More Musings on Tea

Oolong teaBack in 1946, while England was still recovering from the deprivations of WWII and under rationing, the prolific George Orwell wrote his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea” with his eleven-step instructions for making what he considered the perfect cuppa.* But do they still stand today? Certainly, his notion of what makes a “strong” tea would be considered very strong by standards today.

As the BBC noted in an article that debunked many of Orwell’s notions about making tea almost 60 years later, “The great critic of Hitler and Stalin, was not above a bit of teatime Totalitarianism himself, it seems.” I personally think Orwell had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote it, but others take it more seriously.  Like other foods, tea invites passionate responses when someone’s tastes or techniques are challenged. Orwell recognized that his list would be controversial, writing, 

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. 

I recently read again Orwell’s piece on tea in the Everyman’s Library edition of Orwell’s Essays (a 1,300-page collection I am slowly, and somewhat meanderingly working my way through). So I thought I might revisit some thoughts on tea. It prompted me to re-assess the contents of my own tea cupboards, and to re-open some of my books on tea.

This will ramble a bit. But first, some background. Since I wrote about Orwell’s rules in the past, I won’t repeat my comments about them. I also wrote about tea in general, and some specific teas in previous posts, so perhaps you should start there:

My tea booksClearly, I like tea; not just as a drink, but its rich cultural and agricultural histories; its processing, harvesting, marketing, grading, growing, and chemistry all fascinate me. I enjoy reading about all these aspects of tea, and trying new brands, blends, types, and styles. I admit to being a mere lay aficionado, and my palette for tea is quite unsophisticated (my ability to taste and smell subtle flavours has weakened as I age). I have a small but enjoyable library of general books about tea, but nothing technical.

I also know little about the technology behind tea production. I am aware that the leaves are almost entirely hand-picked, special equipment is involved in blending to ensure the fragile tea leaves get properly cut and mixed. There’s a lot more to tea blending than just consistency, but I’ve not read enough about the process to comment adequately about it. All of the commercial tea brands sold in teabags are blends, but companies tend to keep them secret or at least general.

Our main tea cupboardAnd for all the bloviation I make here about the perfect cuppa and the superiority of loose-leaf teas, we drink a lot of commercial-brand “orange pekoe” blended teas sold in boxes of teabags. It’s easy, convenient, and saves my marriage (I like to try all sorts of teas and experiment with different quantities, temperatures, and brewing times. I like to drink oolong, white, and green teas, too. Susan has little patience or taste for my efforts, and prefers a simple cup of black tea made with a bag.)

Black tea is the most commonly drunk tea in the West, and is the most oxidized of all the types of tea (green tea is the least). Curiously, it is known as “red” tea in the Chinese market. Oolong is also known as wulong; the latter I’ve read is closer in pronunciation to the Chinese characters.

And did you know that the teabag is a relatively recent invention? Barely more than a century old. It is usually attributed to Thomas Sullivan, in 1908, but actually, the idea of creating a method to restrain the brewing leaves is somewhat older.

“Silken” nylon and PET teabags came into disrepute in 2019 when tests showed that they shed millions or even billions of pieces of microplastic into your tea. Not what I care to ingest. Paper teabags, however, remain safe (and you can buy reusable, washable cloth (muslin) bags to re-use for your loose-leaf teas).

My small metal strainer conveniently fits nicely over the rim of my tall cup and is fine enough to restrain all but the tiniest of tea leaf fragments, so I don’t need reusable bags. Tea strainers (also called tea pigs) in all sorts of varieties and designs are available, too, but I like the simplicity of mine.

For many decades before I met Susan, I was a dedicated coffee drinker, and consumed a dozen or more cups a day. Every meeting I had in business included numerous cups. I had my own grinder and made my coffee fresh from hand-selected beans at home (although I did not roast my own). I drank tea, too, when custom and courtesy demanded, but coffee was always my first choice. I buzzed with such caffeine-fueled energy back then that I wrote my first book, Mapping the Atari, in a mere three weeks with many all-night stints hunched over the computer drinking coffee as I wrote.

But sometime in the past three decades, since moving here, I ran out of coffee at home and just never bought more. Instead, I simply switched to drinking more tea. And I soon became enamoured with tea and its many varieties. I rarely have coffee these days; usually only when I could go out with friends for a morning natter (back in the pre-pandemic days when such socializing was possible). Even with the rare takeout, I haven’t had more than three or four cups in the past year, and none in the last four or more months.

We normally drink several commercial blends available locally, including Tetley, Barry’s (Irish brand), Tata (an Indian tea brand from Freshco), Typhoo, and Typhoo Extra Strong (sadly available locally only in Wasaga Beach) as the ones we choose most often. Sometimes Yorkshire Gold, too, although it’s not sold in many local grocery stores. We usually switch brands when one box is emptied, just for the variety. However, we both like Barry’s, Typhoo Extra Strong, and Tata brands as stronger than most.

We also drink various blends called “breakfast” teas at times, because they tend to be stronger and more flavourful, like English Breakfast tea. For the special blends like this (and Earl Grey, and my green gunpowder), we tend to buy Twinnings’ tea as our choice. We have bought some other popular “orange pekoe” brands, but been disappointed in most (however, we have not yet sampled the King Cole brand, a box of which awaits us in the second tea closet).

Teas from our second cupboard
When we have the chance to visit an Asian market (like Centra in Barrie) or go to Toronto, I try to find some brands and blends not available here. Mostly these are green and oolong teas, but I’ve also found Tetley’s ginger, elaichi (with cardamom), and other blends of teas at Centra. I’m not a fan of so-called herbal “teas” because they don’t have any tea in them (they are actually tisanes, not teas). But the Tetley blends have real tea leaves in them, not just some other plant leaves and flowers, so they appeal to me (the ginger in particular because I love ginger). However, I’m not really a fan of either jasmine or osmanthus blends.

Margaret's Hope DarjeelingSee the black package at the front of the photo above? That’s a very special tea I have been awaiting the proper moment to open, like a fine wine one racks: a high-altitude, estate-grown (Margaret’s Hope, where organized labour first began in the tea industry, in 1955) darjeeling identified as TGFOP. That stands for Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, the second-highest grade of whole-leaf tea, described as “The highest proportion of tip, and the main grade in Darjeeling and Assam.” It is also the “second flush” or second picking. The main grades of black tea are:

  • Orange Pekoe (OP: this is what most commercial teas and teas-in-bags are)
  • Orange Pekoe Superior (OPS)
  • Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP)
  • Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP)
  • Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP)
  • Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP)

There is also a rare Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP) that Wikipedia says is “limited to only the highest quality leaves in the FTGFOP classification.” I’ve never had it. Read more about tea leaf grading here. Chinese green teas have different grading systems, by the way. Flushes also affect the body, robustness, flavour, etc.

Darjeeling is a special black tea, so good it is only rarely used in blends. Its unique flavour, thanks in large part to the high altitude of the region (the highest place in the world where tea is grown), is sought by tea connoisseurs worldwide. The region’s tea industry has a fascinating history. There are a mere 87 tea estates in Darjeeling province today, working under 47,000 acres (about 19,000 hectares). That’s somewhat smaller than the Queen’s Balmoral estate. They produce only about one percent of all the tea grown in India. The region and its unique tea are both at risk from climate change, so enjoy it today.

We also have an excellent tea shop here in Collingwood (Blue Mountain tea Company) run by a very knowledgeable woman who offers a wide variety of quality teas and tisanes. You can buy small quantities of her loose leaf tea, enough to try a cup or two, which is a real bonus when you are exploring flavours and blends. She also sells many tea accessories.

Knowing a bit about tea — where it comes from, what regions make what types, the basic taste profiles of different regions, etc. — isn’t really necessary if you drink store-bought brands, but it’s like knowing your wines, tequilas, or whiskeys: the knowledge allows you to buy products that better suit your taste. You’ll know what phrases like “rich Assam blend” and “orange pekoe” mean on a package.

We make a pot of tea in the morning and refresh it with boiling water after the first cups are drawn. After that, we make single-bag cups, although I may make a green or oolong tea in the afternoon instead (because they are less processed than black teas, green teas have lower caffeine but higher quantities of antioxidants). I have some bagged brands for these varieties too, but mostly use (and prefer) loose-leaf. I have a nice, tall cup and strainer (see photo, above) that lets me brew a single cup.

I try to check out the teas that show up in Winners or HomeSense stores whenever we visit them. Many boxes of tea on their food shelves are just mediocre or at best average blends repackaged with fancy boxes, but I’ve found a few delights, too, including some premium loose-leaf and bagged teas. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason why some appear on their shelves or when, so just keep looking.

Did you know you can buy tea seeds and grow your own plants? Good luck with that, because it’s a warm-weather tree that needs lots of light and an environment that you might not be able to provide in a typical household. But with some care, you might be able to grow it into a nice little house plant. Beware: I bought some seeds a few years back and they all sprouted, then the cats ate the leaves, and they died. Apparently cats like tea leaves, too. 

Last year we had to get a new electric kettle, and I was pleased to find one with different temperature settings: delicate, green, white, oolong, French press, and black (in order from lowest to boiling). This proved providential for making my teas. Prior to this, I usually just boiled the water and waited until it cooled slightly before pouring. As Orwell wrote, “It is worth paying attention to such details…”

~~~~~
* Orwell’s eleven rules were:

  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 the tea into the cup first before the milk.
  11. Drink tea without sugar.

Evidently, Orwell was not very aware of the variety of teas from China, which he dismissed by writing in his essay, “China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.”

One assumes he is referring to the lower-caffeine Chinese green tea, rather than any of the oolong varieties. Caffeine content in tea ranges from around 25-33mg for green teas (but can be as low as 9mg) to 45-60mg for black tea. Oolong teas are in the middle. This is lower than that in coffee (average 95mg but can be as much as 115mg) or in many of those liquid sugar pop drinks(25-80mg), Of course, these are merely averages; the actual content depends on the size of the cup, the process, brewing time (for tea), the blend, the growing region and conditions, the manufacturer, and so on. There is also “decaf” which has a smaller amount of caffeine, but I generally don’t drink it.

Oolong teas are harder to classify because there are many variations in the process and fermentation time for them, which results in differences in chemical content as well as flavour. Depending on the brand, I may brink oolong with milk, but the lesser-processed brands are closer to green tea, so I drink them without.

I usually take milk with my black teas, but not always. Black teas contain the most oxalic acid, which binds with some minerals like calcium and iron (curiously, oolong teas have less oxalate than green tea!). The acid will bind with the minerals in the milk instead of in my body. Since we don’t eat mammals here, we need to make sure our iron intake is sufficient, and just coming from radiation treatment, I am still taking calcium to help make up for the calcium the radiation took away from my body. I don’t want to exacerbate that. So for the nonce, I’ll continue to have milk in my black tea.

Orwell doesn’t appear to be aware that tea came from Africa as well. That dark blue pouch in the shot above is Kenyan tea. Tea production in Africa began in 1880, when the first tea plantation in Africa was established in Malawi. Tea plantations were created in Kenya in 1903, and soon in other African nations. Today Kenya is the world’s fourth-largest tea exporting country. In Orwell’s day there was no Kenyan purple tea; a recent cultivar I have yet to try. No, it doesn’t make a purple-coloured drink: the name refers to the colour of the leaves at picking.

As for his rule eight, I might add that I drink my tea in what is usually sold as a “coffee mug” with thicker porcelain than a teacup.  Orwell writes about using a “good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type.” That is unlikely to have been the same thick-walled coffee mug that we commonly use today, but rather a similar design made with thinner-walled china (of which we also have several examples in our cupboards). I recommend warming the cup with hot water — regardless of its shape — so the tea doesn’t cool down too quickly after it has been poured.

While Susan and I enjoy strong tea, Orwell’s definition of “strong tea” would be even more robust and bitter than we would appreciate. He suggested six heaping teaspoons of loose-leaf tea per quart. We use less than half that. 

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