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Useful Notes: Tea And Tea Culture
This is the biggest, most important thing to know: For a black tea, you pour boiling water on tea leaves. That's ninety percent of the art of making a decent cup of tea. (...) It's the final ten percent of the cup of tea that you'll get people calling each other heretics for adding the milk (not cream) first, or whether to use teabags or loose tea and whether burning in effigy or a nice box of chocolates was the correct reward for whoever decided adding bergamot oil to tea was a good thing, or all the other tea things that people like to argue about. Camellia sinensis
, blog post
- the tea plant. According to legend, discovered in China by the first Emperor who was boiling water in his garden and had some of the leaves fall into it. Or, according to another legend, the first tea plant sprung from the eyelids of Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Buddhism from India to China, who cut them off
to prevent himself from falling asleep during a long meditation.
Whatever the true origin, tea came from China and has risen to the status of the second most popular drink in the world. The first is water
No wonder then, that tea has inspired centuries of myth, legend, folklore, colonization, war, and Internet debates. Whole subcultures around the world have been formed around the "proper" way of preparing and drinking tea. It's very Serious Business
For all the variety in tea and the ways of serving it, curiously enough, a common theme in many tea cultures is serving tea as a show of hospitality, up to and including Sacred Hospitality
. Whether it's iced sweet tea on a porch in Sweet Home Alabama
, the complimentary tea served in better Chinese restaurants, the formal structure of a tea ceremony in Japan, the glass of tea that always comes with a friendly visit or business meeting in Turkey and the Arab world, or hot cups passed around to those weathering a disaster in London, the acts of pouring and serving tea take on special meanings in the interaction between host and guest.
But first some definitions...
For simplicity's sake, these Useful Notes will limit themselves to dealing with real
tea - liquid brewed from the plant Camellia sinensis
. Any other brewed drinks that go under the name of "tea", such as herbal tea, are more properly called "infusions" or "tisanes". This includes the likes of popular "red tea" (made from the African herb called Rooibos and first used as a tea substitute by Dutch colonists there), yerba mate, honeybush, bissap and so on.
Once you've made that distinction, all varieties of tea come from the same leaf and the difference is in how they are processed.
- Green tea is minimally heat-treated with steam or hot air to prevent oxidation, then dried, retaining the green color of the leaf. White tea and yellow tea can be considered special subsets of green tea - white is even less processed and uses only the unopened buds and young leaves, yellow is dried more slowly.
- Black tea is also called "red tea" in Chinese and Chinese-derived languages, not to be confused with the herbal "red tea". Its color comes from a process where the tea leaves are bruised and allowed to fully oxidize before drying, resulting in the dark color, stronger flavor and higher caffeine content. Before modern transport and preservation, this was the only way tea could be shipped long-distance, and it remains the most popular style outside of China and Japan. Former colonies India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the other most famous tea producers, mainly produce black tea.
- Oolong tea, spelled "wūlóng" in Pinyin, is more oxidized than green but less than black, and can occupy any point along that spectrum. It's the most popular drinking tea in China and Taiwan.
- Post-fermented tea such as pu-erh teas are made from green or oolong tea leaves aged to allow fermentation and additional oxidation, producing a dark brown tea. This is what is called "black tea" in China, though "dark tea" is an equally valid translation. It is usually sold in compressed form as bricks, discs, or even more distinctive shapes like bowls and mushrooms. The ideal duration of the aging process is widely disputed.
- Scented tea is tea that has been infused with the scent of aromatics such as jasmine, rose petals or other flowers, in a complex process that results in the leaves naturally infused with the scent, without actually having the flowers left in the cup. Flavored tea is tea blended with any form of flavoring, such as herbs, spices, oils and extracts. Scented tea might be called flavored but never vice versa. Blended tea is any combination of different (usually regional) tea varietals which may or may not be flavored/scented afterward.
- A peculiar variety of flavored tea would be a smoked tea such as Lapsang Suchong, that is, a tea infused with wood smoke, giving it a characteristic "campfire" aroma. There are two conflicting theories of its origin. One said that during a particularly difficult voyage some tea caravan drowned a part of its cargo in some creek, and a merchant, keen on saving his profits, tried to dry it up on the campfires. Another one is that during a collection season some Chinese tea factory couldn't met the deadline, and tried to speed up the process by drying the half-ready tea by the open fires. In any case, despite such tea being an acquired taste, there turned out enough aficionados—particularly in East Asia and Russia—for the technology to be reproduced and refined, and to remain in production up to this day.
- Chai is simply the Hindi word for tea. Masala chai is the proper name for the popular tea drink flavored with spices (and, conversely, chai masala is the blend of spices used to make it).
- Matcha is high quality, powdered green tea best known for its use in the Japanese tea ceremony, but lately popular mixed into a variety of other drinks and even desserts.
- Tea bags are an affront to most serious tea drinkers, because they contain lower-quality tea, processed smaller so the air exposure leads to deterioration of the flavor, crammed into a space too small for the water to diffuse through properly. Nonetheless in several parts of the world their popularity far outstrips "loose leaf" tea. Larger "pyramid bags" and "tea sachets" with better tea in larger pieces aren't perfect but fare somewhat better. Tea afficionados in America consider them a necessary evil, as loose-leaf tea is relatively hard to come by there. The higher-end tea bags mitigate some of their disadvantages.
- Instant tea, resembling instant coffee, exists.
Tea, like wine, also varies greatly in taste and quality depending on where and in what conditions it was grown. Serious and aspiring tea nerds are encouraged to look elsewhere
for distinctions beyond those given here. We could fill untold pages if we tried to cover anything but the most common terms.
As for preparing tea, we leave that discussion to others
. However it's worth saying this about what you put in
tea: ignoring the bizarreness that is the green tea latte, generally only black tea is suited for drinking with milk. Sweetener is a matter of regional and personal preference, but really good tea doesn't need sugar.
A popular trivia question concerns the relative caffeine content of tea and coffee. It's true that most varieties of dry tea contain more caffeine by weight than dry coffee, but a typical cup of tea still contains less caffeine than a typical cup of coffee. The polyphenols in tea also moderate and slow down the effect of the caffeine, so drinking lots of tea is much more relaxing than drinking lots of coffee.
Great Britain and Ireland (And miscellaneous former colonies)
There's a reason the poster children for the Spot of Tea
trope are the British. The British demand for tea drove, among other things, the Opium War in China, the monopoly of the uber-powerful British East India Company and the subjugation of India as a colony. The media portrayal of the Brits as tea crazy pales next to many of the real life accounts.
No shortage of British writers, including George Orwell 
, Douglas Adams 
, Neil Gaiman
and a panel of British scientists note
, have written essays on the subject of proper tea prep.
: In 1660, King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland married princess Catarina de Bragança of Portugal. Part of her dowry was the Portuguese outpost at Bombay, which was sold in turn to the English East India Company. Consequently, ever greater quantities of tea and textiles were imported directly to Britain from India and China. By 1750 the British had fallen in love with it.
As a late-comer to the transcontinental trade, the East India Company had to make do with the proverbial scraps left over from the Portuguese, and then the Dutch (the world's great merchant-shipping power in the 17th century). However, Dutch supremacy could not last forever, and it was in the field of textiles and tea in particular that their early advantage counted against them. The Dutch had moved, ruthlessly, to monopolise the supply and transportation of spices, which were quite easily the most valuable goods to be found out east. However, the demand for spices proved limited; people can only eat so much of them, and their value eventually went down as the European market became saturated. On the other hand, the British eventually came to realise and capitalise upon the elasticity of demand for cotton and silk clothing. And tea.
By elasticity of demand, we mean to point out that people are more willing to buy more of certain things than others. You can only buy and maintain so many cars, for instance. But there really is no upper limit, comparatively, to the amount of music-recordings you might amass. What happened as the supply of Tea increased and the prices of it dropped is that it appealed to an ever broader (and relatively poorer) base of people. Consequently, the East India Company tentatively tried to see just how much tea they could flood Britain with before it became unprofitable. They were not disappointed. In Britain at least, by the 1750s it was already a recognized national drink. Interestingly, a significant upswing in health followed as people began boiling their water before drinking it. However, it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that people commonly took their tea with milk. This is because lighter Chinese tea was more widely available and highly regarded until about this time, when British investment in Indian plantations, which tended to produce darker and more astringent teas, began to pay off. The transport networks required to transport fresh milk to the Metropolises were not particularly well-developed some hundred years before, either.
How they drink it
: Black, hot and in large quantities (typically using teabagsnote
). Adding milk is common, and there is an ongoing holy war as to whether the milk or the tea goes into the cup first. Some people avoid the debate altogether by squeezing lemon into it insteadnote
. It is entirely possible to divine a Briton's class, upbringing, and even politics, based on the way they drink tea. The mid-afternoon light meal called "afternoon tea", with sandwiches and scones and its precise etiquette, is a product of the upper-middle classnote
(not to be confused with the evening meal, which working to lower-middle class people call "tea" rather than "dinner"), while lower classes stick with a cup of tea and a snack. "Builder's tea", the staple of the working classes, is cheap tea brewed extra strong with a generous amount of milk and sugar (jokingly, an amount sufficient for the spoon to stand upright in the mug). Earl Grey, invented in China, named after The Earl Grey, who received a shipment of it as a gift, is tea flavored with oil of bergamot, a bitter citrus fruit, and in some varieties with added orange or lemon peel, or with various flowers such as lavender, verbena or rose petals. "English Breakfast" and "Irish Breakfast" are both popular named tea blends, but the actual teas included in them vary; what matters is that they're strong, hearty concoctions that can stand up to the English/Irish full breakfast of eggs and fatty cured meats.
- During WWI the British used water cooled machine guns. British soldiers would sometimes fire off hundreds of rounds just to heat up the the water inside the cooling jacket of their machine guns so they could make tea.
- During World War II, Britain shipped, by weight, more tea to her troops than anything save bullets. Small arms ammunition, that is: the British army got through more tea than artillery shells. By weight. Contemporary soldier Spike Milligan observed that they were damn lucky that Rommel never tried baiting minefields with tea.
- Arthur C. Clarke recounted in his autobiography that during WWII, one of his jobs in the civil service was to coordinate the dispersal of tea stockpiles throughout the country, as the government feared civil disorder if the main warehouses were taken out by a chance bombing.
- In 1942 the Luftwaffe decided that, deprived of tea, the British Empire would pretty much grind to a halt. They therefore decided to bomb Mincing Lane - center of all British and Imperial tea trading - flat. It worked too. The tea industry was sent into chaos and tea was rationed to two ounces a week - which is very very little. From a morale point of view it was one of the most successful bombing strategies of the war.
- On D-Day, the British troops started to make tea on Sword Beach almost as soon as they landed, even though they were still under fire. Later, after the beaches were taken and troops started to move inland, the Americans got upset over reports that the British stopped advancing to make tea, as the plan called for soldiers to advance until nightfall in order to capture as much ground before the expected German counter attack.
- These reports weren't strictly accurate; a few companies of infantry were ordered to hold position for a short period because they were getting too far ahead of their tank support. Brewing tea happened because it's standard practice in the British Army to grab any opportunity for a hot drink and preferably some food; it's good for morale, helps stave off the effects of British weather, and you never know how long it'll be before the next chance comes up.
- Spike Milligan's mate Harry Edgington showed bravery under fire in North Africa. A German aircraft strafed their artillery position while Edgington was making a brew. Rather than duck for cover, Edgington took off his steel helmet and used it to protect the precious brewing tea, lest it get shot up...
- One of the small, metal blast shelters on Normandy's Pointe du Hoc has the back completely blown out. While it may be an urban legend, the explanation some tour guides give holds that, after the area was captured, two British soldiers decided to make tea. For some reason, whatever they lit to heat the water caused a massive explosion. Their bodies were never recovered, and they were listed as missing in action.
- During the German occupation of the Netherlands, the British dropped tea bags over Amsterdam. That's right, we gave them TEA TO FIGHT THE NAZIS.
- The Other Wiki notes that British Tanks contain "a boiling vessel (BV) also known as a kettle or "bivvie" for water which can be used to brew tea, produce other hot beverages and heat "boil-in-the-bag" meals contained in ration packs." This is an absolute requirement, and a unique one, for British armoured vehicles. (The Americans working with the Brits in Afghanistan and Iraq are jealous; they appreciate being allowed to use them and the Brits were only too glad to let them.)
- During half-time during the FA Cup Final, extra power generation capability is online to cope with all the kettles being boiled. The Brits love plug-in, fast-heating electric kettles (probably precisely because they facilitate making tea) over stovetops or microwaves, a trend that didn't much catch on in the States except for college dorms (and more for ramen than tea).
- Electric kettles sold in the British Isles are generally rated at 3 kW - it's generally not possible (ignoring the voltage differences) to use an appliance that uses so much power in North American households without getting your kitchen re-wired. A NEMA 5-20R (T-slot) outlet typically found in modern kitchens in the US will only deliver a maximum of around 2.4 kW. There are lower power kettles (cheap junk sold in the UK can be anything from 1.5-2 kW) but they're slow as hell in comparison.
- This is the reason why rapid-response power stations such as Dinorwig were built, which can from idling to full power within seconds to accommodate sudden surges in demand. That's right: in the UK they've built specialist power stations inside mountains just so the entire nation can use their high-powered kettles at the same time.
- The same effect also apparently happens far more regularly at the end of soap operas: Britain from Above featured a segment showing a National Grid employee watching TV waiting for the end of EastEnders (IIRC) in order to bring online the extra generators needed to cope with the power surge.
- Domestic power consumption can double in a few seconds with the load from kettles. This is why we have the fastest responding pumped storage power station in the world. Dinorwig in Wales can bring 1320MW of capacity on line in 12 seconds. All to make tea.
- Immediately after the recent televised wedding of Prince William and now-Duchess Kate ended, British utilities reported a surge of electricity consumption approximating 2,400 megawatts, or about 1 million households boiling kettles. (This was not the all-time record; that'd be 2,800 MW consumed right after the 1990 World Cup England-Germany semifinal game ended, after which England needed a freakin' Spot of Tea.)
- In fact, British commercial breaks are designed to accommodate the making of tea. It takes roughly three minutes to boil the kettle and make 1-3 cups of tea. Commercial breaks are roughly just over 3 minutes long and the volume is increased substantially over main programmes so that Brits in the kitchen can hear them.
- In the 90's a team from the UK retraced Robert Scott's attempt to reach the South Pole on foot, to prove that it could be done. Now they had some advantages in that they had modern equipment and knowledge such as taking chocolate rather than tea because chocolate has a higher calorie content. When they got to the Pole one member of the team revealed that he had brought a small supply of tea along in order to have 'brew-up' at the Pole because as he said "This wouldn't have been a British expedition with out at least one cup of tea at the Pole!"
- When the SAS patrol Bravo Two Zero were on the run though some of the coldest recorded weather ever in Iraq, they stopped and put a nice hot brew on to stop themselves freezing, despite the risk of fire giving away their position.
- After the July 7th attacks on the London transport system, a meme swiftly flew around the net to the effect that the only appropriate response was a cup of tea. And passing out tea was indeed one of the tasks of rescue volunteers.
- Operation Cup of Tea. The British response to riots in the center of London? Drink tea (and donate the proceeds).
- During the London riots in August 2011, some people made tea for the police officers protecting their streets.
- In the UK it is a matter of politeness to offer tea to tradesmen (plumbers, carpenters etc.), firemen and policemen, if they are staying for more than an hour, though given most tradesmen are Polish these days, the offer is rarely taken up anymore.
- In Australia, tea is also very popular, much in the British vein. There's a fairly strong surge of Taiwanese style bubble tea, but general iced tea is more of a pre-bottled thing that is nowhere near as popular as the hot variety.
All things tea can be traced back to China. The tea leaf, the tea pot, the teahouse and tea garden, even the tea ceremony - not one like in Japan, but its own tradition called gongfu
, where oolong or black tea is brewed several times over the course of several minutes, with short brew times and small cups to experience every nuance of flavor the tea has to offer.
How They Drink It
: The choice of white, green, oolong or black tea as a favorite varies regionally, however it is almost invariably drunk straight and hot. Chinese tea being weaker than the Indian black tea common in Britain, and most Chinese are lactose intolerant. However, the strong and astrigent teas common to central China are also drunk straight, but they are served in small shotglasses. The variances from this are foreign customs: bottled cold tea has a respectable showing; the Mongol Dynasty, some of the few lactose-tolerant peoples in Asia, are probably responsible for the milk-in-tea custom traveling West; and Tibet has the (in)famous yak butter tea which is as much food as drink. A variety of tea called pu erh
is pressed into bricks and aged in caves like cheese - this is a rather specialist taste (the fermentation/aging process gives it a kind of mushroomy/umami flavour that is definitely unexpected).
- As in many other places, it's honorable and a sign of hospitality to pour tea for another - brides and grooms pour it for their parents, juniors for their elders, and so on. Legend has it that Qing dynasty emperor Qian Long would often travel through the land incognito and his servants were forbidden from letting the secret slip. One day as they were all seated for tea, the Emperor took his turn pouring tea for his servants. This was an immense honor that in any other situation would have called for the servants to kowtow; since they could not do that without giving the emperor away, they tapped the table with three fingers bent as if in a kowtow pose. To this day is continues as a gesture of thanks for being served tea.
- Like Britain, where tea drinking improved the health and productivity of the population, so it also was in Tang Dynasty China, where it allowed the population to greatly increase and greased the gears of poets, songwriters, and painters. In a place where your other option for safe drinking was rice-wine, tea was very popular (not that some poets didn't thrive on wine, though, Li Po/Li Bai being the most famous).
- The name for the dim sum-like tradition of yum cha literally means 'drink tea' - the little buns and fried snacks were a later addition.
- Though we might imagine the tea-drinking habits of ancient Buddhist monks to be mired in ritual and spirituality, it was actually incorporated for a much more mundane reason: to keep them from falling asleep while meditating for long periods at a time. This is why Bhodidharma's eyelids figure into the tea origin myth.
- In Hong Kong, which was formerly British-ruled, "milk tea" is hot tea with evaporated milk, usually of the "Black & White" brand. Other variants include mixing milk tea and coffee, which sort-of ends the tea vs coffee debate.
Japanese green tea gets the honorific 'O' prefix to its name: Ocha. This is the clearest indicator of Japanese reverence; any other kind of tea is simply 'cha'. In fact, the hot water required to brew tea (and make baths) gets the 'O' — "oyu" — but any other temperature is just 'mizu'.
How they drink it
: Green tea is, of course, king, though oolong is also popular and black tea, usually served as "milk tea", is sometimes drunk in cafes and in bottled form. Tea ceremony aside, the most common form of tea served in Japan is brewed loose-leaf sencha
. Having been isolationist for the greater part of its history and having limited space for farmland, the Japanese came up with a variety of inventive ways to stretch the green tea supply, including genmaicha
(tea mixed with toasted rice), kukicha
(a nutty-tasting tea that includes the stems and twigs from the leftovers of matcha
production) and hojicha
(lower grade tea than sencha
, called bancha
, that has been roasted over charcoal for flavor). Nowadays, Japan supplements their local supply with Chinese imports as well.
India and Neighbors
For years, the Indians knew about tea and had access to tea plants, but thought of tea mostly as a medicinal herb. For better or worse, it was the British who were responsible for turning India into the tea-growing juggernaut it is today, smuggling techniques and plant cuttings out of China (under pain of death if they got caught) and learning to cultivate the Indian tea varietal as well. British colonial rule ended in the 1940s but chai
remains a big deal, especially in the famous Assam and Darjeeling growing regions.
How They Drink It:
British-style with milk and sugar, and in a variety of Indian preperations involving various combinations of spices and herbs. Of those, masala chai
is the best known, including black tea and a variety of spices among which cardamom, ginger and sometimes black pepper feature prominantly, but there's also kahwah
, green tea with almonds and spices originating in the Kashmir region, and noon chai
, also from Kashmir, featuring cardamom, pistachio, a pinch of salt and a pink color produced by adding baking soda. However it's mixed, the indian customs defer from the British in that they make tea by boiling everything - milk, tea and sugar - in the same pot. (An exception: Darjeeling tea, though sold as black, actually tends to be less oxidized and technically an oolong. This "champagne of teas" in its pure form needs no adulterations; do note however that a lot of what is sold as "Darjeeling tea", especially cheap stuff, is either not actually from Darjeeling or blended with a lot of cheaper tea.)
- Roadside tea vendors called chai wallahs line many Indian streets. Since roadside tea stalls are limited in the number of utensils they can use, the vendor usually uses just one pot to make lots of cups. He starts a pot, and starts vending the tea. When the supply becomes low, he simply adds more water, sugar, tea and milk into the pot. He keeps on adjusting the ingredients as he goes along while using the color of thhe tea as a guide to tell him when the tea is "done". This has an added advantage for the chaiwallah because the batches after the first one require less tea. This style of tea is called Kadak (literally "hard") because the end result is generally stronger. A lot of people who are used to drinking Kadak chai mimic this by slow boiling the tea after adding the milk.
- Most of India's neighbor countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh, also enjoy the various chai styles. The Kashmiri-origin teas in particular are also popular in Pakistan (which claims all of Kashmir and has de facto control over a substantial chunk of it).
USA and The Americas
It used to be the case that finding a good cup of tea in the USA was an uncertain proposition. Despite being ex-British subjects, their rough break-up
and access to coffee in Central and South America cemented the American status as a coffee culture. That said, for a long time what tea culture remained, mostly among the upper class, was the British black tea sort. The accidental invention of the tea bag by a New Yorker in 1907 didn't help any, ensuring this was the only form of tea most Americans would ever see on grocery store shelves. The main exception was in the Deep South
, where a tea culture all its own formed around iced sweet tea, which many non-Southerns decry as being too
sweet. Fortunately for tea lovers, this is changing. In the last 20 years, tea has been experiencing a resurgence - green and oolong have made their way to the mainstream market, coffee shops have started serving full leaf, and specialty tea retail is a growing business. British tourists still think it's naff by comparison.
How They Drink It
: Being the melting pot of immigrants that it is, almost every tea fad from both sides of the globe has found an American niche. But American tea culture is still dominated by iced tea. The line of preference for sweetened or unsweetened is drawn north of Virginia and west of Texas. Lemon is the most common addition to either, but a variety of fruit flavors are enjoyed, and lately a drink called the Arnold Palmer (half iced tea and half lemonade, sometimes called Half and Half, named after the golfer) has exploded in popularity. Hot tea is usually sweetened to preference, unless you've grown sophisticated enough in tea taste to look down on it. Milk is also a matter of personal preference.
- The American Revolution was set off in part by tea. The Boston Tea Party occurred due to Parliament assuming it could tax the colonies without their say so, although, ironically, the final straw was lowering the tax on tea with the Tea Act, making it cheaper than tea smuggled in or imported legally from elsewhere, upsetting the smugglers and merchants who weren't in on the deal, who were the ones who actually dressed up and threw the legal tea into the harbor, then convinced most Americans that they were protesting a tax increase. Since most Americans bought from a smuggler (either directly or not) they had no clue as to what real prices were, so they bought the whole thing and followed the smugglers' lead. Consequently, the Intolerable Acts were enacted after several hundred pounds of tea were destroyed. The Intolerable Acts led to much chaos, protest, and generally warlike tendencies within the colonies. Soon, the British decided it was a good idea to seize the arsenal in Concord, Massachusetts. The result was the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which ignited the American Revolution.
- The reason coffee tends to be so much more popular than tea in America is mainly due to tea being associated with British imperialism - during the American Revolution, it was popular to give up tea in favor of coffee as a symbolic act of defiance; after the War of 1812, coffee's popularity stuck. Of course, this really pissed off the tea smugglers that started the whole thing.
- Several towns in New England used to use to choose their new ministers with tea. An example of a loaded question, a candidate was considered too passionate for the job if he took his tea with both milk and sugar.
- Foreign countries (or for that matter, anywhere north of Virginia or west of Texas) are hell for a Southerner used to drinking iced sweet tea. On the other hand, Northerners are often put off by the amount of sugar in Southern sweet tea (one recipe that makes a sweet tea that is in the mid-range of sweetness calls for a 1:8 ratio of sugar to water), and usually prefer their iced tea to be unsweetened or fruit-sweetened.
- In the South sweet tea is very Serious Business. The Georgia House of Representatives put forward a bill making it a misdemeanor to sell tea without the option of sweet tea in restaurants. Turns out it was an April Fools joke.
- Sweet tea is a point of culture clash between the South and New Orleans, a southern-situated city with a more international culture. As a rule New Orleans brew it unsweetened and point out that it can be sweetened to taste, but sweet tea drinkers insist that sugar must be brewed with the tea. Since it's Serious Business as noted, dining venues along major tourist routes come under the pressure to provide tea brewed sweet. (When Southerner Alton Brown rode through New Orleans for his Feasting On Asphalt docu-series, this was a source of considerable astoundment.)
- Serious business indeed: this space used to contain the accounts of Southern Tropers arguing over how to add the sugar to sweet tea - whether to add it while the tea was hot (claiming it added flavor from the sugar slightly caramelizing) or as sugar syrup when cold.
- Tea and sugar brewed together can be made sweeter than tea with sugar added later, due to supersaturation. Sugar doesn't dissolve well in tea after it's been iced, either—there's nothing quite like the shock of having wet sugar granules slide in your mouth as you take your final swig.
- Sweet tea has gone mainstream in recent years, appearing on restaurant menus and in grocery stores. Northern or southern, we Americans do like tons of sugar in our foods...
- While coffee is king in Canada to the point of being Serious Business, First Nations tend to serve and drink (hot) tea much more than the rest of Canada. This is probably due to the fact that in earlier generations the main supplier of goods to most Reserves was the British owned and operated Hudsons Bay Company.
- You'd be surprised how, much like the United States (above), tea is becoming increasingly popular in many parts of Canada. This is helped by the fact that, thanks to Tim Hortons (a famous chain of coffee shops and Canada's cultural equivalent to America's McDonald's), you can now get almost any kind of coffee, latte, cappuccino, and... yes... tea under the sun. This includes an entire assortment of bagged teas (such as Black Tea, Green Tea, and any flavour from Earl Grey to English Breakfast to Chai), as well as Steeped Tea. Much like Australians and upper-class Americans, there are a great many "English" Canadians who enjoy their tea almost as much as the First Nations or South Asian immigrants. Coffee, however, is still the single most-bought hot beverage, although Hot Chocolate is somewhat popular (especially in mid-winter).
- Iced Tea is also present in Canada, although almost exclusively from Nestle and Brisk, and it is almost always sweetened, but not to the extreme of the American South. Diet Iced Tea is also available.
- McDonald's Mc Cafe is also in on the tea business in Canada, serving a full array of hot teas (Orange Pekoe black tea, Earl Grey, Peppermint, and Green tea) - which generally isn't the case in the US.
- It must also be noted that Canadians drink significantly more coffee than Americans (6.5 kg/person/year vs. 4.2) AND drink more tea (0.4 kg/person/year vs. 0.3 in the US, Britain is 2.7, Ireland is 3.2, and Morocco is 4.3)
Being China's largest next door neighbor and situated right on the famous Silk Road trade routes, it was probably inevitable that Russians would take to tea. By the 1800s it was an institution; by 1915 Russia accounted for 65% of China's tea exports. It actually outstrips vodka
as the de facto
national beverage. But, despite Russia being the third European country by per-capita
tea consumption after the UK (the first is actually Ireland), the tea's road to the Russian table was quite rocky.
Tea first appeared in Russia in the early 17th century, given as a gift to the embassy of the Tsar Mikhail I. The ambassador didn't like it, and actually didn't even present it to the Tsar for fear of angering him. The second attempt, now by the Chinese embassy to Mikhail's son Alexei I, was more successful, and the court loved the drink. Still, for much of the 17th century it remained an expensive import affordable only to nobility. The fact that Peter The Great, Alexei's son, didn't care for the drink (associating it with Moscow, which he hated) and was an avid coffee fan (coffee was all the rage in 17th-century Western Europe, and Peter wanted Russia to be more Western), didn't help, nor did competition from Russia's traditional warm drink — sbiten' (yes, with the apostrophe), a hot herbal brew sweetened with honey.
Nevertheless, tea persevered, and with increasing trade with China, it became progressively cheaper and more affordable. Urban merchants and artisans noticed its stimulating properties, and it soon started to outcompete sbiten', though in the process tea acquired one of sbiten's defining characteristics: it became customary to heavily sweeten the tea. By the 19th century tea was the
drink of choice of Russia's urban classes: artisans, merchants, soldiers, officials, students, minor nobility, etc. Coffee became the province of the the most elevated classes only, being much more expensive and time-consuming to prepare.
During Romanovs And Revolutions
, tea even contributed to the Reds' victory: having acquired the previous regime's huge tea stores, the Reds instituted a strict dry law and widely distributed that tea. It led to much better discipline, and more importantly, improved health in the Red Army, as making tea involved boiling the water, thus lowering the risk of typhoid (which devastated the land in those days). It also helped that the materials necessary to make vodka—grain and/or potatoes, plus distilling equipment—were in areas predominantly concentrated in the areas controlled by the Whites: it's rather easy to ban alcohol when there isn't much of the stuff to be found, plus the abundance of booze in White territory badly affected their morale. During World War II
the Soviet Government treated the drink with a reverence rivaling that of the British, similarly considering it a strategic material on par with gasoline and gunpowder.
The Sino-Soviet split shifted the focus of Russian tea imports from China, with which relations had soured, to India, which became a strategic Russian ally, but it didn't change the nation's obsession with the drink. Nowadays Chinese imports have resumed, and appreciation of tea's finer points soared to unseen heights. It is therefore safe to say that it will continue to be a staple drink in the years to come.
How They Drink It
: Hot and and often sweet, usually black but sometimes oolong. Old Russian teas often had a smoky taste, either because it picked it up on the camel routes from long exposure to smoky campfires or because it blended with a smoked tea such as lapsang souchong
, but such blends are now rare, with most modern Russian teas coming from Assam, Darjeeling or Ceylon. There is small local production in the south parts of the country, and Krasnodar's tea plantations are the northernmost in the world.
The most common time of the day for tea is either morning or the late afternoon, however everyone usually drinks it whenever they fancy, and the teapot is the hallowed accessory of any Soviet or Russian office, to be used during even the smallest break and vigilantly protected against fire inspectors. It often follows every meal in copious quantities, and the type of tea drunk carries strong social connotations. Dark, strong and sweet tea is commonly drunk by the working class for its supportive properties, while finer blends, usually unsweetened, are appreciated by the more sophisticated.
Green tea is usually either reserved for imported Central Asian laborers, who would drink a cheap pressed "brick tea", or refined intellectuals, who'd prefer fancy Chinese or Japanese types. Then there's a milk tea, not nearly as popular in Russia as it is in Britain, and even so-called "Admiral's Tea", which is actually a type of grog — a strong, sweet, often lemon tea mixed with rum, gin or vodka.
Every guest, even uninvited, is customarily to be served tea, and to serve weak tea to guests is considered a sign of poor hospitality. Tea, when drunk not as an accompaniment to a meal, is always followed with various cakes, pastries, biscuits and other baked goods and confectionery that even carries the generalized nickname of "tea stuff", thus becoming a meal unto itself.
A peculiarity of Russian tea drinking is that the traditional black tea is not brewed "in place" to be immediately drunk or poured, but is brewed in advance in concentrated form, called "zavarka", which is allowed to sit on the leaves indefinitely, and is poured and diluted by each drinker to taste, stretching the tea supply and adjusting the strength and temperature of the drink to the desired level.
Traditional Russian tea culture centered around the Samovar
, an often lavishly decorated communal urn over which a pot of concentrated tea was placed to keep it warm, used as a hot water dispenser for the drinkers to prepare their cups. Nowadays, though, samovars have almost disappeared from urban households and have been substituted with kettles. Other parts of the tradition persisted, though, and in the Eastern part of the country modern automated hot water dispensers, a custom adopted from Japan, probably mark the samovar's second coming.
Sweetener for the tea could occur in several different forms: as regular sugar, as raspberry or blackcurrant jam (an outmoded practice), or eaten in the form of cakes, cookies or a piece of candy to bite down on. Traditional Russian lemon tea is also usually heavily sweetened and contains much more lemon juice than Western types, and is often made with large pieces of candied lemons or lemon jam.
- In Russian prisons, incredibly strong tea is used as a substitute for alcohol or conventional drugs. It is known as Chifir and is quite obviously a kidney-slaughtering liquid. It's often strong enough to cause caffeine poisoning.
- During the Russian Civil War the Reds initially happened to get the relatively unproductive northwestern parts of the country, instead of the breadbasket of southern Russia that was the Whites' territory, and that caused a lot of problems with supplies. But the same territory also happened to contain all the tea supplies that were on Russian soil at the moment. Thus the Reds freely distributed that tea, which contributed to better sanitation and conditions in the Red Army. They also instituted a strict "dry" law, which they were able to enforce due to insufficient grain but abundant tea supplies, while the Whites, who had a huge surplus of grain in their territory and lacked tea as a substitute, couldn't prevent its widespread brewing and distilling, leading to overwhelming drunkenness within their troops.
- More than you could possibly ever want to know about the Serious Business of Russian tea can be found in the Russian Tea HOWTO, which not only describes the perfect cup of Russian tea in excruciating detail, but (as might be expected from a document written for Linux geeks) goes so far as to suggest sweetening your tea with glucose because it's better brain food than regular sucrose.
The Middle East and Africa
Tea is grown in parts of Africa such as Keyna but mostly as a cash crop for export, usually used in cheaper blends and not particularly famous. Where tea really matters is in Muslim countries where it competes neck and neck with coffee for the status of social beverage of choice in a culture where consumption of alcohol is, if not forbidden, then socially discouraged.
How They Drink It
: Can be divided into three camps: Eastern, Western, and Southern.
- Eastern Camp: This includes Turkey, Lower (i.e. northern) Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Iran and the Gulf states minus Yemen (if you consider it Gulf) and parts of Saudi Arabia. Tea here is black; green tea arrived in the area only recently and is seen as a novelty or an aberration, depending on who's talking. Tea is prepared by pouring the boiling water over the tea leaves or powdered tea (depending on location, preference, and budget); mint or other herbs may be added. Sugar is customarily added according to taste (usually "very sweet") after brewing; milk is not unknown, but less common. Tea in this region is particularly important to Sacred Hospitality and must be offered to anyone considered a guest; this rule extends to the workplace, and if you're in an office or shop and have to sit down and talk for more than a few minutes to conduct your business, you can expect to be offered a cup.note This makes tea bags a bit more common (quicker and less mess for workplace kitchens).
- The electric kettles of which the British are so fond are also ubiquitous in Egypt (except for the countryside, where there are quite a lot of places that don't get electricity). Fortunately for Egypt, TV ownership in Egypt is much lower than in Britain, so many if not most Egyptians watch football matches and other TV events in cafés—which are a predominantly male domain and serve a social role equivalent to the British pub—rather than in their own homes. Consequently, the big spikes in electricity demand are much lower. The Egyptian government even considers tea a strategic resource, and owns tea plantations in Sri Lanka and Kenya to ensure a steady supply. Serving tea to a visitor (at home and at work) is considered an almost-sacred duty (they even call it wagib, meaning..."duty").
- Note that you can decline the offer and no-one will be offended. Bewildered, perhaps, especially if you make a habit of declining tea, but not offended. Also, today they'll often also ask if you would like instant coffee (inevitably called "Nescafe"), bottled water, or "something cold", i.e. a soft drink—but the default is tea, and if they don't have the other things they will have tea.
- Turkey: Tea there - çay, pronounced like "chai" - is almost always a black tea called Rize tea (named after Rize, the northeastern province of Turkey where the tea is grown), which is drunk whenever the mood strikes. Almost all restaurants, cafes and coffee places (except at Stabucks and Kahve Dünyası, Istanbul's answer to Starbucks) will serve it in small tulip shaped glasses, and you can drink it straight up or with a sugar or two. It's not uncommon to see men with trays running around the streets and bazaars in the busier parts of town delivering tea to the shopkeepers, and chances are if you sit long enough in any shop someone's going to offer you a glass.
- The Russian "tea served with with sugar candy to bite on" is also very popular in Iran; Iranians tend to put a lump or cube of sugar in the mouth and drink unsweetened tea over it, leading to a distinct experience. Since Iran has had (cane) sugar for longer than anyone else but the Indians, the custom likely originated there and thence spread to Russia thanks to all manner of cultural contact from centuries of trade and wars in the Caucasus and Central Asia, to say nothing of the Russo-British competition for influence over the 19th-century Iranian court. The exchange was completed by the partial Iranian adoption of the aforementioned samovar for boiling water for tea.
- Southern Camp: Consisting of Upper (southern) Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen. Tea is also black, but rather than pour the boiling water over it, very generous quantities of leaves and even more generous quantities of sugar are put into the pot over a strong flame for at least five minutes. The end result has been described as "suicide tea" by foreigners for its capacity to induce wakefulness and heart palpitations. Milk is a bit more popular than in the Eastern Camp, if only because making the tea too strong is very easy and milk can make overcooked tea drinkable. This concoction is apparently of Bedouin origin, and has some currency in the easternmost parts of the Western Camp.
- Western Camp: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania. The tea preference changes to green, specifically "gunpowder" tea from China. Apparently, some Moroccan pirates ransomed some Europeans en route from China for some green tea and liked it so much the preference stuck. Another less romantic version: black tea never made it through Maghreb via caravans, for some reason. Tea was unknown there until British had huge stocks of green tea (gunpowder) they could no more sell to the Russians because of the CrimeanWar. So they sold it in Morocco and it stuck because it went well with their traditional mint infusion. Much like the Southern Camp, the tea is boiled with incredible amounts of sugar over a strong flame for five minutes; the result is less intense, however, partly because the tea is green and partly because fewer leaves are used. Much like the Eastern camp, herbs—usually usually mint leaves, but also sometimes wormwood or lemon verbana—are added; unlike all the other camps, the herbs are always present, providing a unique flavor. Since the tea is green, milk in tea is unknown.note
- By far the most fanatical about this kind of tea are Moroccans, who have an elaborate ritual (not half as elaborate as the Japanese, but nevertheless elaborate) for making and serving this kind of tea (educated Moroccans talking to other Arabic-speakers will sometimes use the Moroccan Arabic term atay to differentiate it from shay, the Standard Arabic word for tea). At its peak—when tea is being served at home to an honored guest—the ceremony involves, among other things, making a big show of bringing in the trays on which the glasses and containers of mint, tea, and sugar are carried, taste-testing the tea halfway through boiling, and pouring the tea into the glass from a height of at least a meter in order to mix it more thoroughly and generate bubbles. Moroccans will frequently travel miles to get water that is pure, unchlorinated and low in minerals, so that nothing will affect the taste of the tea. The tea is generally a bit strong and very sweet (to a degree that often horrifies even other Maghrebi Arabs): there's an old Moroccan proverb that says, "Moroccans do not drink tea, they drink honey."
- The ceremonial nature of tea in Morocco goes Up to Eleven in the southern parts of of the country (which are mostly desert): though (again) not as complex as the Japanese ceremony, the total time it takes to take tea among certain desert tribes is generally in the vicinity of an hour and a half.note
The Rest of Asia
- Indonesians love their tea... ice cold, sweet, in the middle of a hot day (perhaps they should talk to some American Southerners). Not any tea, mind you, it's jasmine tea (so perhaps not then). Though traditional hot tea is just as popular, especially in the countryside.
- And then they also introduced Tebs, Teh BerSoda (Soda-added jasmine tea). Tea lovers everywhere else are probably going nuts about the abomination, but the rest of Indonesia loves it.
- Heavily sweetened iced tea with canned milk has become popular in several Asian countries, probably picked up from colonial Europeans. A particularly well known variation comes from Thailand, where Thai tea is flavored with star anise, vanilla and other spices, not a far cry from masala chai.
- Unlike masala chai, however, the Thai tea is often chilled, and the canned milk can be replaced by fresh whole milk, cream, or coconut milk.
- Vietnam has a rather unique type of green tea, using fresh tea leaves. This, however, is considered an everyday beverage, especially to the older generation, while dried tea, usually flavored with either jasmine or lotus is reserved for special occasion or friends.
- Malaysians drink a variant of milk tea called teh tarik (literally "pulled tea"), in which the milk tea was prepared by raising the container containing the milk tea while the tea was poured into another container. This was done for several times and called tarik (literally "pulling"), hence the name. It was said that the higher one can "pull" the milk tea, the better it will taste.
- In Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), tea is typically drunk hot, strong, and sweet, with milk or cream (bearing a close resemblance to British "Builder's Tea", a likely cousin), and typically lingered over with friends. Most serve food of some kind, even if it is only simple snacks. Teashops are social hubs, and it is not unusual to spend at least half an hour in the tea shop, possibly up to most of the day.
The Rest of Europe
- In Germany, drinking large quantities of tea is associated with East Frisia (a subregion of Lower Saxony). The culture is somewhat different, though: tea is drunk somewhat stronger than in Britain and never drunk with milk; instead, one or more lumps of rock sugar are placed in the cup before pouring the tea and then adding cream (which you are not allowed to stir). Napoleon banned tea when he annexed East Frisia to France (just as he banned all goods that could only be obtained via Britain), which did not exactly endear him to the locals.
- There is also a specific East Frisian blend of tea, the secret of which is generally jealously guarded by tea dealers, but which cynics say consists mainly of "Assam tea for the colour, and Java tea for the price". Here's a recipe, with links to more info about the East Frisian tea culture if you can read and understand German.
- During the occupation after World War II, the district of East Frisia had it's own unique food rationing cards. The main difference was that tea was treated as one of the basic neccessities like bread and potatoes, instead of luxury good like coffee.
- In recent years, people have started to speak of the "East Frisian Tea Ceremony". It's less formalized than the Japanese one but just as elaborate and complex. May or may not be Serious Business, which in rural northern Germany is always hard to tell. note
- Somewhat interestingly, Heligoland, an island belonging to the East Frisian chain geologically but part of the Schleswig-Holstein region of North Frisia, was a British possession 1807-1890. This may have had some effect on the tea culture there, but the effect has probably since worn off.
- Curiously, Portugal, the country that was the middle man in getting tea to England for the first time note , and responsible for connecting what would become two of the world's most tea loving countries together, didn't retain any particular tea tradition or habit. Maybe it was the fact that as a hot drink it didn't have as many fans as freezing old England did, or maybe the Portuguese people just didn't like it (their national drink was already wine), but Portugal had the conditions to at least retain some tea drinking habits. (Then again, the Portuguese Empire didn't end that well...)
- Although the cold variant is fairly popular. Especially as an industrialized cold beverage, being the most popular canned drink with no carbonation (or alcohol) among the younger crowd.
Hey, you! Yeah, you! Tea! It's Coffee
! I need to talk to you...