The cup that cheers, the kickstart of caffeine that wakes you up, the warm comfort of a hot drink at night. Who doesn’t like a beverage? It is no surprise then that drinks – and I’ll stick to non-alcoholic for today’s blog – are often mentioned in books, and then fans try to recreate them in so called real life.    

Water is the most consumed fluid on Earth, but it does have problems. Water can be contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or pollutants, and this may not be obvious. In 2017 unsafe water accounted for 1.2 M deaths worldwide. ( The recent urge to stay hydrated has led to a boom in plastic water bottles, leading to increased plastic pollution worldwide in oceans and waterways. Even tap water can become contaminated despite public health systems. So a simple drink of water is not so simple after all. For a lot of history, living in a city and getting clean water was a big problem. The Romans had a splendid aqueduct system but lead lined pipes. 1850’s London had public water pumps that were frequently contaminated with nearby cess pits and sewers leading to numerous cholera outbreaks. In a future apocalypse scenario, clean drinking water or the ability to decontaminate would be crucial.

So a solution? In the movie “African Queen” set in Africa, Bogart never drank water – even cleaning his teeth with whiskey, and avoided stomach trouble, and no doubt was a convivial companion. Beer drinkers also avoided cholera in epidemics, and weak ale was the drink of choice for many.

Tea is an infusion of plant material in boiling water. While tea (camellia sinensis) is most common, any flavoursome, non-toxic herb will do. In fiction, tea appears as the drink of choice for Capt. Picard of Star Trek’s Enterprise – “Earl grey, hot” to the numerous herbal teas of Ayla in “Clan of the Cave Bear”.  The main aim is a nice cup of tea, but it can be used for medicinal purposes in a fantasy or historical fiction. Reading sources such as Culpeper’s Herbal are valuable.

But there are other aspects. Socially, tea can vary from a ladylike afternoon tea to a billy boiled over a campfire, or a brew on army manoeuvres. Economically, it opens trade routes while politically it can cause upsets like the Boston Tea Party. Are the characters poor and reuse tea leaves several times, then use the damp leaves on the floor to help collect dust when sweeping?

Coffee is a much cherished drink. From the first mad dancing goats of legend (from eating the coffee berries apparently) to Capt. Janeway of Star Trek’s Voyager risking her crew to gain resources to replicate coffee, it seems it will be here to stay. The amount of variations of coffee can say a lot about characters. A strong, black, Janeway coffee differs greatly to a half strength caramel latte with creamer. Or is it a cure? Terry Pratchett had coffee that was a cure for scumble, but too much made you see reality as it really was, stripping away human delusions.

Like tea, coffee has social, political and economic aspects. Will coffee survive climate change? Is it harvested using what amounts to slave labour? Or is it a cup of the expensive civet coffee that has passed through the digestion of a small mammal?  Since this is now industrialised and puts the animals under extreme stress, this is not a coffee anyone should buy. (

Milk based drinks are another alternative. Chocolate, yogurt drinks such as lassi, milkshakes etc are all drinks that can find their way into fiction. Chocolate with it’s exotic appeal and warm comfort. Milk with it’s connotations of childhood and nurturing. Again, we can contrast a warm cocoa before bed to sooth a heroines anxiety in Jane Austen, or explore the near worship of the chocolate bean in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. From a form of Aztec currency to a tin of Milo is quite a leap.

Soft drinks are carbonated water, sugar, colours and flavours. But what a world of culture they reveal. Coke or Pepsi? Time travel and drink Tab. Space travel and make some Tang. Add some lemon and be a wellness guru. Travel to Peru and drink yellow Inca Cola. Even the difference between cane sugar and corn syrup in Coke is noticeable. Certainly, a modern-day drink, but variations exist with raspberry vinegar (Nat the Naturalist, set in the 1800’s), adding citric acid for fizz and further back with healthful cordials.

Fruit or vegetable juice is another variation. It relies on a decent growing climate, which naturally will vary. So questing travellers might be offered different juices at the start of the trip to more exotic ones the further away they travel. The increase in variety just travelling to the tropics is amazing – so what would be the result of travelling to another planet? Colours, tastes and even textures would change.

So it is interesting to see how a common part of daily life can be used in fiction. A genteel sip with scones, or afternoon tea with a faun. A blast of caffeine to start the day or explore a nebula. Will the customs of today suit the future? And how did the discovery shape the society of the past?

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World Building: Time for Tea
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One thought on “World Building: Time for Tea

  • April 23, 2021 at 11:16

    Hi Cindy!
    Just wanted to say “thanks” for this series of posts on world-building! It’s one of the best around these days with well-thought-out questions and answers that few questionnaires and worksheets in this genre cannot do. Keep it up and let us know when you decide to change categories. I know I’ll love them!
    Thanks again,

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