The Trials and Triumphs of a Tea Connoisseur in Britain, Part 1

Many of you will be aware that I am a bit obsessed with tea, and have been accused of being, at times, a tea snob, — an accusation I do not deny. So, to the casual observer, it might seem that my going to London for a year would be just the thing to satisfy my cravings for Camelia sinensis. After all, the British built their empire on tea, and “Tea Time” is one of the most enduring cultural rituals in Britain.

Photo Credit: Zafar Khurshid

Photo Credit: Zafar Khurshid

But, dear readers, it is not so easy, I’m afraid. You see, in my snobbery, I tend to favour the pure and the delicate in tea (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you do not care for my rhapsodic soliloquies):

There are some teas for which I suffer through the first infusion just to get to the more subtle flavours of the second; to me, ‘grassy’ is an absolute compliment for a green tea; if I cannot tell whether the tea put before me is Gyokuro or Sencha by sight alone, then I can usually determine after the first taste, and I once astounded several colleagues by telling them where their tea had been grown just by sniffing it.

The Brits meanwhile tend to prefer plonk from a sachet full of ground up tea, doused in milk.  So for me, the best part about tea time in Britain is usually the biscuits or the scones, not the tea itself.

Now I should add here that it is in many ways easier to be a tea drinker in the UK than in the US. During afternoon breaks at various types of events or after church on Sundays, coffee holds a near monopoly in the US, and asking for tea can sometimes elicit the same reaction as telling someone that you think it was actually UFOs that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. In the UK, however, tea is always available, even if it isn’t top notch. And moreover, because black tea reigns supreme in the UK, large retailers here haven’t bothered to try ruining green or white tea by adding dried fruits, trendy herbs or other superfluous flavourings, as have manufacturers in the US. So even though good oolong, green and white tea is hard to find here, when you do find it, it’s usually still pure and unadulterated by the capricious market research of Teavana or Celestial Seasonings.

So being a tea connoisseur in Britain is not easy, but it’s not awful, and moreover, there are signs of hope…




7 responses to “The Trials and Triumphs of a Tea Connoisseur in Britain, Part 1

  1. I had a lot of lukewarm tea in paper cups offered me in the UK. I began to understand why they add the warm milk and sugar before they drink it.

  2. Ah yes, we tea snobs do have it rough sometimes. I have so many memories in the US of wanting tea but being disappointed by offered Lipton or more Lipton. I actually used to bring my own water boiler, mug, and loose tea in my suitcases on forensics trips, since tea was one of the most important ways I was able to keep my voice strong when I was competing.

    In the U. S., certainly it can be hard to find a good tea fix, unless you know where to go. I can see living in some countries to be harder than others, when it comes to finding decent teas. Thankfully, I’ve had close to 5 years as an expat in Asian countries. For my own tea tastes, this suits me well, as I tend to favor both oolongs and pouchongs (yes, I know pouchong is technically a subset of the oolong variety; to be fair, however, it’s processed slightly differently so one could argue for it to be a stand alone category). I know what you mean about being able to identify tea by either taste or smell. I learned to rely on that in China when buying tea, as I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to communicate what I wanted. So my nose did the talking.

    I admit I like some “herbals” but this preference was one I developed long before the “superfruit” trend became posh in the U. S. When I’m sick, for example, nothing tastes better to me than a mix of rosehips and hibiscus. Of course, this is not “tea,” so it does amuse me when it is marketed as such.

    I’ll also admit to liking some black tea. But I like high quality loose blacks, like from Ceylon. About the only “flavors” I really like are either a really good black currant or rose. I don’t add milk and rarely, if ever, sweeten teas. Just some natural honey into a black. But never green or oolong.

    In MN, did you ever shop at Tea Source? That was my haven (and still is, as I buy a lot of their blends and take them back with me after I’m done visiting the U. S. MN is good for having multiple tea shops, but theirs is, hands down, the best. I practically wrote my MA thesis at the location sort of close to Bethel.

    Have you ever had any dark teas, like pu-erh? If not, it’s a very unique experience. Not my cup of tea (ha ha ha) but my husband loves it.

    • No shame in tisanes or black teas, I say! Rooiboos has practically become part of my nightly routine.
      I have indeed frequented TeaSource, although while we lived in Minneapolis, Northern Lights Tea Company (downtown) became my supplier of choice.
      I must say, the smell of Pu-erh is always at once both off-putting and enticing. It might be the one tea that I actually prefer with some floral or fruity additions to balance the strong earthiness.
      Have you found any good teas that are actually produced in Thailand?

      • I love a good rooibos, too. Northern Lights is also a great supplier, too. As is Indigo down in Burnsville. 🙂 MN is lucky, indeed!

        Yes, pu-erh is really an acquired taste. There are some other dark teas, in the same “genre” that have a more floral taste to them. I got an amazing one in China that was dark rose. So awesome. And it was cute because they shaped the tea into little hearts. We managed to get a lot of really high quality pu-erhs in China. Many Chinese keep it for years because the value goes up, much like a fine wine. Not many teas actually can keep with age, as you probably know. If you have not tried it, try it at least once. You can do multiple pressings with pu-erh. Tea Source mixes a very basic pu-erh with mint that is really awesome. It helps to cut the earthy taste.

        If you like florals, try a Taiwanese pouchong (if you have’t). Many of them taste almost like lilac. It’s like a good tung ting oolong but better.

        Yes, it’s not well known outside of Thailand, as most think of the “Thai iced tea” drinks but there are some amazing teas grown here. Quick history lesson:

        1. Many ethnic Chinese fled to Thailand when Mao came to power, bringing with them a tea tradition and culture.

        2. The Golden Triangle, famous for its drug trade for so long became a pet project of the Queen of Thailand to turn the area around. She worked very hard to develop cash crops to help the poor farmers who previously had grown opium to instead grow both coffee and tea. While there are still drugs in the Golden Triangle, the difference is notable. Thailand grows a variety of oolongs, greens, and even it’s own version of pu-erh. When I first was here visiting, on vacation, before we moved here, I tried a pot of jasmine grown from the region. It was so fresh, so delicate, and so amazing. It was simply the best jasmine I’ve ever had.

  3. Nice to read about a fellow tea snob! I too thought moving here would put me in tea nirvana but, after a couple months in London, I ended up ordering from my favorite tea supplier Adagio Teas. I think they just started breaking into the UK market.

  4. It’s (or was) my understanding that no self-respecting Brit would lower themselves to use bagged tea–nothing but loose tea properly steeped in a warmed pot. Oh, how standards seem to have slipped!

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