The History and Lore of Tea

Tea is only second to water as the most consumed drink in the world. It is also believed that some day (2025 is one given by some drink experts) that tea will be drunk more in America than coffee. Many would laugh at this suggestion but the younger geneartion is moving from coffee to water and tea. More on this in a future blog.

So how did the leaf gain such significance?

There are many tales of how tea first came to be a drink. One difficult to believe is when a Chinese monk vowed to spend years in meditation. In his frustration at falling asleep he pulled out his eyebrows and threw them to the ground. A tea plant sprang up from where they landed and he made a drink from the leaves.

My favorite and perhaps the most plausible dates back to 2700 B. C. and the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung. He is credited with developing the agricultural plow and herbal medicine. He was very fastidious about his drinking water and one day he fell asleep while boiling water and a tea leaf from a nearby plant fell into his pot. The resulting drink was flavorful and stimulating, and soon became a very important part of the emperor’s herbal medicine.

The Dutch, not the British, were the first to bring tea to Europe in 1610, during the reign of the House of Orange, and cleverly called it Orange Pekoe, inferring a Royal warrant. This is where it is commonly believed that the orange comes from in Orange Pekoe (OP), nothing to do with oranges or orange flavor.

It was not available for sale in Britain until 1658, the year that Oliver Cromwell died, and was given a big boost when Charles 11 married a Portuguese princess, who was a big tea drinker, and her dowry included a chest of tea from China.

The British soon caught onto this marvelous drink and began importing great quantities of tea from China in exchange for cotton, which the Chinese did not really need or want. This was initially solved by trading in opium, grown in British controlled India, regardless of the fact that opium was banned by the Chinese Government. This resulted in the Opium War of 1839 and was one of the reasons that stolen Chinese tea plants and know-how were taken to India, but unfortunately did not grow well in the different climatic conditions. A Scotsman, Robert Bruce, had explored Assam, a district of India, and found that the natives drank tea from indigenous plants. After his death, Bruce’s brother continued developing tea in this region, and it is now one of the world’s famous black teas, used as a strong breakfast tea.

The East India Company took 12 to 15 months to sail to London (just proves that tea is a little fresher now), and in 1845 the first American clipper ship did the journey to New York  in 8 months, with the resulting Clipper races before the steam ships in 1871. We can’t move on without briefly mentioning the importance of tea in American History, and the dreadful waste of good tea that was brewed incorrectly at the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The resulting embargoes and boycotts gave coffee an unfair advantage!

In the 1830’s Anna Maria, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with the tradition of afternoon tea with food because she could not curb hunger pains between lunch and the late dinner. High tea, or low tea as it is sometimes called, consists of delicate finger sandwiches, scones with cream, decadent desserts and plenty of tea. This tradition is continued at English Tealeaves. One of the questions I am frequently asked at tea parties is should the cream (milk) go in the cup first or last? My normal answer is not at all, as although I am English, I never use milk or sugar. It is best to put the milk in last as you can gauge the amount of milk by the color of the liquor. Tradition is the opposite, as the milk was always put in first so that delicate porcelain cups would not break due to the heat.

Reading Jane Pettigrew’s “A Social History of Tea” gave me a new perspective on the importance of tea in Britain for the working class and during the two world wars. At the end of the 19th Century the farm workers & laborers drank beer with meals and to quench their thirst during hard work on hot days (not too many in Britain?). Bland Garland, a landowner, decided to stop supplying them beer and give them unlimited supplies of good tea. He found that his men worked much better and at the end of the day were less stupid and sullen and much more alert the next morning. All around the country the change to tea was followed and the tradition of tea breaks was adopted, with the famous mid morning “elevenses”. I can remember as an apprentice engineer with Dunlop in Coventry, the tea cart coming round with the milk and sugar already in the tea. That’s probably why I don’t use milk and sugar now and dissuade as many as possible to try the tea without milk first!

In World War 11 Winston Churchill acknowledged the importance of tea to the British people, and claimed that it was more important than ammunition. The historian A.A.Thompson wrote, “They talk about Hitler’s secret weapon, but what about England’s secret weapon, tea. That’s what keeps us going and that’s what going to carry us through.” Check out this “Tea making Tips” from 1941 on You Tube with the link below. Interesting, amusing, some have said the instructor would be good in a horror movie BUT you will learn some good points on brewing tea.

Tea Making tips from a 1941 video

So where did those teabags come from? As with many inventions it was a mistake, as in 1908 in New York a tea salesman began to send samples to his customers in small silk bags. They thought that the tea should be brewed in the bags and put them straight into their teapots, hence teabags. Now from recent numbers from the tea council, 65% of tea consumed in the USA is from teabags, and 85% in the UK. Iced tea was also a great opportunist story. John Blechyden was trying to promote hot Indian tea to visitors at the World Trade Fair in St Louis on a very hot and humid day in 1904. Blechyden was trying to convince Americans to buy Indian tea rather than teas from China. In desperation he brilliantly poured the hot tea over ice and invented iced tea. I think it is ironic that it was a Brit that is credited with the invention and yet customers always complain to me about difficulty in getting iced tea in England, but not the case at English Tealeaves, where we offer a choice of over 125 iced teas.

So where are we today – the tea industry (Camellia Sinensis tea) is a $5 billion industry in the USA, with the specialty tea side growing at rates of 10 to 15% per year, and tea bags declining. It’s difficult to get exact figures as it is for who drinks the most per capita. The Irish and British compete for the number one spot, followed some years by Kuwait. My thinking, however, is that the Chinese and Indians should be in the top two, but statistics are difficult to come by? America is nowhere near the top at the moment, but the popularity of tea is increasing dramatically, not just for health benefits but for the pure enjoyment of all the flavors that are offered. America will have some high quality tea plantations in the south in a few years. Rob

How do you explain the taste of tea?

It is difficult with anything you taste – to try and explain to someone else what your taste buds experience and we probably all differ on what we taste. Age is a big factor and we perhaps had experiences of our parents insisting we eat our sprouts that for youngsters with acute fresh taste buds found too overpowering.

With tea it is easy to explain that a flavored mango tea tastes like mango, but to describe say a first flush Darjeeling is far more difficult. Darjeelings according to many tea books have a muscatel flavor. I think I tasted muscatel wine many years ago but could not describe the taste in the Darjeeling!

So as a result of discussing this at many tea tastings I have come up with a list of around 40 words that may help you describe the tea. For most people it is easier to have the words to choose from in front of them to help register the tastes. When we had been open for around 12 months we had 2 male high school seniors who came in the Café 3 or 4 times a week and were the first to experience this concept. One word is bamboo that one of them took a liking to and subsequently everything had a bamboo taste. So be careful not to only link to a few words. Here is our word set so give it a try and let me know if it helps and let me have suggestions for words to add.

Sometimes you can’t really define the taste BUT you know you like and who cares if you friends don’t


Tea descriptive words
aftertaste honey like BASIC COLORS
aromatic light amber
astringent malty black
bamboo mellow emerald green
bitter mild pale green
bold nutty tan
burnt refreshing
complex rich LEAF
creamy ripe fruit rolled
crisp sea weedy flat
delicate sharp tippy
earthy smoky multi colored
fishy smooth
flowery sour COMMENTS
fresh strong changes in cup
grassy sweet multi flavors
hay like vegetal

Did the English really invent ICE TEA?

If you have ever tried to get iced tea in England this seems hard to believe, but it’s true. Richard Blechynden, an Englishman, was trying to sell Indian black tea at the World Trade’s Fair in St Louis in 1904. Americans were mainly buying green tea from China (still upset about the Boston Tea Party events no doubt?) and the Far East Tea Company exhibited their teas in a pavilion staffed by Indians and supervised by Blechynden, a tea plantation owner. If you have experienced a St Louis heat wave you would not be surprised that the hot tea’s thirst quenching properties were not appreciated and all the fair goers wanted was something cold. With a stroke of genius Blechynden poured the hot tea over ice and served the refreshment to grateful fair attendees. This is the generally accepted “invention” of iced tea BUT a recent article that I read from the Tea Association of the USA hints of an earlier date. In the January 4, 1880 issue of the magazine, “American Punch,” there is reference to “the cooling and invigorating influences of iced tea.” It inferred that this was from the Chicago area, so I am not sure when the high sugar iced tea of the South was invented? Does anyone know?

Iced tea represents 80% of the tea consumed in the USA and is brewed from powder (RTD “ready to drink” in the industry) all types of tea bags and loose leaf. Powder and bags are very convenient to use, but leaf tea is becoming more popular from an aromatic and flavor content. Once you have tried correctly brewed loose leaf tea, you will have a problem going back to supermarket bags or powders, even just a plain old black tea will amaze you? The best method for leaf tea brewing is to use a ice tea maker that has an infuser and a design for fitting in the refrigerator. Pour the boiling water over the leaves that will remain fully immersed during the infusion. I suggest you make a concentrate, using twice the normal strength, infuse for 3 to 6 minutes, depending on the tea, then remove the infuser and make up the volume with ice or cold water. Pour over ice and enjoy. I am not an advocate of the “sun tea method.” To liberate all the flavor in different teas, tisanes and herbal blends you need in most cases boiling water and it is always good to use boiling water from a health aspect.

Tisanes, which are a fruit infusion and were drunk by Inspector Hercule Poirot in the Agatha Christy mystery novels & have no caffeine are very refreshing on a hot day. Other favorites of the remaining 125 plus are Lemon Souffle, Tea on the Beach, Strawberry Green and the black tea favorite, Indochine. Tasting of tea mainly uses 3 senses ( we can increase this to 7 attributes when we taste tea before including in our range) Vision: which is the name or look of the tea, Smell: the aroma which for some is everything, and Taste: which is where you find out if the aroma is a reality and decide to drink the whole glass? From the names of our favorites you can see why they were tried, so find out for yourself if your nose is true to your taste buds?

Blending – what is Rasputin Black Tea

We have three main types of tea drinkers in our Café. Those that prefer plain teas, flavored teas, and caffeine free/decaffeinated teas. A few of the plain tea drinkers will crossover for an exceptional natural flavored tea.

A blend might be a combination of 2 to 4 teas to give a unique taste and strength, such as a Russian Caravan. There are two types of Russian Caravan, a fruity version and a smoky one. The blending of Keemum and Darjeeling is one of the fruity versions and with the addition of Lapsang Souchong you get the smoky one, which we blend in Parker and call Rasputin.

We thought that we could easily blend many different teas and found it was much harder than we envisaged. With Rasputin we were trying to get a smoky taste, without being so strong that the aroma was off putting before you experienced the taste. We succeeded!

A blend can also be of many different estates of the same tea to give a consistency of taste over many years, regardless of the current harvest. Good examples of this are Assam, Darjeeling, and black teas from Ceylon.

It could also be a blend of a tea, a sprayed on flavor, and the addition of a flavored fruit or herbal.

Lemon Grass Oolong is a greenish oolong that is sprayed with the oil of Bergamot, as used for an Earl Grey, and then blended with a lemon grass. This is a case where the lemon grass is really adding big time to the flavor, not as with the majority of the flavored teas, where the dried fruit, flowers are added to just “look nice”.  It is delicious hot or cold and can be infused at least twice.

If you are just looking for a hot or cold tasty drink, and don’t need the caffeine or tea flavor, consider a blend of dried fruit or herbs. They are now becoming more sophisticated, by combining over 10 different ingredients, with some great tastes. In some ways it is easier to create a good flavor without the tea, as you don’t have to balance the strong tea with the other flavors. That’s why the more subtle flavors use white, green or greenish oolong tea.

Jasmine tea is very popular, and there are many different qualities. Here the sweet smelling jasmine flowers are rolled with the tea, white, green or oolong to give a delicious tea. The number of times the tea is rolled with the jasmine is dependant on the quality, and varies from 3 to 10, after which the jasmine is removed. Jasmine Dragon Pearls generally consist of 3 young green shoots that are hand rolled, and open up as the tea is brewed. If you like jasmine tea, this is close to the ultimate, as the rolling seems to keep in the flavor and it is fascinating to watch the pearls uncurl into “dragons”! The pearls can be infused 3 to 4 times, and I prefer to “wash” the pearls with a 30 second infusion, pouring off the liquor, and then re-infusing for 3 minutes. Fantastic taste, aroma, and no bitter after taste. The other alternative, not so sweet, is Jasmine Silver Needles, which is a white tea base and my favorite Jasmine.

We offer 6 different Earl Greys, Organic (most popular), Royalty which has less bergamot, Lavender, Cream, Pu Erh and decaffeinated.  There are several stories that give the origins of this very popular tea. A British diplomat, according to one tale, saved the life of a very important Chinese Mandarin, and in return was given the recipe for the flavored tea. The diplomat was Earl Grey, who later became Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.

The black tea is flavored with the oil of bergamot, which is pressed out of the rind of the bergamot fruit, a pear shaped citrus fruit grown in the Mediterranean. The different tastes of Earl Grey teas can be explained by the different types and quality of the base teas, plus the way the oil reacts with different teas. Also if it is really natural bergamot oil or synthetic, and the amount added.If Earl Grey is in the top three blended teas, what is more popular?

The answer is English Breakfast, or on the East Coast, Irish Breakfast. This is a typically an equal blend of Assam, an Indian tea, and a Ceylon blend. An Irish Breakfast is renowned to be stronger, especially in caffeine, and the percentage of Assam, a very strong malty tea, is increased, to the extent that some Irish Breakfast is just a blend of Assam teas.

As the name suggests the tea is ideal to have with a real English Breakfast, where there is high grease content in the rich and hearty plate of bacon, sausage, fried eggs, fried bread, mushrooms and tomatoes. If you have stayed in a B & B (bed & breakfast) in the UK you will understand how this tea, which I rarely drink on its own, is perfect with the breakfast. Our #1 selling tea for the last 8 years is our own blend called English Tealeaves Breakfast and is a blend of Assam, Ceylon and Nilgiri (S. India).

There are so many blends to try and then there are straight teas that are so fantastic on their own they need no alterations BUT they vary from year to year, such as my favorite, Darjeeling 1st Flush.

Decaffeinated and Caffeine Free Teas


There is a growing number of our customers who require decaffeinated teas for health reasons or difficulty in sleeping. Although there are caffeine free herbal infusions, many “real” tea drinkers miss the fullness and taste profile of the tea in these blends. Herbal & Fruit blends have improved dramatically over the past few years, German blenders being in the forefront of these exciting offerings, and I have listed a few at the bottom that have a great taste that may be acceptable to the tea drinkers.
Good tasting decaffeinated teas are hard to fine as they are not high volume requirements and the decaffeinated teas lose some of the flavor when the caffeine is removed. I like to tell our customers that the caffeine molecules have made friends with some the flavor molecules and they carry them with them on removal. We buy from 4 blenders to get the best tasting teas and create one blend in the Cafe in Parker, the Lemon Green.
Not all the caffeine is removed in the decaffeination process, but only around 3% of the starting caffeine remains. As the average caffeine level for tea is 40mg per 5 oz cup, this only leaves a very small amount (<2 )
The majority of the teas in the USA are decaffeinated using the Carbon Dioxide process that uses a high pressure, super critical process that leaves no toxic residues. The removed caffeine goes to some medicines and of course “cola” drinks.

The popular notion that caffeine interferes with sleep is confirmed in numerous investigations. Even low caffeine doses (100mg) can decrease total sleep time, increase sleep latency and impair subjective evaluations of sleep quality. The large variation in sensitivity to these effects may be due in part to development of tolerance. Regular caffeine users appear to be significantly less sensitive than non caffeine users to the effects of caffeine on sleep. (The Tea Council of the USA)


Apple Almond Crisp, Fireside, Yoga Spice, Peach Apricot, Lemon Souffle, Gingersnap Cookie, After 7 and to help with sleeping, Good Night.

Brewing – Basic

Teeli Infuser 960Brewing “your” perfect cup of tea – easily!

Many people want to enjoy the tremendous flavors of loose leaf tea but are put off because they believe it is too difficult – it is easy if you have a little knowledge and follow a procedure. Let me explain:

To make “your” perfect cup of tea you will need a good quality loose leaf tea, a suitable cup, a basket infuser, a measuring spoon, a timer and a source of hot water.

Place the infuser in the cup (say 8 oz capacity) and add the tea (let’s use English Breakfast), around one and a half teaspoons, using a measuring spoon. Then add the boiling water to the top of the mug and set the timer for 4 minutes.

When the 4 minutes is up, remove the infuser and let it drip in its tray. Wait until it is the correct temperature for your mouth and drink. Easy!

Always initially use the times suggested on the pouch of tea that will vary from one minute for the fine green teas up to 12 minutes for the herbals.

What is great about tea brewing is that you can adjust to your “perfect” taste by following different methods:

You can add more leaves to weaken or strengthen the taste – the best way is to use as little as you need so the tea gives more cups per pouch.

Change the brewing time to shorten or lengthen the infused time to get a different flavor without going too long and making it bitter.

For fine leaf teas drop the brewing temperature by adding 10 to 15% cold water over the leaves before adding the hot water – removes any bitterness and gives a lighter smoother taste.

In some areas the water is pretty bad so use bottle water to overcome this problem.

I hope you agree it is fairly simple and you can brew larger quantities in teapots with infusers and just multiply the amount of tea according to the size.

FLAVORED TEAS – what you need to know

Flavored teas are a blend of a base tea – black, green, oolong or white together with herbs, fruits and flavoring. Some teas are just a base tea with a flavoring, like our Black Cherry. In addition enhancements are added to improve the visual appearance and entice you to buy, but do not really change the flavor.

More complex blends can have more than 15 ingredients with no flavoring or just a small amount to complete the final taste. Divine Temple is a good example with the following ingredients:

White & green tea (blend of 7 different types), jasmine, mango bits, pineapple bits, papaya bits, orange peels, strawberry bits, red currants, sour cherry bits, apricot bits and natural flavoring.

Earl Grey is a tea that originates in England and consists of a base tea, normally black, and an oil type flavor of bergamot (a citrus fruit) with a very characteristic strong aroma. Many blends rely on the flavoring to sell the product but use an inferior base tea giving an infusion that lacks total flavor and is bitter. I believe we have one of the best Earl Greys as it has a natural organic flavoring on a high graded organic Chinese black tea.

Pu Erh is a famous fermented (aged) blackish Oolong that many tea books list as a medicinal tea. The earthy vegetative aroma and taste put off many people from trying. With the addition of fairly strong herbs & flavoring it can be changed to a very drinkable tea and I refer to it as the morning after tea. If you have had some bad food or over indulged it really helps your stomach recover and we always take my favorite, Mint Vanilla, when travelling. It is so effective that many chemotherapy patients find it helps reduce sickness. We also offer a ginger version as well as a strawberry/mango (French Kiss).

SO when you consider buying a flavored tea, look at the ingredients to see if the blender has tried to come up with a really special assortment that may give you a new favorite tea.