Food and drink

Making tea great again

— Britain is a nation of tea drinkers, yet the best brews forever elude us —

Meerburgh botanical drawing of tea plant

Tea, AKA Camellia sinensis


It seems impossible in Britain to mention good quality tea without coming across as a bit pretentious. People may readily admit that yes, indeed, there must be good, even great teas, teas better than the type they usually drink. But in their heart they don’t really believe it. Tea is tea, they think as they turn away, just like water is water, and will forever be so. Who does this person think he is, wittering on about Darjeelings, about Assams and Oolongs, droning on about first flush and semi-oxidised, about tippy orange pekoe? Of course, they don’t say it. We are too polite. But I can see it on their faces.

People may try a sip or two – if they really must – of some substandard Lapsang Souchong, or some dust-like, low quality Ceylon from Tesco. They may even start to have the faintest first inklings that they could perhaps begin to feel they could grow to like it… in another life perhaps, and only if they had run out of their Tetley or PG Tips and really, really had to drink this stuff.

Who can blame them? Most ‘speciality’ tea in high street stores, even in shops dedicated to tea and coffee, I find uninspiring and often poor. It may put you off for life.

Yet great tea exists. Amazing tea, utterly fantastic tea. Real tea. And most are missing out on it. But it only takes a bit of effort to find out more, to taste a cup or two, to look into it for a few minutes on the Internet. Then you’ll know what tea is. If you do choose to learn (maybe even starting with the three teas I list below) before you know it, you’ll be sipping, not the sweepings the Indian estates were about to bin, not the fannings some Chinese tea merchants couldn’t palm off on anyone else on earth. You’ll be drinking what tea should be. Tea of seriously high quality. And you’ll be wondering why it took you so long to get round to it. As Donald Trump says: “Believe me.”

With so much good tea available if only you’d look for five minutes, drinking our British brew is like, well, here goes: it’s like visiting the butcher and out the back they keep a very high grade steak, organically-reared by gentle farmers who frequently pat their livestock with genuine affection, but he only ever sells you stuff he scoops out from a bucket full of off-cuts which he was about to send to be incinerated. That’s exactly how things are in Britain with regards to tea. It’s not overstating it too much to say the tea which the rest of the world rejects is bought up in bulk for the British market. Most tea drunk in Britain is the dregs.

Photo of dried tea close-up

Lovely (real) tea

And to enjoy good tea you don’t even need to be a southern, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, left-leaning, internationalist. Or someone who begins everything they say with the word ‘so’. No, for the record I am short, stupid and northern. So, believe me, quality tea is for everyone.

I am of course talking about actual tea, not herbal infusions. I drink some camomile and Rooibos. But the real adventure lies with tea which is packed with caffeine and tannin, and which, without fear of exaggeration, I can call one of the greatest gifts given to humanity in what is already a wonderful but baffling existence.

Britain is often deemed a nation, perhaps the nation, of tea drinkers. So it’s awfully ironic that in general the British don’t know the first thing about tea. Until three years ago neither did I. I now know quite a bit more, but I’m far from being an expert, and don’t intend becoming one. I have little patience for people who leave Internet comments recommending such and such a tea is best brewed with water at a certain temperature and in specific crockery (I didn’t make that up). They may be right, but I don’t care enough. I am not a tea grower, a merchant, or a seller. I’m not a tea critic. I don’t sit in cafes beside exposed internal brickwork being served tea by perfectly-groomed men with full beards and enormous tattoos. I’m northern, I like my Oolong and I like it in a darkened room with poor decor. Not much else in life matters in those magic moments when you stare into a cup of Darjeeling Oolong and  it’s sweet aroma tantalises your olfactory system.

I admit I have enjoyed your average British cuppa, with milk. Sometimes it’s okay. One thing puzzles me though. It’s possible to buy Yorkshire tea, Welsh tea, tea from Harrogate and Scottish tea. How? Why? Isn’t this a joke? The last time I saw a tea plant in Scotland was in the big greenhouse at Glasgow Botanic Gardens, during a hail storm which threatened to bring the whole thing down. Of course, these are blends of various teas. But it always seems a bit odd to read their names.

Photo of Mrs Doyle frm Father Ted

Mrs Doyle, from TV’s Father Ted

In large part it’s a lack of knowledge which keeps us sipping our distinctly average tea, perhaps with a bit of laziness thrown in, and an unwillingness to explore different options, to experience something different to what we’ve drunk our whole life long. I can’t really blame anyone for this deplorable situation. It takes a bit of work, not much, but some, mainly in the first few months, to understand what’s going on, what you like and where to get it. I urge people to try a little, to experiment.

I’m certain that if tea-obsessive Mrs Doyle, from Father Ted, had offered the priests she waited patiently on, Kenya Kaimosi or a second flush Selimbong, then they might have accepted more often than they did.

Finally, I want to recommend three very different teas, which are my favourites. So, build a bridge to a better world, pull down that wall surrounding you, and let the wonder of the world’s tea engulf you. Don’t be scared. Go on…

Three teas in ascending order of love:

Darjeeling Selimbong TGFOP1  second flush (Indian)  An award-winning tea. Deep in character, with unmistakable earthy and rounded notes which often make it seem akin to an Assam in some ways, especially with its malty aroma. Remote astringency. Supplier: Kent & Sussex Tea & Coffee Co. Price: moderate to high.

Fujian Oolong  (Chinese). Oolong is a semi-oxidised tea, therefore it sits between normal (‘British’) black tea (fully oxidised) and green tea (non-oxidised). A deep, almost chocolately taste. Full bodied. No astringency. Supplier: Simpli-Special tea. Price: moderate. Kent & Sussex Tea & Coffee sells a version, from the Wuji mountains, called Woolong Choice Chinese Oolong, at a low cost. It’s definitely the same type as the Fujian, but less strong, with subtle other flavours.

Darjeeling Oolong, 2016 first flush (Indian). Goomtee Estate. Utterly spectacular. All my effort in finding out about teas was worth it just for this. As with the Selimbong, it’s grown high up in the Himalayan foothills beneath a pristine sky. Each leaf is, as with most good tea, hand-twisted and waits to be liberated by that splash of hot water, the very moment for which it was brought into existence. Supplier: top secret. Price: it’s worth it, life is short. (This tea is probably all now gone. Try again this year. Rohini first flush tea is like a little brother to it, an alternative to the Goomtee, with similar peachy overtones, but less prominent. The Thurbo estate teas are also excellent).

Price levels above are of course relative and subjective. There are many very expensive teas available for the hugely knowledgeable tea connoisseur.


[I do not work for or receive any commission or recompense in any form from the two suppliers stated above]


Update 5 August 2017

BBC News:  Why you could soon be missing your cup of Darjeeling tea



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Photo of tea bush

Tea bush (Photo: Arayilpdas at ml.wikipedia)


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