I was chatting about having a tea business to a family friend yesterday and, after broadly describing the selection we have (a couple of really great green teas, a few phenomenal oolong teas, a couple of our own really great blends, and some flavoured teas etc…) and he asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks. He asked: “do you drink them all black, these types of teas?”
I had to stop for a minute and think, because, how to answer foxed me for a while.
But it’s such a nuance of British tea culture that this question makes absolute sense here. Of course you can’t have an oolong tea black because, well, oolong tea is oolong tea and black tea is black tea. Unless of course you’re Chinese when black tea is red tea. But that’s not the question at hand.
I didn’t respond by saying “It’s funny you should say that because, actually, Black Tea is one of 6 main types of tea, as determined by processing method, namely that the leaves are 100% oxidised before being dried, whereas Green Tea is defined as being ‘fixed’ before any oxidation can take place and Oolong Tea is defined as… so the notion of having green tea ‘black’ is actually an oxymoron…” whilst watching my friend’s eyes glaze over before he excuses himself to talk to, well, anyone else, frankly.
Because that explanation makes no sense to someone who doesn’t know that “black tea” is one of 6 main types of tea, as determined by processing method. “Black” to the average Brit means “without milk”. And thus his question was perfectly valid. It’s a question of language. Or is it semantics? Or both? I don’t know. I’m sure you know what I mean.
It’s difficult to explain the tea culture to tea experts from other countries, because tea is SO ingrained, enshrined into British culture but in such an almost shallow way.
Tea here means one thing: black tea fannings in a tea bag.
“Types” of tea to the average Brit can be summarised as “Builder’s”, Milky or Black and with or without sugar. The only preparation quandary to most is “do you put the milk in before or after the water?”.
In fact, this chart summarises British tea drinking perfectly. The varieties of colour: brewing time and amount of milk added. Because to the average Brit there is only one type of tea. The others don’t even get a mention.
I’m not saying this out of shame, or some form of a superiority complex; I’m not accusing my fellow countrymen of ignorance. It’s innocence. And you can’t “blame” someone for innocence or feel superior.
Other ways of looking at tea are just not part of the mainstream culture here.
Sure, it’s changing. Green tea is now widely available. Generic green tea, mind you. Variance on the generic nature of Green Tea often means you’re getting flavoured green tea, rather than a different style. Ginger & Lemon or Vanilla Green Tea rather than Mao Feng or Biluochen, for instance.
But this question of language – or was it semantics? – is a wider issue here in the UK. One that makes it really difficult for tea companies to operate, or at least to make people understand what they sell. Abroad I can say I have a tea business and people understand that means varieties of tea. Here I’ve had many a person look at me saying “what do you sell then? Like, Yorkshire Tea?”
One person at a networking event said to me: “Go on then, what’s the best tea?” I knew immediately he meant “What’s best out of Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, Tetley Tea, Twinings English Breakfast and any home brand tea bag”. Because that’s what tea is. How could anybody possibly start a tea business? Whatever would they sell? I can get all those teas at Tesco already.
The Other Side…
On the other side of the coin, the problem is that the definition of “Tea” is being, let’s say for sake of politeness, “stretched”.
Whilst “Tea”, as discussed, generally means black tea fannings in a teabag, it has also been appropriated by companies that have never had a tea leaf pass through them. Herbal or fruit infusions – tisanes. In fact, anything you steep is now becoming sold as tea. Literally everywhere you go. “Health Tea”. “Night-time Tea”. “Ginger Tea”.
Friend: “Ooh they do a lovely lemon & ginger tea”
Me: “Is it tea or is it just lemon & ginger?”
Friend: “Oh fuck off Marc”
But it is an issue.
You don’t see herbal infusions being labelled as coffees. But it would be just the same. It’s easier to pass as tea because there’s this confusion.
But if I labelled a tisane as “Lemon & Ginger Coffee” I would very likely have somebody quickly point out the lack of coffee in the infusion. So why is it look to brand something as Tea when there’s no Tea in the infusion?
(You know who you are)
So, yeah, in summary, it’s bloody hard running a tea business in the UK due to the depth of our very unique tea culture, and the language surrounding it. We’re here to educate people and bring in a renaissance of tea drinking by the British masses. To bring about the changes in the market for our beloved camellia sinensis what has been experienced in the wine, coffee, food, beer and gin industries over the past 20 years or so.
Tea WILL have its renaissance. Tea will be understood here as it is abroad. We shall overcome.
So, back to my original point, how did I respond to my friend? Easy. I said: “You wouldn’t add milk to them, generally, no. Unless you wanted to. After all, how you like to drink it is how it should be drunk.”
Which I thought a quite wonderful answer, if I do say so myself.
He then asked for our web address, went online the next day and bought a decent variety of teas. All of which contained only camellia sinensis, processed in a variety of ways.