Back 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.
The 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).
While 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%!
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…)
I 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:
Only use Indian or Ceylonese (Assam) tea.
Make it in small quantities in a teapot.
Warm the pot beforehand.
Tea should be strong.
Put the tea straight into the pot: don’t use strainers, muslin bags or other devices to “imprison” the tea.
Take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way around
Stir the tea after pouring the water, or better, give the pot a good shake.
Drink out of a good mug not a shallow cup.
Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea.
Pour tea into the cup first before the milk.
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. Continue reading “The Perfect Cuppa”
Whoa! Down the rabbit hole I tumbled this week. I started reading about tea in several books I recently purchased. What a story. What a delight! Many hours spent between the pages absorbing culture, history, types, classifications, production, terroirs and marketing.*
I’ve read bits and pieces about tea before; mostly history and cultural notes; some tidbits about specific types and specific bits I’ve gleaned from online sources. I never read any significantly detailled work about picking, grading and production previously. Nor was I fully aware of the range and depth of teas, the complex terroir of tea and the variations in (and recommendations for) making and drinking tea.**
I had a vague notion, of course. My kitchen shelves stock several boxes and packages of tea in both leaf and bag form. I know the rough difference between white, green and black teas (black which the Chinese call red tea…). I know that tea from China and tea from India and tea from Sri Lanka are different, but exactly how and why, or how they got their names and manners, I could only hypothesize.
Now I am replete with information and wide-eyed in wonder, albeit I still have a lot to learn – and I puzzle over some concepts. Perhaps not enough bookshelf space left, mind you, to be fully educated in tea, because clearly I need to buy more of these publications. (Can one ever own too many books? Yes, but only if you run out of living space.)
I am also informed about how to make a good cup of tea – temperature, container, infusor and more. I don’t have a simple method of determining water temperature (mayhap I need another kettle, one with a digital temperature setting?) but it appears the correct temperature matters a great deal to the resulting drink.
Like most folks, I suppose, until recently tea was mostly a drink that came in a box full of bags you plunked into a cup, added boiling water, and let steep. Then came some milk.*** Maybe a touch of honey or sugar, too.
Voila: a cuppa. And several more to follow during the day.
That is, I’m learning, to tea culture what a bottle of my homemade plonk is to viniculture. Crass. Pedestrian.
Tea – real tea – offers so much more than a bag of grocery store tea dust. And I ache to learn more about it.
Legend has it that, in the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong (1711-1799 CE), the grandson of the Emperor Kangxi, went on a holiday to the West Lake district, in the Hangzhou area of Zhejiang province, China. He stopped at the Hu Gong Temple, nestled under the Lion Peak Mountain (Shi Feng Shan). There, he was presented by the monks with a cup of green tea made from the temple’s own tea bushes.
He was so impressed with the tea that, when he became Emperor himself, Qianlong gave these 18 tea bushes special imperial status and the tea became “Gong Cha,” or Imperial tea. Those trees are still living and, according to Wikipedia, “the tea they produce is auctioned annually for more money per gram than gold.”
The green tea he sipped is known as Longjing or Lung Ching – “Dragon Well” in English, named after an eponymous well located in the nearby village, itself with an interesting story to tell.
Since the first cup of tea served, he was very impressed with its beautiful appearance, elegant fragrance and mellow taste. The monk who served the tea, brought him to the tea garden, where 18 tea bushes were planted. Being enamored with the work of women picking the tea, Emperor even decided to try it by himself.
When the Emperor was enjoying gathering the tea leaves, urgent news came saying that his mother, the Empress Dowager fell sick and asked for his immediate return to the palace. When the Emperor came to see his sick Queen Mother, the aroma of tea leaves, which he kept in his pocket, attracted her attention. At once, he served the tea to her, and the Queen Mother fell in love with its amazing taste and flavor. After drinking tea for a few days, the Queen Mother was cured. The Emperor was so grateful to the tea that he granted the 18 tea trees under the Lion Peak Mountain the name of the Imperial Tea Tree. Since then, Dragon Well tea became a tribute tea to Chinese emperors.
Gabriella Lombardi, writing in The Tea Sommelier, says it is the “most famous of all Chinese teas.” (I found this wonderful, beautifully illustrated book on sale at Indigo, Eaton Centre, last weekend; a real steal for anyone interested in tea.)
But the tea from that region was known long before Qianlong. It was mentioned by Lu Yu (733-804 CE) in his famous “The Classic of Tea.”
There were other books about tea produced in China after Lu Yu, such as Zhu Quan’s Manual of Tea from the late 14th century CE. Tea drinking in China is itself at least 2,000 years old, and the oldest tea trees are about 1,700 years old.
Another legend says the tea plants are “watered by rain from a local dragon.”
Dragon Well Tea flourishes in the mountainous area where mild climate and plentiful rainfall are plentiful year-round. Around West Lake, Shifeng Peak, Longjing Village, Yunxi Mountain, Hupao and Meijiawu Region offer such prime conditions. The history of planting tea trees is rather long in these areas, as the tea sage Lu Yu mentioned in his Book of Tea. The teas grown in these areas were called Shi, Long, Yun, Hu and Mei respectively in the past. Now, with an increase in production, it is generally classified into Xihu (West Lake) Longjing Tea, Qiantang Longjing Tea and Yuezhou Longjing Tea, among which the Xihu Longjing Tea is the best.
It’s dark in the cup, but in the glass pot for brewing, it’s a deep copper. It smells of earth and age, a hint of horses and leather. A rich, slightly sweet and crisp taste.
Black, no milk. With milk, it changes to a hot-chocolate light brown, and the flavour mellows. I prefer the slightly sharper black taste. *
“For hundreds of years,” reads the Whittard’s package, “mule loads of precious Pu-Erh tea travelled the Ancient Tea Horse Road from China, risking the dangers of Tiger Leaping Gorge to reach the towering mountains of Tibet.”
It has that aroma and taste of a well-travelled tea. A tea that has sat on the tables of ship’s captains, and on the floor mats in nomad huts. This Yunnan province tea is “traditionally drunk after a meal,” but I’m breaking with tradition to sip it on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Tea is a complicated product, for all the simplicity we give it when drinking it. Wikipedia’s page on Pu-Erh is long and rambling, and a delight to read, albeit somewhat unfocused. It opens:
Pu-erh or Pu’er tea is a variety of fermented dark tea produced in Yunnan province, China.
Fermentation is a tea production style in which the tea leaves undergo microbial fermentation and oxidation after they are dried and rolled. This process is a Chinese specialty and produces tea known as Hei Cha, commonly translated as dark, or black tea (this type of tea is completely different from what in West is known as “black tea”, which in China is called “red tea” ). The most famous variety of this category of tea is Pu-erh from Yunnan Province, named after the trading post for dark tea during imperial China.
Black tea, red tea, green tea. Each one different, each with its range of flavours and aromas. All teas come from the same tea plant, but the difference is how/when the leaves are picked, processed and dried.**
The box says the production date is Sept. 1, 2011, best before early 2013. Here I am, two years later, still enjoying it. I actually brought this package home from England, from a small tea shop in Richmond. I still have a little left. I’m not concerned that it may be past its prime. It still tastes good to me. Whittard’s website says:
Pu-erh is a special type of tea grown only in the Yunnan Province in China. It develops its flavour through wet-fermentation and long maturity and is said to improve with age. It has been drunk by the people of the Yunnan and Tibet border provinces since the Tang Dynasty (620-907 AD).
My slightly-past-its-before-date cup of Pu-Erh is a quiet seque into tea’s fascinating history and culture.***