A cup of mao jian

Mao Jian teaThe tea bag is an example of remarkable serendipity; an unexpected, simple invention that changed the world. But it was entirely unintended.

Tea, from the camelia sinenis tree, is the most popular beverage in the world after water, and the most popular hot beverage period. Before the tea bag appeared, barely over a century ago, all tea was sold loose. Today more than 90% is sold in bags (if you include tisanes, or herbal “teas” that figure is about 70%*). For what is arguably the most popular drink in the world, that’s quite a change in a few decades.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York tea and coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan was shipping samples of his product to customers in small silk bags. He expected them to pour the loose tea out before brewing it. But customers didn’t know that and instead plunked the bag into the pot with the tea inside. They quickly found it easier and more convenient than messing about with measuring and cleaning. Sullivan saw the opportunity, and worked on perfecting the design. By 1908 he was selling his bags.

A century before social media accelerated ideas and products, tea bags went viral.** Other American companies started selling hand-sewn fabric tea bags around the same time as Sullivan. In 1930 Salada brought out the first heat-sealed, paper fibre tea bags. The design – a thin flat pouch either round or square – didn’t change much until the 1980s when the pyramidal design was invented in Japan (although not widely used, the design is gaining popularity for whole-leaf teas through companies like Tea Pigs).

teabagWhile big in the USA, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the tea bag took off in Britain, in the post-war, post-rationing bloom of convenience and newness. In 1953, Tetley was the first British tea company to offer bags and the rest quickly followed. Even in the 1960s, tea bags represented only 3% of all tea sales. But by 2007 that was at 96%!

(The Brits have many tea habits that are well described here and you should read George Orwell’s essay on tea here)

Tea bags meant convenience: tea became easier to buy, store, and to shelve. Speciality store sales gave way to supermarkets. The image of tea as an elite drink was eroded by the democratic nature of the easy-to-use tea bag. ***

What changed in the tea world was not just the packaging. The bag changed the way consumers saw, evaluated and purchased tea – by brand as opposed to actual product. This meant marketing became an overriding factor in sales.

Tea leaf readers went out of business. Who reads tea bags? The whole art of tasseography has pretty much vanished. (okay losing some cons and carnies isn’t a great loss to society, but we also lost a useful literary trope and cliché…)

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Teas or Tisanes?

Real tea plant not some herbal shitI suppose it’s crotchety of me, but whenever I hear the term “herbal tea” used to refer to an infusion of leaves or fruits that contains no actual tea, I get shirty.

They’re actually not tea at all, they’re tisanes, a pleasant French word that means’herbal infusion.’ They should be called such and labelled appropriately in stores.

Tea is, properly a plant originally from China: Camellia sinensis. How the word came to be used as a descriptor for any hot drink in which leaves were infused or decocted, I don’t know, but it’s lazy language; misleading and dishonest.*

Tea drink is, of course, an infusion, but not all infusions are tea. If it doesn’t contain actual tea leaves, it should not be called a tea. Period.

The original word tea itself (te and its Cantonese equivalent, cha) have specifically meant Camelia sinensis in China since at least the eighth century CE. That’s what they meant when European traders started bringing the stuff back. The Online Etymological Dictionary explains some of its European use from the 16th century:

The distribution of the different forms of the word in Europe reflects the spread of use of the beverage. The modern English form, along with French thé, Spanish te, German Tee, etc., derive via Dutch thee from the Amoy form, reflecting the role of the Dutch as the chief importers of the leaves (through the Dutch East India Company, from 1610). Meanwhile, Russian chai, Persian cha, Greek tsai, Arabic shay, and Turkish çay all came overland from the Mandarin form.
First known in Paris 1635, the practice of drinking tea was first introduced to England 1644. Meaning “afternoon meal at which tea is served” is from 1738. Slang meaning “marijuana” (which sometimes was brewed in hot water) is attested from 1935, felt as obsolete by late 1960s. Tea ball is from 1895.

“Herbal tea” might be derived from the Latin: herba thea means “tea herb”(LAtin was still more-or-less a living language in the 16th century) or maybe it, too, came via the Dutch traders: herba thee (which also means tea herb). Either way, we ended up with “herbal tea.”

Whatever its origin, it is incorrect. It’s like pointing to a dandelion and calling it a rose garden because they’re both plants. Or handing someone a cola and calling it a cold coffee because they both have caffeine. The only thing tea and tisanes have in common is the hot water.

Why aren’t these non-tea infusions called “herbal coffees” of “herbal colas”? That would make as much sense as calling them herbal teas.

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The Perfect Cuppa

teaI was incited to blog about the “perfect” cuppa by an article in The Guardian titled, “How to make tea correctly (according to science): milk first.”

As a user of many tea bags – a single bag per cup – I must protest. You cannot possibly get a decent cup of tea that way. The milk cools the water too much for the tea to steep properly. It comes out like that stuff they serve in fast food places: greyish, diluted warm milk with a dreary tea bag floating in it like a dead fish.

Sorry, but there’s gotta be a better cuppa.

First let’s get something straight: a cup of tea is something with actual tea in it. Calling herbal drinks without leaves of the camellia sinensis plant “tea” is an aberration. They are merely herbal infusions. Calling them a “tea” is like calling a cup of Bovril a “coffee.” Or calling a glass of Coke a “brandy.” Companies may combine herbs with real tea, and in which case they may be called a “tea” (albeit grudgingly in some cases). I will brook no exceptions. Ginger-sleepy-zinger-sunshine is not tea.

George Orwell took a stand on tea (the real stuff, not some New Age infusion), calling it one of the “main stays of civilization in this country.” With that statement, I would agree. But we part ways shortly after. The devil is in the details.

He wrote about tea in his 1946 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea. He turned the whole thing into a rather authoritarian manifesto with 11 stuffy rules, paraphrased below:

  1. Only use Indian or Ceylonese (Assam) tea.
  2. Make it in small quantities in a teapot.
  3. Warm the pot beforehand.
  4. Tea should be strong.
  5. Put the tea straight into the pot: don’t use strainers, muslin bags or other devices to “imprison” the tea.
  6. Take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way around
  7. Stir the tea after pouring the water, or better, give the pot a good shake.
  8. Drink out of a good mug not a shallow cup.
  9. Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea.
  10. Pour tea into the cup first before the milk.
  11. Drink tea without sugar.

Let’s start by taking rule nine out of the mix. No one gets milk with cream on the top any more. I’m old enough to remember those glass milk bottles with the funny necks where the cream rose. But today it’s an anachronism. Technology has advanced.

The rest of the rules? Well after a few days searching online and through my books, I can find no consensus on exactly what process makes the perfect cuppa. There are many pages of rules and suggestions, some that contradict what others say. Times and temperatures differ. But let’s look at Orwell’s rules in more detail.
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