A potted history: Emperor Shen Nung started it all when some leaves fell in his water. Dolly Dhingra visited the Tea and Coffee Museum

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The Independent Culture
He has the refined manners of a character in an E M Forster novel, a surname that sounds like a Hindu god and his mission is to educate us to understand that the pleasures of drinking tea and coffee cannot be gained in an instant. He is Edward Bramah, the enthusiastic owner and founder of the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum which is tucked away in a corner of London's South Bank and is open 363 days of the year.

Set up in 1992, the museum is a celebration of both beverages and explains the history of the two trades that operated in this area of London for over 350 years. It has a collection of 1,000 coffee makers and teapots, including the world's largest teapot (weighing in at over a tonne and with the capacity to hold 800 cups of tea). These contraptions demonstrate the many ways tea and coffee have been made and served since the 17th century.

Bramah was first inspired by the idea of setting up a museum whilst visiting the London Mincing Lane tea auctions in the 1950s - a time when American tourists in particular were becoming increasingly irritated at being unable to find a decent cup of coffee in the capital. 'It seemed a pity to me that the tea trade did not have a viewing gallery next to the auction rooms complete with a cafe for promoting teas, coffees and the history of the trade,' says Bramah.

Small but spacious, the museum has a casual atmosphere. Here a Trivial Pursuit enthusiast can learn that: coffee is the most popular drink in the world; most blends of tea contain over 30 different varieties, and in Britain we drink 175 million cuppas a year - which side by side would stretch around the coast of Britain. For those wanting to discover the mysteries and origins of tea, Chinese legend has it that Emperor Shen Nung discovered it in 2700 BC when some tea leaves fell into a pot of water he was boiling and produced a desirable and pleasant aromatic flavour.

The museum reveals Britain was and still is a nation of tea drinkers. Although coffee bars have become increasingly popular since the 1950s, the difficulty for coffee-producing countries has been to persuade the tea-consuming British to make coffee. The problem was partially solved when manufacturers invented instant coffee, taking advantage of the fact that TV commercial breaks were not long enough to make a traditional cup of tea. Hence coffee was promoted as a convenient alternative.

Sarah Burton, a visitor at the museum, came on a quest: 'I am still trying to find a coffee that tastes as good as it smells. I was hoping that this place might be able to help me.' Bramah believes that 'you can only get to know tea and coffee by tasting as many varieties as possible rather than reading about them. And you can start by having a cup in our cafe.' The cafe is open to non- museum visitors and is famous for selling Bramah's house blends.

For those not so interested in the historical facets of tea and coffee, the museum still offers a charming way to spend an afternoon browsing among the amusing, colourful and elegant tea pots and coffee makers. The mind boggles at the number of intriguing utensils and machinery employed by a whole range of cultures to make drinks which are too often unceremoniously purchased from vending machines and British Rail.

The Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum, The Clove Building, Maguire St, London SE1 (071-378 0222); adults pounds 3 / senior citizens, children under-14, students pounds 1.50 / family tickets pounds 6

See also 'Coffee Makers: 300 Years of Art & Design' by E & J Bramah, pounds 30; 'Novelty Teapots: 500 Years of Art and Design' by E Bramah, pounds 38, both available at the Museum

(Photographs omitted)