A Nice Cup of Tea

by frankbeswick

England's favourite drink comes in several kinds,according to the blend and place of origin.

Tea is any drink brewed from leaves and/or their buds, but in English we often use the word to denote char, the name by which the drink is still sometimes known. This is the drink brewed from the leaves of Camelia sinensis, a shrub which originated in China. Many people just drink tea undiscerningly, not aware that there are different kinds, but tea is like wine in that there are different teas from different regions, and there are different ways of preparing the leaves. In this article I will explain the various kinds.

Image courtesy of Monicore, of Pixabay

Types of Tea

The simplest kind of tea is white tea, which the Chinese call yellow tea, though despite its simplicity it is a gourmet taste, full of flavour. It is made from the leaves or buds of Camelia, but they are barely processed, just allowed to dry out naturally in the sun. White tea is not the tea most commonly drunk, for the barely processed leaves need to be used quickly before they lose flavour.

Green tea, which I drunk this morning, is processed a little more than white tea is, and so it stores longer. I bought myself a small box of tea bags to drink because of its health benefits. It is full of anti-oxidants known  as flavenoids that are claimed to benefit health by attacking dangerous free radicals. Like white tea it does not keep for a long time, so it must be drunk within a year of being bought. Like white tea it is often taken without milk, which is the way in which tea is taken in continental Europe. British are lovers of tea taken with milk, but a word to be heeded here! Unlike coffee tea does not taste good with cream. I like mine with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. Another tip for you is whatever tea you take, ensure that the water is boiling when you pour it on the leaves, as this gives you the best flavour.

[Here the writer pauses to brew a mug of green tea.Well,  he is British, isn't he!]

A traditional Chinese tea that lies between green and black tea is oolong. While green tea has undergone oxidation in processing oolong has undergone semi-oxidation.The leaves are not shredded, but can be rolled into small balls or rolls. Like white tea it was not meant to be stored for long, so it is a gourmet taste for Europeans and Americans. There is a large range of oolongs depending on the area from which they come.

The commonest tea is black tea, which stores well because it is well-dried. It will keep for years. Most of the common blends sold in the UK and Europe are black teas. This tea is commonly taken with milk, though some take it black [milkless.]  Tastes vary, some like it strong, and to get the tea this way leave it to brew in the pot or cup for a couple of minutes. Some people press the teabag with a spoon to release flavour. However, tea kept too long "stews" in the pot and is not pleasant.  Some drinkers like tea sweet, and two spoonfuls of sugar per mug is about all that you need, though I prefer mine unsweetened.

A point to be noted, redbush, known as rooibos, is a tea, but it is not char. It is a caffeine free leaf from the South African shrub Aspalanthus linearis. It is a drink popular with people concerned about their caffeine intake, though you can also get decaffeinated tea. 




Various Areas and Types

In the last few days I have drunk teas from Darjeeling and Assam, which are in India. But tea plants are grown in several countries.Much tea drunk in Britain comes from East Africa, and there is a strong tea growing tradition in Sri Lanka, whose teas are known as Ceylon tea. In fact, a Sri Lankan in-law of mine gave me a tea book, a metal book-shaped box which contained a bag of tea. The box itself is Russian. 

Teas can be like wines, they are from specific areas. Assam tea is a variety of tea called scientifically Camelia sinensis var. assamensis, which distinguishes it from the Chinese variety Camelia sinensis var.sinensis. Assam has its own distinct taste, for while it tastes like other teas there is a stronger flavour on the back of the palate than I have found with other teas.Darjeeling has a gentle flavour to it. Estate Darjeeling is a tea made solely from bushes grown on the Moneviot estate, so it is a single origin tea. This is mainly taken by gourmet tea drinkers.Ceylon tea seems to me to be not so strong and to be quite gentle.

But teas that you buy are often carefully prepared blends put together by tea experts. One specialist blend is Lakeland tea, blended to make the most of the soft water of the English Lake District, Cumbria. This is a tea that is sometimes sold to tourists in Cumbrian cafes. The blend is substantially based on Ceylon tea.So blends can be linked to specific areas. One such blend is Yorkshire. England's largest county, Yorkshire, has always been proud of its reputation for the no-nonsense character  of its inhabitants, and this has meant that they claim to like their tea strong, getting the best value from their purchase as it were, so Yorkshire tea is a strong variety. Those are the only two teas linked to specific areas of England. But there are blends linked to breakfast, as many English people like to commence their day with tea. I am like this, I never drink coffee in the morning! So we find teas called English Breakfast and Strong English Breakfast.

A glorious tea,one of my favourites, is Earl Grey. This is a light, black tea derived from a Chinese tea known to Westerners as Keemun, which has a slightly fruity flavour and aroma to it. Earl Grey is flavoured with the oil of the herb bergamot, which gives it a distinct flavour. It was designed to be taken without milk, but milk can be added if desired. Lady Grey  is a tea with less bergamot than Earl Grey, but with finely shredded lemon and orange peel added.

Matcha is a very finely shredded green tea used in Asia, but it sometimes has coconut or other flavourings included.

Tea book
Tea book

Social Contexts

We British have no tea rituals similar to what they have in Japan, but tea has a social role. When someone has suffered something that makes them unhappy, e.g. bereavement, it is customary to offer them tea. Tea contains not only caffeine, but theanine, which is known to have a calming effect on the human system.Some people like a cup of tea before they go to bed, though I do not. 

Afternoon tea is the nearest that we get to a ritual. Not long ago Maureen got a voucher, a birthday present, if I recall rightly, which entitled her and one other to afternoon tea at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, so the two of us went. The "tea" was a light meal,composed of  fancy cakes, three each, and small sandwiches, again three apiece. We commenced with prosecco and then moved on to a drink of tea served in fine china. This was a delightful occasion, a nice little luxury.  I suppose that the aristocracy have their own rituals for tea, but I have only met two aristocrats, so I cannot speak from experience here. 

But tea is a major part of the British way of life that it has come to define the British. Some years ago I tutored a Hungarian girl in English. She found me amusingly British, for when she offered me a drink, whatever the weather, and it  was summertime, I would always opt for tea. "You are very British!" she would say with a hint of amusement in her voice. She was, of course, correct.

Updated: 05/05/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/26/2022

Chai is associated with black tea, though the English term char denotes white and black, as well as green tea.

We don't take much spiced tea in our family, though in my household mint tea is drunk, and I am a fan of ginger. We don't work in quantities, but measure in cupsful and mugsful.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/26/2022

Revisiting your wizzley brings to a mind a current dilemma about tea-drinking.

I'm considering a homemade version of the Starbucks chai latte with a shot of espresso. Starbucks employs Tazo chai concentrate, which most internet sources call black tea but some say green, with cinnamon, cloves and unspecified "other" spices.

Is chai more associated with black tea than with green, or vice versa? Or is it individual preference? Or is it something else?

What spices would east-ponders generally, and you and your family and Veronica and hers specifically, put in milk boiled with chai and charged-up with a shot of espresso?

Also, what liquid measurement -- west-pond ounces = east-pond milliliters? -- would you consider a shot-full?

frankbeswick on 04/02/2022

They are made with two slices. Otherwise, there are no rules as to types of bread or whether the crusts [bread edges] are removed.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/02/2022

Thank you!

Are cucumber sandwiches made of cucumbers either atop one bread slice or between two bread slices? If so, what kind of bread do you use, and is what some call crust and others call bread edges or ends or sides removed?

frankbeswick on 04/02/2022

Tea is often served alone, though often hosts offer guests tea and biscuits.

I don't think that there is any standard practice for cucumber sandwiches. But cucumber is often served with salad vegetables, such as lettuce, and also with cheese, which is a dry foodstuff that counters any wetness.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/01/2022

Revisiting your article caused me to think about what tea is served with, on this side of the pond and on yours. So I have two more questions to ask of you.

One, is tea ever served alone on the northeast side of the Atlantic pond? And two, what keeps cucumber sandwiches from getting kind of moist or even soggy -- ick! -- from contact with a vegetable that may not be oozing with water content but that definitely has it?

frankbeswick on 03/25/2022

Tetley's was what I drank. It is a very popular brand.

As for culture, I cannot give a definite answer to your question. Seventy million people, spread between several nations cannot be definitively classified as having a common cultural core. Scots make a big deal of Scottishness, e.g kilts and all, but some in Scotland don't. Nationalists in general emphasise their unique cultural elements, but not everyone in the minority nations plays the nationalist game. You would never see me wearing a union jack waistcoat or ostentatiously flying the national flag. And I, like Veronica, am a republican, though I am not as fiercely republican as she is [I am not referring to the American Republican party or to Irish republicanism.]

DerdriuMarriner on 03/25/2022

Thank you!

It's interesting that the United Kingdomers respect tradition and yet will incorporate something else -- such as chai/char -- into that tradition. Scholars mention Indonesian society as syncretistic, in that there's a core to which other cultural beliefs and traditions may, or may not, be added.

Would syncretism be a description of United Kingdom society in general or of Cornish, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh societies in particular?

(What kind of tea would you happen to have had during the below-mentioned tea break?)

frankbeswick on 03/24/2022

It depends on what you mean by tea. Tea in the broad sense denotes any beverage made by pouring hot water onto leaves, so in this sense we had tea before we experienced Indian culture: rosebay willow herb tea was popular, herbal teas were drunk. But when we came into contact with India we were introduced to chai [char] which became so popular that it came to be called tea.

Yorkshire tea and Cumbrian tea, etc, are blends of teas from various tea-growing regions, each of which has its own varieties of Camelia sinensis and its own terroire and climate, and therefore its distinct flavour.

Now, as I finish this comment I am pausing to go and get guess what, another cup of tea. Well, I am British!

DerdriuMarriner on 03/22/2022

Re-reading this wizzley called to mind what I'd meant to ask you before.

Some internet or written source led me to think that your side of the pond did not have tea before your experiences with Indian culture. But you mention Cumbrian and Yorkshire teas. Would those teas have an old pedigree on them, or would they be a consequence of, or reaction to, tea being introduced from India?

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