Have you ever sat down to a cup of hot, energizing breakfast tea and wondered what the heck makes it a breakfast blend? You never see anyone selling lunch teas or dinner teas. Why breakfast tea? And what’s the difference between Scottish, Irish, and English breakfast teas? Let me explain!
When we first get up in the morning, most of us aren’t in the mood for something delicate, flowery, and subtle. We want caffeine and we want it now! And by golly, we want to be able to taste it! Breakfast, as any nutritionist will tell you, is the most important meal of the day. You probably haven’t eaten in ten or twelve hours, and you need energy for your morning work. A full-flavored hearty breakfast will overwhelm the taste of a white tea or a jasmine tea, so Americans and Europeans, unlike our Eastern friends, usually go for a black tea (or perhaps a heavily-oxidized oolong) with our breakfast. This is the origin of the “breakfast tea.”
Breakfast teas in the U.K. were originally Chinese tea. When supplies from China were threatened and the British East India Company established tea plantations in Assam, those Indian teas began to replace the Chinese teas at breakfast, and that’s also when they started to become blends rather than straight tea. One of the words you’ll often hear to describe breakfast teas is “malty.” That flavor comes from the Assam teas. Their isn’t a standard formula for any breakfast tea, and no two tea producers will agree on the perfect teas or the perfect blend percentages. Generally, though, the Assam is blended with a strong traditional black tea from Sri Lanka (a Ceylon tea) or Kenya. Some blends are simple combinations of two base teas; some are complex combinations of four or five.
There also isn’t a standard for strength. Generally, though, you can assume that Scottish and Irish breakfast teas will be stronger than English breakfast teas, and when you’re in the U.K., you can count on all of them being served with milk.
An American might start the day with biscuits and sausage gravy with an egg on top — or perhaps a big stack of pancakes. A Scotsman, however, may sit down to a “full breakfast,” which would include eggs, bacon (what an American would call “Canadian bacon” and a Canadian would call “back bacon”), toast, sausage, black pudding, grilled tomato, and — if he’s lucky — some haggis and tattie scones. No wimpy tea will work with a meal like that! It calls for a full pot of Scottish breakfast tea!
At my tea bar, I started out with stock blends for all three breakfast teas. Soon, though, my Scottish heritage gave me the urge to experiment. I’ve known the folks from the Khongea Estate in Assam for a while, and they have a variety that made the perfect start. Lots of malty flavor, lots of caffeine, but not too much astringency. Unlike my ancestors, you see, I don’t put milk in my tea, so I look for less bitterness than most Scots.
After playing around with other teas, I settled on another estate-grown variety as the second ingredient. It’s a fairly high-altitude tea that grows near the base of Mount Kenya. It adds strength and complexity to the Assam, and I decided no other ingredients were needed. Once I was happy with the flavor, I needed a name. Scottish Breakfast Tea is just a bit too boring for me, so I called it “Gary’s Kilty Pleasure.”
For the curious, that’s my plaid in the logo: the Clan Gunn weathered tartan.
I got a very big surprise from this tea. American tea tastes run toward flavored teas. The majority of sales at my tea bar are Earl Grey, masala chai, fruity blends, and the like. Despite that, Gary’s Kilty Pleasure has remained one of the top five sellers for four straight years, out of a field of well over 100 loose teas. The most common comment I get back is that it goes well with milk, but it is perfectly good without — and that makes me happy!
So whether you choose my Scottish breakfast tea (buy it here) or a blend from your favorite supplier, brew it up strong with a hearty breakfast, and get your day off to a great start!
I have started adding a paragraph at the end of each blog post describing the tea I was drinking when I wrote the post. It seems kind of silly at the end of this one! Come on, people. What do you THINK I was drinking?
Before we address the topic at hand, may I take a moment to get something off of my chest?
Today we are discussing a tea called masala chai. The word “masala” refers to a yummy blend of spices, often containing cardamom, ginger, and pepper. The word “chai” means “tea” in Hindi (and Urdu, and Russian, and Bulgarian, and Aramaic, and Swahili, and a variety of other languages). Therefore, when you refer to “chai tea,” you’re talking about “tea tea.” Although most Americans call masala chai just “chai,” they really should be calling it “masala” or “masala tea” if they don’t want to say “masala chai.”
We can thank the coffee industry for confusing our terminology a couple of decades ago, as they coined the phrase “chai latte” to differentiate masala chai (traditionally made with milk) from coffee lattes. Your other word of the week is “latte,” which just means “with milk” and has nothing whatsoever to do with coffee. Tea made with heated and frothed milk is a latte, too!
Thank you. I feel better now. On to the aforementioned topic at hand:
I would never presume to tell you the right way to make a cup of tea. As I’ve mentioned so many times before, there is no single right way to do it. In this post, however, I will talk about one of the traditional ways to make masala chai. In India, where this concoction (or decoction, if you prefer) originated, it is almost always made with milk and sugar.
In a coffee shop, masala chai (which they usually call a chai latte) is almost always made from a pre-sweetened concentrate. It’s quick and easy to make, and it tastes pretty good. But it doesn’t taste like authentic masala chai.
In a tea shop, masala chai is usually brewed fresh from a blend of black tea leaves and masala spices. If they add milk, it is usually poured in after the tea is brewed, unless the tea shop is specifically set up for lattes. You get that fresh-brewed taste, but somehow the spices don’t seem quite right to me (my tea bar does it differently, but that’s a topic for another post).
At home, you can make it the way they do in India.
The masala spices
First of all, the masala spice mix and the tea (chai) are usually purchased and stored separately. Just as many Americans have a family chili or soup or cookie recipe, many Indian families have their own masala recipe handed down through the generations. You can research and experiment to come up with your own, or go to your favorite tea shop and see if they have a blend for sale. Many tea shops (including mine) will sell you the masala spice mix they use in-house without the tea.
If you’re really serious about it, you’ll make each batch up fresh, grinding cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and whatever other spices you use as needed. I know a few folks that do it that way, but not many. I’d recommend starting with a mix that you like.
In India, the tea leaf of choice is usually a rich black Indian tea like Assam. It’s brewed pretty strong so that you can taste the tea through all of the spice and milk and sweetener. That doesn’t mean you need to use an Assam, but it’s a good place to start.
Milk serves a definite purpose in masala chai. You can extract flavor from many spices much better in fats or oils than you can in water, as any chef will tell you. Steeping the spice blend in milk will result in a richer, more nuanced flavor than steeping it in water. In India, the milk of choice is typically water buffalo milk, which can be difficult to get hold of here in North America. The usual substitute is whole milk, although 1% or 2% is common with the more health-conscious crowd. Nonfat milk is rather pointless, as the fat is the main reason for using it.
Sugar. Some drink their masala chai unsweetened, but if there is sweetener, it will typically be sugar.
That said, when I’m making masala chai at home, I usually use honey or agave nectar.
You’ll need a pan, a stove, and a strainer to do this. This is my recipe for making enough for you and a few friends. Adjust accordingly if you’re drinking it by yourself.
- Heat up a pint (16 oz) of milk in the pan, but do not bring to a boil!
- Add 1-1/2 tablespoons of masala spice mix and simmer for five minutes, stirring gently
- Bring a pint (16 oz) of water to a boil in a kettle or microwave
- Add the water to the pan along with 1-1/2 tablespoons of tea leaves
- Stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey
- Allow to simmer for another five minutes, stirring occasionally
- Pour through strainer to remove leaves and spices, and serve immediately
Put out more sugar or other sweetener for your guests. That single teaspoon is a lot less than a traditionalist would use, but I prefer to let everyone choose their own level of sweetness.
For best results, enjoy with your favorite Indian foods. Masala chai does a wonderful job of cutting the spiciness of curries. You can also use your masala chai tea in your Indian cooking: see my post on Chai Rice.
NOTE: The resulting masala chai will not look like the latte in the picture above. To get that look, I frothed up some milk and placed the foam on the top of the cup, and then added a dash of cinnamon powder.
Last week, we took a look at the International Organization for Standards (ISO) and their standard for the perfect cup of tea (ISO 3103:1980). They are by no means the only organization out there that believes it knows what constitutes “perfect” when tea is concerned!
Today, we’ll look at Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, and a 2003 press release they issued called How to make a Perfect Cup of Tea (their capitalization, not mine!). You can download this document in PDF format from their website if you’d like.
I’m sure the RSoC is a wonderful organization. Their self-description on the press release sounds downright wonderful.
“The Royal Society of Chemistry is the leading organisation in Europe for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of 45,000 members worldwide and an internationally acclaimed publishing business, our activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public.”
Were I a chemist in Great Britain (or possibly even here in the U.S.), I would definitely want to join this society. But a quick perusal of that paragraph above fails to reveal anything about their expertise in tea. Perhaps it’s just that they are British. That must be it.
The document begins, logically enough, with a list of ingredients and a list of implements. This raised my eyebrows immediately.
“Ingredients: Loose-leaf Assam tea; soft water; fresh, chilled milk; white sugar.”
I love Assam tea as much as the next guy, but is using Assam really a prerequisite for preparing the perfect cup of tea? Can a white-tip Bai Hao oolong not be perfect?
And I’m going to let a bit of my prejudice show here: I’m no tea Nazi, and I’m happy to let you prepare your tea your own way. I do, however, think that if a cup of tea is perfect there is no need to adulterate it with milk and sugar.
“Implements: Kettle; ceramic tea-pot; large ceramic mug; fine mesh tea strainer; tea spoon, microwave oven.”
Oh, my! One of the implements required for preparing the perfect cup of tea is a microwave oven? Please tell me that my friend Angela from London isn’t reading this. It would set her poor heart aflutter. They’re only using the microwave to warm up the cup, but still!
The instructions follow all of the standard British rules for making a cup of black tea (I’m sure George Orwell would approve): pre-warm the cup, take the pot to the kettle, pour the milk in the cup before the tea, and so forth. I will give them kudos for this little gem:
“Drink at between 60-65 degrees Centigrade to avoid vulgar slurping which results from trying to drink tea at too high a temperature.”
It’s the next paragraph, though, that stopped me in my tracks.
“Personal chemistry: to gain optimum ambience for enjoyment of tea aim to achieve a seated drinking position in a favoured home spot where quietness and calm will elevate the moment to a special dimension. For best results carry a heavy bag of shopping – or walk the dog – in cold, driving rain for at least half an hour beforehand. This will make the tea taste out of this world.”
I simply don’t know what else to say. I’m going to go prepare myself an imperfect cup of tea and ponder this for a while.