction of the drink. This in turn places a cultural value judgement on the labour of tea-producers who—according to this logic— simply produce the resources for the more important work of blending the correct brew, which in turn serves as an implicit justification for economic hierarchy within the tea trade.

This kind of hypocrisy is at the heart of British identity and its relationship to colonial history. Fundamental to this history was the development of a consumer culture which simultaneously exploits the labour and import of resources from its colonies while maintaining notions of an inherently British (or perhaps in more general terms, ‘white’) cultural superiority which preserves an illusion which normalises these structures of global inequality which clearly pervade way beyond the official end of colonialism.

This is not to say that all Yorkshire tea-drinkers such as myself are secretly ardent supporters of empire and its white supremacist underpinnings. Despite the colonial origins, there is not an inherent evil in the act of drinking tea, nor in its related social practices which initially emerged during the eighteenth century. In fact, it was at the tea table that resistance movements such as the boycott of slave grown sugar which began in 1791 were initiated. As historians such as Clare Midgley discuss (see, for instance, her 2008 article “Slave sugar boycotts, female activism and the domestic base of British anti‐slavery culture”), British women – particularly middle class white women who were most able to exercise domestic power as consumers – played a key role in this antislavery movement. Rather, the problem is at the structural level in which the social practices of tea-drinking act as a microcosm of the system of global socio-political, economic and cultural power, in which we as consumers take part. 

As tea has become more accessible and not just the product of upper and middle classes, the related social practices have themselves changed in turn. By the time Yorkshire Tea was made in the 1970s, it was a drink enjoyed by everyone without the restrictions of class. This shows how the distribution of power has changed within the UK; however, one could argue that the global system of inequality which limits tea-producing countries to low wages, poor labour conditions (albeit improving in some cases) and little access to the profits of these now multinational companies persists.  

When you look beyond the pretty Yorkshire landscapes adorning the packaging, you gain an insight into how deeply rooted British culture is in its colonial history. Rather than a distant past we can simply overcome or attempt to forget, our relationship to the historical atrocities of violent imperialism is difficult and clearly far from over, despite attempts to suggest otherwise. From the destruction of colonial documents by the Home Office to the biased teaching of British history in schools marked by gaping absences,there is a desire to hide from this history on an official level. Meanwhile, on a cultural level, the culture of consumption around products which originate in colonial contexts such as English breakfast tea reveals a lot about the legacy of colonial discourse and global socio-economic power structures. While I have many reasons to be proud of saying that I’m from Yorkshire, now I am less quick to brag about the superiority of our tea when I think about its ties to this system.

Lucinda Maitra is a Comparative Literature graduate from Kings College London pursuing a career in Arts and Heritage. She is interested in climate activism and envisioning a feminist ecosocialist future. You can follow her on Twitter @lucinda_maitra

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