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?
There’s more than one way to skin a cat … er … build a tea plantation. The common theme through much of what we saw today was exactly that: how to make tea plants.
Traditionally, humans have allowed plants to go to seed, and then planted those seeds. That involves a male plant and a female plant, and the mixing of DNA, which can have unpredictable results. For many crop plants, farmers came to realize that taking cuttings meant the new plant was identical to the parent plant. If you have a perfect cultivar, don’t pollute the DNA with random Mendelian fluctuations; keep the strain pure.
This process, whether it entails planting cuttings or grafting varietals onto different rootstock, is known as cloning. Today at the World Tea Expo, clonals and interesting varietals of tea plants turned into a bit of a theme for the day.
The day began with fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman (the Lazy Literatus) rushing up to me. “Bacon tea?” he asked frantically, “Where did you find this bacon tea?” I took him down to the appropriate booth (see yesterday’s post), and as we waited for them to brew bacon tea, he said, “Did you hear about the smoked green Assam at Tealet?”
I’ve been looking for a good green Assam for quite a while. The overwhelming majority of the world’s green tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis: the Chinese varietal of the tea plant. Camellia sinensis var assamica, the Indian varietal, is quite different.
We wandered over to Tealet’s booth and found that they were in the middle of a video recording. We met up with TJ Williamson, who said that they did, indeed have green Assam (both smoked and unsmoked), but we’d have to wait until they finished the video thing. After we chatted for a bit, he said that he’d like to interview Doug and I for the World Tea Podcast. We spent the next hour sipping tea and talking into TJ’s microphone.
The smoked green Assam was unique. The first hit on the tongue was very astringent, and very different from the aroma. It had a full mouthfeel, and it mellowed to a light smoky malty flavor that was very pleasant. They steeped the first infusion with 188-190 degree (F) water, and the second infusion with 175 degree water was much less astringent and much smoother.
Much of our afternoon consisted of placing orders and tasting tea — two of my favorite things to do. We found a lot of different cultivars (many of them clonals), and ordered some great new tea for the tea bar.
One particularly significant stop was at Ajiri Tea. I know I have said a few unflattering things about a particular Kenyan tea company, but I’d like to note for the record that I’ve never had a problem with Kenyan tea. Ajiri in particular is doing some wonderful things.
When Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in 1963, many of the huge tea conglomerates retained their land and operations. Many tracts of land, however, were broken up into family farms and cooperatives, which now represent almost 60% of Kenya’s huge tea industry. That’s who we prefer to buy from.
Ajiri was founded not just to export tea, but to create jobs (the word “ajiri” is Swahili for “employ”), especially for women. The boxes for their tea are hand-made, as are the beaded string ties for the bags. All of the labeling and decoration on the outside of the boxes is handmade from dried banana tree bark, and profits go back to Kenya for educating orphans. This is a tea operation we can get behind. Look for their products on our shelves next month.
The day continued with a class in rolling oolong teas, and the tea bloggers roundtable you’ve all been waiting for, but it’s after midnight and I am growing weary. I shall sign off now, and continue tomorrow with the World Tea Expo saga…
When you think of tea, Africa probably isn’t the first place to pop into your mind, but Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world. Tea has revitalized their economy, and tea lovers everywhere became winners. Red Lodge Books & Tea works with family owned plantations in Kenya, and was the first tea bar in the United States to serve Kenya’s unique purple tea.
Kenya is known for its black tea, but with their expanding tea economy, the country has expanded into other styles. We tasted some green and white tea from Kenya, along with traditional estate-grown Kenyan black teas and with some fun and different tea you just can’t get anywhere else.
The teas we tasted were:
- White Whisper
- Rift Valley Green Tea
- Golden Safari (black)
- Lelsa Estate FBOP (black)
- Royal Tajiri (black)
- Purple Tea
A quick bit of background on Kenyan tea before we go any farther. As I mentioned earlier, Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world, and the third largest producer (after China and India). Largely because of the population difference, Kenya doesn’t consume as much of its product as China and India do. Kenya produces about 345,000 tons of tea per year, but consumes only about 32,000 tons of that. About 9.6% of the world’s total tea production comes from Kenya.
Those are fascinating statistics, but let’s put some human faces on them. When I wrote my first blog post about purple tea in 2011, I was contacted shortly afterwards by a Kenyan woman by the name of Joy W’Njuguna. I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2012 at the World Tea Expo, as you can see in the picture below. She’s not actually that short — it’s just that I’m six-foot-five and I’m wearing a cowboy hat, so she does look like a tiny little thing.
CAUTION: Before doing business with Royal Tea of Kenya or Joy W’Njuguna, please read my post from May 2014. There are at least a dozen companies (mine included) that report paying for tea and never receiving it!
I’ve learned a lot from Joy about Kenya and its tea industry. One telling tidbit is that about half of Kenya’s tea is produced by corporate farms, and the other half by independent growers. I have a soft spot in my heart for the independents, since I own a (very) independent bookstore and tea bar. Joy, in addition to representing her own family business, is involved in a collaborative export business that represents a coalition of independent family farms in Kenya. The big producers there are focused on producing very high volumes of CTC (Crush, Tear, and Curl) tea that ends up in grocery store teabags. The independent growers are focused instead on producing high-quality handmade tea that will catch the attention of the rest of the world.
I like being able to put a face to the products I buy. I like being able to show my customers a picture and say, “See these people? These people hand-picked the tea you’re drinking. Not machines. We know where the tea came from and we know what we’re buying.”
Well, that’s probably enough of a soapbox for the day — or maybe even the month. Let’s move on to the teas that we tasted. If you’re like most of my customers, you didn’t even know Kenya produced a white tea. Heck, until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t know either. So let’s start there:
Silver Needle is one of the flagship teas of China. White Whisper is not a clone, but a Kenyan tea made with the same process. The vast differences in terroir make show from the first sniff. It’s richer and earthier than Silver Needle. Even at the 5:00 steep time we used, it’s less delicate. Personally, though, I love the complexity of this tea. Just pay close attention to that water temperature. You pour boiling water over these leaves and you’re going to ruin it.
Rift Valley Green Tea
The first time I tried this green tea, I wasn’t really impressed. Since it’s a pan-fired tea, I followed the general guidelines for Chinese greens and steeped it for three minutes. Next pass, I read the tasting notes from Royal Tea of Kenya, which recommend a thirty-second steep. Really? Thirty seconds? Yep. That’s all this tea needs.
I love the fact that this tea comes from the slopes of Mount Kenya. Some of my best memories of my trip to Kenya when I was in high school center around that area and the day and night we spent at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. What a wonderful place!
Royal Golden Safari
I’ve written about this tea before. It’s one of my favorite black teas. In this session, as in most of my tastings, I got raised eyebrows from people when I poured this and told them it was a black tea. It brews up pale red with just a touch of astringency and appeals to many oolong drinkers. Unlike most black teas, I regularly get four or five infusions out of Golden Safari.
Lelsa Estate FBOP
Next, we moved on to a much more traditional Kenyan black. This FBOP is one of the ingredients I use in Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (my Scottish breakfast blend). The estate in Kericho participates in the Ethical Tea Partnership program, which I appreciate, and the tea has a deep red color and characteristic Kenyan “jammy” notes. The maltiness blends well with Assam tea, and those who take their tea English-style will appreciate how well it takes milk.
“Tajiri” is the Swahili word for “rich,” and this tea lives up to its name. The finely broken leaves mean an intense extraction. If you’re a black tea lover, this one will give you everything you’re looking for — assertive astringency, deep red (almost black) color, and a very complex flavor profile.
Royal Purple Tea
I’ve written so much about purple tea on this blog (here, here, and here) that I’ll skip the background data — although the picture on that slide is new: the tea on the left is a traditional Camellia sinensis, and the one on the right is the purple tea varietal TRFK306/1. The molecular structure in the background of the slide is the anthocyanin. I didn’t have my shipment of handcrafted purple tea yet (and the sample didn’t last long!), so we were unable to compare the orthodox to the handcrafted. I will put up separate tasting notes on that when my main shipment arrives.
I will note that we brewed the orthodox purple tea for this tasting with 170 degree (F) water instead of boiling, as I’ve done in the past. The cooler water brought out more of the complex undertones of the tea and backed the astringency down, making it more to my liking. We tasted this side by side with and without milk. If you haven’t had this tea with milk before, add a bit just to see the fascinating lavender color that the tea turns!
I confess. I was bummed that we didn’t get our handcrafted purple tea in time for this event. I kind of unloaded on Joy about it, and she was good enough to find me something else fascinating and unique for this event: an African chai. The tea (a blend of purple and traditional black) is from Kenya and the spices are all from Ethiopia.
We closed the tasting with this unique chai, and it went over very well. Instead of taking up half of this post talking about it, I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to Nandi chai in the near future.
This was the fifth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.
For some reason, there seems to be a lot going in in the world of Kenyan tea this month!
Kenya is the world’s largest exporter of tea. Not the largest producer, for they consume less than a tenth of the 345,000 tons of tea they produce each year — as opposed to China, which produces about 1.25 million tons, but consumes a staggering 1.06 million tons of it.
The fifth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour was the Tea of Kenya, which we held last week. I’ll be posting notes from the class and tasting shortly.
One of the things I’m most excited about is a new development in purple tea. The orthodox purple tea that I first wrote about in 2011 has a great story and many benefits. Tastewise, though, it is more astringent than I usually prefer, since I typically don’t take milk in my straight black tea. In other words, it’s just not my cup of tea (I’m allowed to make that pun once a year — it’s in my contract). This year, however, Royal Tea of Kenya has a new handcrafted purple tea that I just got a sample of in February. Ambrosia. Absolutely wonderful stuff. I have a kilo on the way, and I’ll write up some decent tasting notes once it arrives.
CAUTION: Before doing business with Royal Tea of Kenya, please read my post from May 2014. There are at least a dozen companies (mine included) that report paying for tea and never receiving it!
For our tea tasting, they sent us a marvelous new chai (An African chai. Who’d have thunk it?) called Nandi Chai, after the Nandi peoples of Kenya. The tea is a blend of Kenyan black and purple varieties, and all of the spices are Ethiopian. I’ll be writing more on that later.
In other news, the Kenyan tea industry is trying to lower its costs and carbon footprint. An article in Tea News Direct says that four factories managed by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) are going green through the “Gura project,” which will build a hydroelectric plant on the nearby Gura river. The factories will receive carbon credits from the Clean Development Mechanism, which is part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
To end on a lighter note, there’s a post on the English Tea Store blog today that included a picture of what they called the ugliest teapot in the world (picture below). I honestly can’t decide whether it’s the ugliest or the most awesome. Had I spotted one when I visited Kenya decades ago, I would have almost certainly purchased it.
Part of the fun of the tea business is the names. The names of the teas themselves are wonderful — from classics like Iron Goddess of Mercy to house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey — but the industry terminology is fun as well. Let’s take the “orange pekoe” grading system used for black teas from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India.
I can’t count the number of times someone has come into the tea bar telling me they like flavored teas. “You know, something like that Orange Pekoe stuff.”
“Actually,” I have to explain, “that’s not a style of tea, but a grade. And it has no flavorings at all. Nope. No orange in it.”
What I generally don’t go on to explain is how that whole pekoe grading system works. Let’s start with the words “orange” and “pekoe.” A pekoe is a tea bud, the unopened leaf at the very tip of a branch. A pekoe tea, then, would contain the buds and smallest leaves adjacent to the buds. To further confuse matters, the word “pekoe” in grading tea doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it means when speaking of tea buds. We’ll get to that in a moment.
“Orange,” as I mentioned above, has nothing to do with fruit. What it does actually mean is open to debate. It could refer to the color of the oxidized leaves. It could refer to the color of the brewed tea. It could refer to the Dutch royal family (the House of Orange). All that really matters is that in tea grading, any whole-leaf black tea qualifies as an Orange Pekoe.
So what about all those other letters? The joke in the tea business is that FTGFOP stands for “Far Too Good For Ordinary People.” In reality, it stands for “Fine (or Finest) Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.” Referring to a grade of tea as the “finest” isn’t good enough, of course, so there are actually several grades above that. Here are the basic grades:
- OP (Orange Pekoe): A whole-leaf black tea.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe): Long leaves with some tips (pekoes).
- GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): An FOP with more tips.
- TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): A GFOP with a whole lot of tips.
- FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Traditionally the highest-quality grade of black tea.
- SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Sorry, we needed one more grade.
For the true connoisseur, a grading system can never have fine enough gradations, so you can also elevate each of these grades another half-point by adding the number “1” after it. Thus, despite the industry joke, there are three grades of tea better than FTGFOP (FTGFOP-1, SFTGFOP, and SFTGFOP-1).
Let me reinforce an important point here: this grading system is used only for black teas, and only in a few countries. China, for example, rarely grades its teas using this system, although Kenya is doing more of it as their teas increase in quality.
Are there lower grades?
I thought you’d never ask.
The majority of tea consumed in the U.S. and U.K. is in teabags. In a traditional teabag, there’s little room for the hot water to circulate or the leaves to expand as they absorb water. The solution? Break those leaves into smaller pieces. That exposes more of the surface area of the leaf to water and allows more tea (by weight) to fit into a smaller area.
OP-grade teas use whole leaves. There is a series of grades below OP that include the letter B for “Broken.” BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe), FBOP, GBOP, and so on. There are also a couple of broken grades below BOP, including BP (Broken Pekoe) and BT (Broken Tea).
So that’s what’s used in teabags? Nope. Let’s drop another grade.
After the processing facility has sorted out all of the Pekoe and Broken Pekoe grades, what’s left is known as “fannings.” Grades like PF (Pekoe Fannings), FOF (Flowery Orange Fannings), and TGFOF (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings). These are the grades used in most decent-quality teabags (high-end teabags may use whole-leaf teas, typically in a sachet-style bag).
“Decent-quality teabags?” I hear you cry. “Are you implying there’s another grade below fannings?”
Yes. Yes I am.
The smallest-sized particles of tea — too small to be fannings — are called “dust.” There are different grades of dust, of course, depending on the tea leaves they come from. You may encounter PD (Pekoe Dust), GD (Golden Dust), FD (Fine Dust), and others. Typically, though, grades like that don’t make it onto commercial packaging.
So these lower grades suck?
No, I didn’t say that.
Fannings from an extraordinary tea will produce a much better drink than whole leaves from a mediocre tea. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, but the number one factor is your own preferences. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not a tea Nazi. It won’t hurt my feelings a bit if you prefer the cheapest grade of Lipton teabags to my shop’s whole-leaf FTGFOP-1 First Flush Darjeeling. In fact, it would be quite a waste of money to buy a tea you don’t like.
In a way, buying tea that’s highly-graded on the pekoe system is like buying organic. What it really tells you is that you’re dealing with a legitimate tea producer that cares enough about their product to pick it right and have it graded by experts.
Over the next couple of months, Red Lodge Books & Tea will be taking you on a world tour of tea with a series of tastings and classes focused on teas from all around the world. The events will be at our tea bar on Fridays from 5:00 to 6:30. At each session, we’ll taste five to seven teas from a different country as we explore a bit of the country’s geography and tea culture. I will put a quick summary of each stop on the tour up here on the blog for those who can’t attend or who don’t remember which teas we covered.
The full tour consists of:
Friday, Feb 15 — All the Tea in China
Friday, Mar 1 — Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. (England)
Friday, Mar 8 — It’s Always Tea Time in India
Friday, Mar 15 — Japan: Bancha to Matcha (notes Part 1 and Part 2)
Friday, Mar 22 — Deepest Africa: The Tea of Kenya
Friday, Mar 29 — The Oolongs of Taiwan
Friday, Apr 5 — Rooibos from South Africa
Friday, Apr 12 — Yerba Maté from Argentina
Friday, Apr 26 — China part II: Pu-Erh
Friday, May 3 — India part II: Masala Chai
Each class will cost $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
There will be more information posted on the tea bar’s Facebook page before each event, including a list of the teas that we will taste in each event.
UPDATE MARCH 9: As I blog about each of these experiences, I’m going to create a link from this post to the post containing the outline and tasting notes. I’ve linked the first two.
UPDATE MARCH 23: I changed the dates of the last two events. There will not be a tasting on April 19.
After a variety of local artists have had the fun of producing logos for my tea bar’s house blends, I thought it was about time to do another one myself. Since drawing isn’t my strong suit, I decided to pick a blend where I could work from a stock photo to start, and that would be Fifty Shades of Earl Grey.
I developed the Fifty Shades blend a few months ago at the height of popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey books, which we still sell plenty of in our bookstore. It was a funny little thing to start, and I didn’t think it would earn a permanent spot on our tea menu, but this odd blend started picking up popularity.
DISCLAIMER: There is no connection whatsoever between this tea and the Fifty Shades of Grey books. This is not a licensed product, and it has not been endorsed or authorized. It is strictly a parody.
The tea is based on a Kenyan black tea with a bit of Ceylon and Royal Purple mixed in. Then, of course, it gets the bergamot oil that characterizes an Earl Grey – a lot of bergamot. On top of that is a melange of cinnamon, orange, lemongrass, cornflower petals, and other goodies. Some of the ingredients were added for flavor, and some for looks. I wanted a black & blue tea, and I wanted something with a dominating flavor. What can I say? I just couldn’t resist the wordplay.
Coincidentally, it’s certainly one of the prettiest teas we have.
For the background picture, I wanted to capture the feel of the book cover artwork without using any of their imagery. I found a stock photo I liked, clipped out a portion of the pot with the steam, extended the dark background, and then adjusted the tone to get that bluish-grey color we ended up with. For the text, I chose a typeface with the look & feel of an old typewriter font, but proportionately spaced, and then I kerned it to suit.
The tagline at the bottom? Well, once again, I just couldn’t resist.
I try not to be a tea snob (or a Tea Nazi). You drink what you like and I’ll drink what I like. But being a part of the tea industry means I hear from a lot of people with — shall we say — very strong opinions. One thing we all seem to agree on is that we really prefer loose leaf tea to teabags. But why is that?
There’s a quality difference, perceived if not always actual. Ask a tea snob about Lipton tea and they’ll tell you those teabags are filled with the floor sweepings left over after all of the good stuff was packed up. There’s a hint of truth to it: the tea isn’t swept up from the floor, but it’s often fannings or dust. There’s a good reason for that, too. By breaking those tea leaves into tiny pieces, the water has much more surface area to interact with. That’s why teabags often produce a heartier, stronger, and more “brisk” cup of tea.
You can get larger leaf teas in bags, though, and the “pyramid” or “sachet” bags allow much more flow of the water through the leaves. Still, argue many in the business, the highest grades of tea are typically reserved for sale as bulk loose leaf tea, and that gives us a better-tasting cup when we use loose leaf.
There’s another factor, though. One that’s as much based on aesthetics as taste. I like the whole leaf teas because I like the leaves themselves. The picture above shows dry and wet leaves from a whole leaf Royal Golden Safari, one of my favorite black teas. It’s a whole-leaf black tea from Kenya. After you’ve steeped it, you can see the leaves and buds fully unrolled. You can smell the leaf, feel the texture. You can see the size and shape of the leaf. Experiencing the leaves becomes a part of experiencing the cup of tea.
Wine drinkers enjoys more than just the taste of the wine. They’ll swirl the wine in the glass to bring out the nose, watch the legs as it runs down from the rim, examine the cork for hints of how the wine aged. The tea equivalent is watching the “agony of the leaf” as the tea leaves expand fully in the pot or infuser, holding the leaf and comparing its smell to the aroma of the brewed tea, and examining the leaves to glean what information you can about the origin and preparation of the tea.
What is “brisk”? The Lipton people say it means “astringent.” I might say it refers to a cool afternoon on the back deck watching tea leaves unfurl in hot water as I anticipate the luscious cup that I am soon to enjoy.