Britain’s relationship with tea has everything to do with the British empire. The demand for tea made the empire happen. Without the demand for tea, I don’t think it would have gotten as big as it did.* Morning is one part of the ritual as the traditional cuppa breakfast tea is drunk first thing, usually prepared with black loose tea. The ritual of tea continues into the afternoon tea. High tea derived its name from tea set on high tables for maids, cooks, and butlers of the big houses where they had a cup of tea and snacks at around 4 p.m., standing around a high table because there was no time to sit down. Low tea was the name for the tea service presented upstairs to the estate owners at low tables, and among finery.
The tea set and food make up a big part of the British tea ceremony. Upstairs you would find silver or porcelain tea sets, whereas downstairs you would find brown betty teapots. In a British tea service the cups have handles, saucers, and are typically part of a matching set with a pitcher for cream and a server for sugar. Whereas Japan and China use plain cups in their tea rituals, the British love flourish whether that includes floral prints or gold rimmed cups. The teapots used in Great Britain are quite large at 24 – 36 ounces in size and involve a tea strainer set over the tea cup to strain out the tea leaves in the pot. The British diet is heavy and dairy-based, so tea is served with milk and sugar. Scones, clotted cream, jam, crumpets, and finger sandwiches make up an array of afternoon tea foods, which is really a meal. I think this is still true that at 4 p.m. the country comes to a halt for a national teatime.
British tea leans toward black tea all the way, typically teas from India, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Their appreciation for strong tea runs deep. This includes brewing the tea strong by adding a lot of tea to the pot and also selecting dark-liquoring, pungent teas.
Setting up tea programs for our four and five star hotel clients with our distributor in Great Britain, VP of Hospitality, Joane Filler-Varty, adds: “Simpler teas are desired with an emphasis on black teas, a few green teas are added for the health conscious and a few herbal infusions too. Great variation exists between contemporary and traditional set-up, but the British tend to be traditional and the type of teaware used tends to be more formal. Some higher end hotels use loose tea for room service, while others use whole leaf tea pouches for in-room dining.”
While the British tea ritual might be vastly different than the Chinese tea ceremony or the Japanese tea ceremony, there are nuances that articulate how particular details come together in this tea practice that is passed down. Details exist specific to the British tea service such as “backing the pot.” This refers to pulling the teapot back prior to serving guests tea as a way to circulate the liquid before serving it.
*For more on this, check out the book, For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose.
When the average American thinks of chai, I would venture to say what they envision is what you can purchase at coffee shops or cafes and is expected to be a pretty milky, sweet, and spicy black tea concoction made at the espresso machine with steaming milk.
Now, if you walk into a restaurant in India and ask for chai they will bring you a cup of unsweetened tea. You have to ask for masala chai (masala means a mixture of spices)– we think of chai and mean masala chai. No self-respecting tea seller in India would sell you tea already mixed with spices. They expect you to add the spices at home. Each street vendor in India prides his or herself on their special blend of spices. The term, Masala got dropped as chai came to the U.S.
Indians didn’t grow tea until the British brought it over from China. The Hindi word for tea, chai, is derived from the Northern Chinese term, cha. In Southern China, the word for tea is te (it’s a different pronunciation of the same characters). So, it stands to reason that countries exposed to the Northern half of China reinterpreted the word for tea that way. Other countries use derivations of cha too, like Russian tchai.
Indian Masala Chai literally means ”spiced tea” and reflects how Indian food combines multiple spices and even some dairy for a satisfying flavor. This isn’t the case in China, where the food is not focused on dairy or sweets. The tea reflects the cuisine. In Turkey, milk is not used to make chai, instead, sugar is used and a lot of times they will add fresh ginger and orange peel.
I recall how the Beatles made traveling to India cool in the late 1960’s—perhaps we can thank them for chai’s introduction in the U.S.? So many young Americans went to India and tried chai but couldn’t find it back home in America. In 1981 I first heard of chai while I was a student at UC Santa Cruz. I have sipped chai from street vendors a few times during visits to India over the years. When I travel, I love to drink the local tea.
I remember a chai stall on the road—a 6×6-foot shack with a big aluminum pot that looked 100 years old, boiling 10 gallons of a concoction of tea, sugar, spices, and local unpasteurized milk. When you order chai in India, it’s typically served in 4-6 ounces. The idea is you drink a little bit and then come back later in the day. Their version of recycled cups is pretty interesting because they give you a cup made of clay from a stack. It doesn’t take long to drink the chai and when you’re done, you throw the cup in the road and shatter it. The remnants of your cup turn into dust in a few days. I’m convinced kilns all over India crank out these disposable cups.
If you think of it, the way chai is made in the U.S. now, it has become an American drink, prepared with steamed milk and perhaps foam—we love our foam in the U.S. In India, you boil milk on the stove. You can find Masala Chai as we know it in Europe and other countries. I think the two places where Masala Chai is popular are the United States and India.
We carry several chai offerings at Mighty Leaf Tea because this style of tea is a category unto itself. If I had to come up with 20 tasting chai blends, I could probably do it. You can have so many variations, even with the same chai blends. You can brew chai with 100% milk or 25% milk to water ratio. You can add tons of sugar or no sugar. When looking for chai, consider the spice blend. Which spices and how much of each are used in chai? While turmeric plays an active role in Indian cuisine, it’s not typically used to spice chai. Basil is not used in chai either. Chai will have cinnamon, ginger and cardamom. Maybe there’s some sort of heat—black pepper? You might see clove in a chai blend. A lot of American chai blends use vanilla—you’d never see that in India. Some blends use star anise. Our version of Masala Chai is a Kolkata-style chai with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, and clove. Our Bombay Chai, on the other hand is comprised of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and star anise. The difference between the two blends is noticeable.
The tea itself plays an important role. Most Indian black tea is strong and black and for a good masala chai, you need an assertive tea—small leaf teas give a lot of color and flavor. When we are blending and sourcing tea for chai, we are looking for strong teas. Our Masala Chai uses Assam tea—my favorite origin for milk teas and also has some Nilgiri black tea in the blend. Bombay Chai uses tea from similar regions but overall offers a lighter tea character indicative of South India. Some chai blends use Chinese black tea for its smooth quality. Others might use a straightforward-bodied African tea. There are even some chai blends made from green tea that follows a lesser-known tradition in Northern India with cinnamon, cardamom, and almonds. Kolkata-style chai tends to use local teas (typically Assam and a few others) and the spices tend to be heavier on cardamom, with less pepper for a more sweet, not quite as zesty-hot drink.
Chai has a really broad taste range. Whatever people are exposed to early on will impact what they think of tea. If you ask an average person in China if they drink tea, they will say yes, and probably refer to Chinese green tea. With a masala chai, most people will think of the flavor profile they were exposed to the first time. I would encourage you to embrace the nuances of each blend of chai rather than trying to discover “true chai.” True chai can be whatever you enjoy, so open up your mind. Each chai is an expression of the person who created it, whether it’s being served up at a stall in Kolkata or from a company in the U.S. Every chai recipe has a history to be enjoyed for what it is.
My family is not terribly traditional or ceremonial when it comes to the holidays. While we indulge in spiked eggnog at Christmas, tea always makes an appearance at each holiday. Here are several ideas to create your own tea tradition.
Welcome Guests with a Cup of Tea
Before the big meal at Thanksgiving, make a pot of tea that you can share as guests begin arriving. Greeting friends and family with a cup of tea sets the pace for the evening ahead. I like to serve either a simple, chocolatey smooth Yunnan or an Oolong with lots of character.
Drinks with Desserts
Hot tea definitely makes the rounds with dessert. We usually use a collection of tea bags, knowing who likes what. My sister, for instance, loves Organic Earl Grey and how its citrus flavor pairs well with sweets.
Blend Your Own Tea
I started a tradition a few years ago of bringing tea to our gatherings to make for my family. Since my mom can’t have caffeine and my sister’s kids like to make tea with me, I start with a decaf black tea. Then I like to lay out ingredients like cinnamon sticks, dried mint leaves, or orange peels for the kids to make their own blend of tea. This practice became so popular this last year, I was about to leave their home when I heard my niece call out from the front room, “Auntie, you can’t leave yet; we haven’t had tea!”
Craft a Tea Cocktail
Recently, I was playing around with our tea pouches and thinking about which liqueurs would pair best. Winter Solstice or Vanilla Bean would make wonderful hot cocktails with brandy and little honey or sugar to sweeten it. Ginger Twist would be a great option to pair with vodka, tonic, and a splash of simple syrup for Thanksgiving with its warming flavor of ginger.
Make a Seasonal Mocktail
Thanksgiving is more of a fall holiday so stick with warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. At Christmas time, peppermint and cinnamon pair well with rich flavors. New Year’s Eve can go in many directions. Wild Berry Hibiscus lends flavor profiles to the fall with its full, rich flavor. For a mocktail for adults and children, pair Wild Berry Hibiscus with sparkling apple juice to serve chilled.
As we enter the holiday season, we enter a time of gathering together. With holiday parties, come holiday menu planning and tea can factor into the festivities.
There used to be a time where if you served tea, you would make a big pot and pour it into small cups for guests. Now, people customize. Some people want black, others prefer green, or herbal. I typically don’t serve loose tea to guests unless I’m brewing it and then only if there is a small group because how many teapots can you have? Brewing loose tea is easy. But, tea bags are easier for large parties. Here are some suggestions to pick the right teas for any sized party.
For Small Groups
Serve One Shared Pot of Tea
When I have a small group over of six people or less, I still like to make a big pot that we can share—it’s nice to drink the same tea at the same time because it’s communal and brings people together, bridging their experiences into the greater experience. I try to pick a tea that’s crowd-pleasing, most often a plain black tea like Organic Breakfast. You can offer milk and sugar too. Chinese and Ceylon black teas also would make good options—they don’t change as easily over time after having been brewed. Yunnan black tea brews a sweet, rich tea that can be drunk in a number of ways. Ceylon Kenilworth tends to go with anything and can be served with milk, sugar, paired with dessert, or sipped on its own—it’s even Steven, not super showy, but dependable that way. Oolong teas are really nice to accompany food, so long as the food isn’t very spicy. Oolongs are fragrant, mellow and interesting to look at, but because of the leaf size are generally not found in tea bags. For a white tea selection, White Peony is very drinkable too. It’s easy to brew that is a bit rounder with more body. I reserve Pu Erh for more of the adventurers and for those in the know. Some teas don’t airpot well—meaning if you make a large batch of it at once it won’t keep. That can be an issue when you’re making tea. You have to make it ahead of time if you’re making a big pot, otherwise you’re stuck in the kitchen instead of socializing.
For Large Groups
Offer Tea Pouches
When I have more than six people, I don’t make a big pot of tea. Instead, I will boil water and pour it into an airpot (a large insulated dispenser that keeps water hot). I like to pull out a variety of mugs along with a variety of tea pouches so people can choose their own tea. I’ve learned not to ask people what tea they want because they might ask for a tea I don’t have. Also, because people know what I do for a living, if I ask, they might get worried they’re not picking the right tea. More often than not, the question I ask is do you want caffeinated or non-caffeinated?
Brew Three Types of Tea
Something that can be fun to do with large groups is to keep three pots of tea going of different tea types. One pot would be black tea-based. Another would be filled with green tea. And, the third would be caffeine-free rooibos-based. For the herbal infusion, I try not to serve mint or licorice because they’re divisive flavors with permeating aromas—half the people might like them and half the people might not. Rooibos is more of a crowd pleaser that even black tea drinkers will sometimes choose.
Pair Teas with Desserts
If I was throwing a large party with a wide array of desserts, it would be fun to match up teas with desserts. Stick with tea pouches and select six or seven types to pair with the desserts. You could provide tasting notes. “Try one of these two teas to pair with the chocolate mousse.” This easily elevates the experience with thoughtful flavor recommendations. When selecting the teas to pair with dessert, get the flavor in line or in contrast. Teas that are complementary flavor profiles for dessert include Earl Grey, Chinese black tea, and rooibos that go with chocolate. Another complementary pairing would selecting an herbal infusion with lemongrass or lemon myrtle to pair with lemon meringue pie. For a contrasting duo, pair a really sweet dessert with a brisk, robust black tea to cut through the cream—you would want a tea that is more astringent with a stronger taste. Watch out for sour tastes—don’t pick two sours to pair together such as lemon meringue with rosehips. Orange Dulce or Bombay Chai trend toward a sweet idea anyway.
Scour a store for tea and you will probably find that the prices for the teas offered can vary wildly. The best comparison for this kind of variance can be found in the world of wine, where a bottle of two buck Chuck can be procured as well as bottles that run in the range of several thousand dollars. Caviar is expensive. Fish sticks are cheap. Let’s explore expensive whole leaf tea to consider the cost.
To start off, expensive teas equate to better tea. But that’s also like saying a Rembrandt painting is better than a Japanese wood block. The flavor characteristics and quality of one kind of tea- say a first flush Indian Darjeeling black tea differ dramatically from that of a Japanese Gyokuro green tea. The attributes and what is highly desired in one fluctuates from the other. This also leaves room for the matter of personal taste. That question of quality and cost comes fully into view though when the origin is consistent. Pair a first pick Darjeeling to be tasted alongside one that is subpar. What you would find is that you can pick up that one is better from the other. A low quality tea is bitter, harsh, looks ugly, and has no aroma or sweetness. When you come across a high quality tea, it can surprise you with its interesting flavor, aroma, sweetness, and color.
In mulling the cost of expensive tea, Darjeeling black tea provides a good foundation from which to illustrate the idea. You can look at tea books from the 1920’s that mention Darjeeling. It has developed a reputation as the “champagne” of the tea world. Darjeeling black tea is three percent of India’s total tea output. First flush Darjeeling is produced only once a year and is prized as the first growth with unique character. Why is it expensive—because it’s rare. A lot of work goes into making a tea at that level versus a tea that is sold at $1 per pound. Let’s say there are 10 estates out of 72 which produce top grade first flush Darjeeling. We receive samples from the 10 that we taste to winnow the pool down to three, finally ordering our top selection. Darjeeling lots are very small (about 100 to 200 pounds), which might sound like a lot of tea. One hundred pounds equates to 400 4-ounce tins of loose tea. You could argue that the first flush Darjeeling selected is the best in the world and only 400 people get to drink it.
Down the road from the estate where we have bought that exquisite first flush Darjeeling, perhaps there is a factory where tea leaves plucked with hand shears are processed in a CTC machine to produce a strong cup of tea at a low price of $1 per pound. Where the first flush facility is wary of damaging the bush, the factory aims to pull as many leaves as possible that accounts for a disparity of 2 pounds plucked at the first flush estate versus 20 pounds plucked at the factory. First flush Darjeeling is weather specific: knowing when to pluck the leaves is contingent on climate. It can’t rain too much. It can’t be dry. It can’t hail. The leaves have to be plucked in the morning before it gets too hot, which in the spring yields smaller leaves because it’s cold. Tea estate managers know the first flush leaves can go for a good price, but there are eight or nine things that can go wrong and mess up the batch, making it drop to a lower grade tea. So much skill is involved in ensuring the natural changes in the leaves are manipulated well. This also speaks to why some estates consistently produce better teas; it’s like dining at a restaurant where you enjoy the steak. So much of that enjoyment stems from the skill of the chef.
Now, think about the cost of tea offerings at a store by the cup. Let’s say you walk into a market and see a box of 100 tea bags that costs $6. Each cup of tea costs six cents per serving. That’s amazing. When you taste a cup of the tea, it’s not horrible, but it’s ordinary. Perhaps instead you eye a 4-ounce tin of first flush Darjeeling loose tea for $24.50. Each cup of the champagne of tea will cost you 61 cents. You can’t even get a glass of wine for that price. Tea is one of the last great food deals anywhere. The math is compelling and if you consider the per cup cost, you can drink the best tea in the world for not very much. Life is too short to drink six-cent cups of tea. So, go ahead and treat yourself.
During my time as a barista, I made countless lattes. Traditionally a latte starts with a perfectly pulled shot of espresso and 8 ounces of freshly steamed milk poured on top, leaving ¼ inch room for foam with the consistency of “melted ice cream” to top it off. Tea lattes were a bit of a red-headed stepchild back then and I’m excited to see they are now being given the attention they deserve.
With the variety of tea flavors available, tea lattes inherently provide a wider range of flavor profiles than coffee. Chai lattes are the most popular of the tea lattes, with matcha quickly gaining in interest. I’ve only recently learned of the London Fog latte which is made with Earl Grey tea and vanilla. Our own Orange Dulce makes a tasty London Fog alternative as it’s a black tea that is already blended with bergamot and vanilla. You can steep black tea, green tea, or herbal tisanes to be used in a latte. I love playing with different pouches and loose leaves to see how they do. We have many teas that steep well for this purpose. I’ve found that our Vanilla Bean black tea works especially well, as does African Nectar—each offers its own sweetness that is enhanced with steamed milk.
Along with tea, milk is an essential ingredient in a tea latte. Whole milk typically gives the best balance in flavor and the fat content results in a glossy micro-bubble foam that is thicker and creamier. Some customers would come into the coffee shop believing that nonfat milk would produce the best foam, though I’ve never found that to be the case. When I’m making a chai latte for myself I prefer to use soy milk because cows milk doesn’t carry the spice notes as well. Soy milk also has a slight sweetness that balances well with the spices. I have a good friend, however, who adores her matcha latte made with coconut milk and unsweetened. Tea lattes are great regardless of the type of milk you use and you should select your milk based on your personal preference.
Thick foam is best achieved with the aeration and pressure of a good espresso machine. Since most of us cannot afford to invest as much as a café on such a machine we are lucky to have more attainable options. My Dad, however, loves to recount how my Mom was able to achieve the perfect foam while camping. She heated the milk over the campfire in a saucepan and using a fork whisked the milk into a frothy frenzy. So I’m a firm believer that where there’s a will there’s a way. For something completely different you can blend cold milk and matcha on high in a blender for 10 seconds and pour over ice for a great foamy iced matcha latte. It’s important to remember that even in coffeehouses it takes trial and error, and a little practice to make a good latte.
So, now, you try it: Select your tea pouch. Based on the type of tea, steep 1 pouch (or 1 teaspoon loose leaf) in 6 ounces of water at the specified temperature and for the allotted steeping time. (Black teas steep for 3-5 minutes at 212°F. Green teas steep for 2-3 minutes at 170-180°F. Herbal infusions brew for 5-7 minutes at 212°F). Remove the tea and top it off with 6 ounces of steamed milk. If you are successful at making foam, spoon it on top of the latte. Enjoy!
Tasting teas calls to mind a shift in mindset. There is a difference between sitting down and enjoying a cup of tea compared to tasting tea. To taste tea is to evaluate it critically. At work, I taste teas everyday whether sampling teas that are newly produced and blended or ingredients we’ve purchased to see how they taste as they’re aging. As I’m tasting, I’m judging whatever tea I’m sampling against my recollection of my gold standard, the best version of that tea I’ve tried. After 30 years of tasting teas, I’ve developed a flavor bank upon which I can compare teas. If you’re a tea drinker and want to conduct your own tastings at home, there are several things you will want to consider as you get started.
First, treat every tea exactly the same. To conduct a tea tasting at home of say, seven Earl Grey black teas, use seven identical cups so you will have the same thickness of ceramic, color, etc. Then, display the tea leaves in front of each cup if using loose tea, or if using tea bags, cut them open to display the leaves inside—this allows you to see the leaf cut size (whole leaves / broken / fannings / CTC / other ingredients) and begin comparing them. Brew each tea correctly using the same water, temperature and length of time. These consistencies cup-to-cup allow the differences in the teas themselves come through.
Next, balance between keeping an open mind and thinking critically about each cup of tea. It can be easy to select your favorite from the bunch, but just as important is to consider the choices each tea blender made in composing each blend. Using Earl Grey black tea as an example, the Russian-style is pungent with bergamot. The British-style, to my palate can taste medicinal.The Persian-style of Earl Grey tastes lighter, cleaner and more delicate—you don’t know it’s Earl Grey until you stop and think about it. The American-style tends to be light and more citrusy. When tasting teas at home with an open mind, questions might arise as to why these differences exist. Elements to consider include what culture the tea blend is coming from. Is it from a new tea brand or an old one? It might also trigger questions about what flavor profiles and aspects of flavor are most appealing in different cultures.
While learning how to taste tea years ago with my mentor, Jim Reynolds, he taught me a valuable lesson. Aside from qualifying if I liked a tea or not, he challenged me to ask of the tea we sampled, “is it a good representation of what this tea is supposed to be?” Tea is like wine. A California Chardonnay will taste different from a French Chardonnay.
When tasting teas, pay attention to the taste and the after-taste. Some teas can start out sharp and mellow over time in your mouth to something sweet and pleasant. Other times a sharp tea might stay sharp to the end. I also like to think about the long after-taste that happens 10-15 minutes after tasting a tea. What lingers on and does it make your mouth feel better? As you taste, it’s important to focus on the cup in front of you and not the last or next cup.
In the office, we conduct our tea tastings quietly. We don’t talk until everyone has a chance to taste. Part of the fascination in tasting teas is the associations that can leap into your mind as you taste tea. Tea flavors can be subtle and those associations are fleeting. Tasting tea might transport you to the living room of your grandmother’s house with memories of being eight years-old. Maybe you haven’t thought about your grandmother in weeks but the aroma or flavor takes you back. Our sense of smell is connected to our memories and it’s no accident. Every aroma and taste is composed of chemical compounds. Maybe it’s the lavender ingredient that brought you suddenly back to grandma’s house? I call that the surprise in the cup. You never know when the associations will happen. So as you set out to start tasting teas at home, prepare yourself for fun. You never know where tasting teas will take you.
By 10:30 a.m. every morning I’ve tried at least 10 teas. That puts the morning cup of tea in perspective, doesn’t it? But as the VP of Tea at Mighty Leaf, my days are packed with whole leaf tea. More than anything I’m diligent about tasting tea, lots of samples so as an example, when differences arise in say a black tea tasting, I’m able to stop and ask, “what’s different about this tea?” Tasting tea is like exercising a muscle, or maybe like studying a painting. The more it’s done, the better shape my palate is in to taste discrepancies or nuances. In addition to tasting tea, my day-to-day job involves communicating with our suppliers and cross-checking with the people I work with to secure ingredients from around the world. What I love about tea is it’s the ultimate yin-yang; it’s both simple and complex. My days are full of work that I’m passionate about and I work closely with our tea team, Anni and Danielle to ensure the teas we blend and provide to our customers taste great with fantastic aroma.
My interest in tea started like perhaps many others. Growing up, my mom would throw tea parties and her interest in tea trickled down to me. After college, I took on a job at Peet’s Coffee & Tea. At the time, there were only 5 stores. As I worked at Peet’s I embraced tasting tea and coffee, which led me to conduct internal trainings. This started out as a part-time position that then grew into a full-time position. My interest in coffee waned and my desire to drink and understand tea grew. Jim Reynolds, now roastmaster emeritus at Peet’s mentored me in tea as I learned on the job. Over time and after 5 years of working with Jim directly, I began purchasing the teas for Peet’s, which also provided hands-on experiences traveling to tea-growing regions to meet with our suppliers. In 1995, I visited India for the first time, then in 1999, I first visited China. I draw inspiration from the care and diligence shown by the people who produce great teas, and I love traveling in countries where it’s consumed liberally. The business of tea is old-fashioned and relationship-driven—something I enjoy immensely. I worked at Peet’s for 30 years and am now thrilled to be a part of Mighty Leaf Tea.