"First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea...."

“…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. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”

Upton Tea’s latest catalog cover includes these fightin’ words by George Orwell. I’ve been thinking a lot about the British approach to tea, which is so different from other cultures; instead of searching for freshness, purity, and “terroir,” plus perhaps the talent of the “affineur” who has processed the leaf, the Brits go for a particular heft and mix of black teas, chosen I think for how quickly their flavors emerge from the leaf and go mano-a-mano with the milk. It almost seems to be a food item, completed with the proper biscuit (there’s even a website and book dedicated to helping you choose the right one: http://www.nicecupofteaandasitdown.com/ ) even more yin-yangily than a piece of bread alongside soup.

I wonder if there’s a special enzyme that Brits develop, or are born with, to metabolize their nice-cuppas in a way that changes their outlook as profoundly as Orwell has described. I’ve seen, in person and online, defenses by Britons of their national tea practice that ring with such fervor that I suspect some brain pathway has been carved that works a lot like addiction or certain extremes of religious feeling.

Your thoughts?

22 Replies

Probably a cultural thing. I’m Welsh but born in the US and prefer Chinese blacks. No milk. Think of it like how southerners in America prefer their sweet iced tea. It is just how you are raised.

Emilie said

Oh boy, when I moved to the south, I definitely had a few instances of ordering tea and ending up with what I consider sweet syrupy water, but everyone else chugs the stuff so those regional preferences are strong!

MzPriss said

I’ve lived down here my whole life and never drank sugar in my iced tea, even as a child – and it almost never comes sweetened and they usually ask “sweert or unsweet?”

Sweet or unsweet are the options we get here in Kentucky these days. I’m from Georgia tho. :)

I am half English and have southern (by way of growing up in Georgia) so I got both the love of intense sweet syrup (though when I made it for myself I wanted to taste the oomph of super strong tea along with an entire sugar field) and I drank a cup of hot strong black tea with cream and sugar every morning.

It was pretty much all I drank and all I knew, but as I got older and worked at a tea shop my tea horizon changed and I eventually got REALLY bored of Indian and Ceylon tea. Granted I later discovered high quality versions of them and grew to really like them again, but my heart was utterly stolen away by fuzzy Yunnan red teas.

So I think it is cultural…or maybe not since my mom (who was the southern half of the equation) loves the fuzzy Yunnan red teas as much as me…but neither of us live in the south anymore and my grandmother who does still loves Indian and Ceylon, and of course sweet tea. Maybe it has to do with just living in that region ;)

Emilie said

My parents are both from Mississippi and neither of them like tea at all, but their families both like sweet tea, so I think they’re just the weird ones. I actually happened to get into other teas right around the same time I moved to the south, so I was exposed to both sweet tea and loose leaf teas at the same time

Yes, a cultural thing. People generally like what they grew up with. It’s ‘normal’ and comforting.

And if you really want a food war, just start discussing Northern vs Southern cornbread….

Hahaha cornbread wars! Nope, won’t go there but I like both. :)

Emilie said

Oh boy. Living in the North with Southern parents, that was a very common topic when going out to restaurants!

Login or sign up to post a message.

Wow, those ARE fightin’ words! :-P

I should add that Upton does NOT agree with Orwell’s opinion!

I figured they didn’t, since I’m pretty sure they sell Chinese blacks. Haha :)

Login or sign up to post a message.

Uniquity said

Get outta town, George Orwell! Economical, hah! He’s right though, I CAN drink it without milk. In fact, I always drink it without milk. That’s the way I love it. I wonder what the teas tasted like when he was drinking them. Maybe they were totally different than they are now. Now I have to add a cuppa in every locations/time to my TARDIS dream trips.

So Orwell lived from 1903 to 1950, and was born in India. Apparently he left when he was one, but maybe spending his formative years with Indian tea made a difference. Though, the ex-pat brits I know do all prefer strong Indian or ceylon tea with milk. Or coffee. :P

http://www.booksatoz.com/witsend/tea/orwell.htm (The full essay, apparently)

I would so be ok with using a TARDIS as an epic tea tasting adventure!!

Login or sign up to post a message.

AllanK said

I think more English tea now comes from Kenya since they lost their colony in India anyway. Didn’t the owners of Indian tea plantations set up shop their after the colonial period in India ended?

Nicole said

I just finished a book (fictional but with some historical research, author was Indian) that was set in the Assam region at the beginning of the end of the British Raj when the Brits were losing hold of India. The Brits had started to employ Indians as managers on some plantations by then, but they were few and far between, and generally always educated in England. After the uprisings, Indians did indeed take over the plantations.

That sounds fascinating. What is the book called?

Nicole said

Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel. It’s more heavily about the themes of the changing roles of Indian women in the late 1940s in India. It’s probably considered a romance but it’s not a squishy one if that makes sense. :) It’s also highly romanticized in the portrayal of the coolies who picked the tea. It’s told very much from the viewpoint of the tea planation managers. So, read as it is, an enjoyable fictional story, and verify anything else with independent research. :)

Login or sign up to post a message.

K S said

Growing up, if mom made the tea, it was with no additions and strong enough to peal paint. If my oldest brother made it, the tea was syrup water that he barely passed the bag over top of. Culture war in my home! Mom’s tasted like coffee back then, and my brother’s hurt my kidneys (not really). I didn’t like tea until I bought my own first can of constant comment. Now I prefer the fuzzy red Yunnan or Fujian. I never want milk but then no one in the house ever drank it with milk.

The restaurants always ask sweet or unsweet.

Login or sign up to post a message.

Sam said

He probably just never had proper chinese tea. I totally disagree that there is a biochemical basis for some more “stimulating” property in Indian tea.

Login or sign up to post a message.

What great responses! Very interesting and imagination-spurring. Thanks everyone.

Login or sign up to post a message.

I’m just glad someone else likes to read Upton’s catalogue each quarter. I get unreasonably excited at each new episode.

Login or sign up to post a message.

Login or sign up to leave a comment.