A history of the largest tea companies in Britain

The highly competitive nature of the British tea industry has seen a number of different market leaders emerge at different points in time.

Horniman & Co was the first company in the world to package tea (as opposed to loose-leaf sales by grocers). By 1867 they claimed to have the largest stock of tea in Britain in their warehouses. By 1880 they sold over 5 million packets a year. By 1890 they had export sales of 500,000 lbs a week.

By 1892 Horniman had been overtaken by Mazawattee, who sold over 14 million packets of tea each year. Mazawattee had introduced a brand that was blended entirely from fashionable Ceylon tea leaves. They also advertised more heavily than Horniman.

By 1897 Lipton & Co claimed the largest sales of tea in the world, with one million packets sold each week. Lipton had acquired their own tea plantations in Ceylon, and by cutting out the middleman, were able to offer lower prices to the consumer.

In 1903 John Sumner began to package a new blend which used only the tips of the tea leaf. With the distinctive name of Typhoo, it had lower tannin levels and a higher caffeine content, Sumner claimed digestive properties for his product.

By 1915 J Lyons & Co sold 5 million packets of tea each week, and were far and away the market leader in Britain, stocked in 160,000 outlets. In 1922 they claimed that 7 million people drank their tea every week.

In 1923 the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) claimed that it was the largest tea business in the world, with a sale of over 60 million lbs of tea every year. By 1932 this figure had increased to 100 million lbs a year.

In 1939 the CWS was the largest tea blender and distributor in the United Kingdom, controlling around 25 percent of the supply. It was followed by Lyons, Brooke Bond and Allied Suppliers (who controlled Lipton).

CWS tea sales declined with the rise of the supermarket chains: the new chains saw CWS, who operated their own grocery stores, as a rival, and refused to stock their tea.

By 1957 Brooke Bond was probably the largest tea company in the world, with around one third of the British and Indian tea markets.

In the 1960s, Tetley grew from a minor player to a major force in tea after it pioneered the use of the tea bag in Britain.

Brooke Bond was still the largest tea company in the world when it was acquired by Unilever in 1984. Unilever had acquired Lipton in 1971.

Today Lipton is the largest tea brand in the world, with most production centered on a single site in Dubai.

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