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With trade in the Red Sea disrupted, tea has a longer journey to British mugs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Recent attacks on ships by Houthi militants in the Red Sea have disrupted global supply chains, and the effects are being felt around the world. In Britain, it's left folks worried about the one thing many say they cannot live without. From London, NPR's Lauren Frayer explains.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: For many Brits, the world revolves around one thing.

NICOLA TEVENDALE: You wake up. You have a cup of tea.

YVONNE JONES: Yeah.

TEVENDALE: You get home. You have a cup of tea. When people come around, you have a cup of tea.

JONES: It's a social thing, really.

TEVENDALE: Yeah.

JONES: Isn't it? Yeah.

TEVENDALE: Yeah.

FRAYER: That's Nicola Tevendale and her mother, Yvonne Jones, shopping on London's Regent Street to basically kill time between cups of tea.

How many cups of tea do you drink?

TEVENDALE: Probably four.

JONES: I probably have about six. Is this genuine - tea shortage? No tea (laughter).

FRAYER: To understand the U.K.'s tea shortage, you have to understand where the tea in these women's mugs comes from - mostly India, Sri Lanka, China and Kenya. The shortest route to the U.K. from all of those places is through the Suez Canal. But Houthi attacks on ships near there means some are rerouting all the way around Africa instead. Now, feel free to hit pause here and go look at a map. You'll see why this adds up to 14 days of extra travel time, which means the tea aisle in some U.K. supermarkets is empty.

SPARSH AGARWAL: We're starting to see large-scale disruption in terms of our tea not reaching in time.

FRAYER: Sparsh Agarwal is doing his part. He's a tea exporter based in Darjeeling, India.

AGARWAL: The cost of sending it has also increased. We still have, for example, certain amounts of teas that are just lying in the harbor, which are just waiting to be picked up.

FRAYER: In an almost military-like statement to NPR, Tetley, the U.K.'s biggest tea company, says it is closely monitoring the situation, implementing mitigation. We've got tea on the ground, it says. Tea trade routes date back to the British Empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Few things have affected our history more than a nice cup of tea.

FRAYER: And so does the British taste for it, says Sathnam Sanghera, who writes books about imperial history. Tea, he says...

SATHNAM SANGHERA: It was a commodity that the East India Company could make a huge money out of importing it from China. It was incredibly profitable for the British imperialists to sell it to the British.

FRAYER: So much so that by the 1930s...

SANGHERA: An average British person drank nine cups of tea a day.

FRAYER: And as the Second World War approached...

SANGHERA: The government at the time was so nervous about tea supply that they began planning for rationing because it was deemed possibly damaging to national morale if British people didn't get their tea.

FRAYER: This time, the British Retail Consortium says the disruption to the national black tea supply is only temporary and minimal. Agarwal in Darjeeling says he has no doubt supply chains will be restored.

AGARWAL: If history says anything, it's that the British addiction to tea is not going down.

FRAYER: On the streets of London, Shahira Amra and her friend Mel Debec are talking about panic buying. You know how Americans buy a toilet paper and milk at the first hint of a hurricane or snowstorm? Well, the equivalent here is tea.

SHAHIRA AMRA: It's kind of like a comfort drink.

MEL DEBEC: They're going to go out and buy it. It's just the panic syndrome; isn't it?

FRAYER: So by virtue of me asking you these questions, are you about to go out and stock up on...

DEBEC: Oh, I'm going to have a look anyway (laughter), make sure I've got my supply in 'cause I might start panicking (ph).

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.