Drink Your Tea Like a Local

We are often asked what is the best way to enjoy green, oolong, Pu-erh (and other Hei Cha), and white teas. Many tea drinkers wish to expand their range of tea drinking, and the usual questions are milk or not? and sweetener or not?

0394_tea_pilesWe are thrilled that many are beginning to understand that there is a preferred way to drink most tea. In truth, some teas are manufactured with the intention that milk /sugar will be added while other teas are meant to be drunk plain. It is good to learn to discriminate between the milk-teas and the non-milk teas. Habitually adding milk/sugar to any and every tea because that is what you are used to doing will be sure to disappoint.

0187_korean_pour_1But this is not how many go about preparing a cup of tea (neither is it for a cup of coffee). In all of our years selling tea we have heard just about every variation on how people like to drink their tea. Sometimes the reasoning is not clear to us behind why they do what they do, and we wonder if it is not the variety of add-in options that is confusing the issue. Remember the scene in the movie LA Story where the Steve Martin character orders a particularly confusing cup of coffee: I”ll have a half-double decaffeinated half-caff with a twist of lemon?” Huh?

For instance, we have been told:
” I drink black tea plain but I add almond milk to green tea.”
” I add honey to green tea and sugar to black tea.”
” I add non-dairy creamer to black tea and 2% milk to green tea.”
” It depends on my mood.”
” If I have left it in the teapot too long I add milk.”

And so it goes. We always wonder why so many add so much to their tea, and why some teas are given different add-in’s than others. For in truth, premium tea such as we sell is a far cry from the sharp, astringent blends one finds in packages of supermarket tea. It really only needs simple preparation to be truly delicious.

  • Do these add-in’s really give some tea a better taste or is a dash of this and a bit of that added by habit and from the taste of ‘familiarity’ that these products add to the core beverage?
  • Or do these add-ins help to cover up the taste of tea that was carelessly steeped?
  • Or is it simply because most Western tea drinkers drink black tea and adding milk and sugar is how we grew up thinking it should be done. Because, of course, any good Brit will tell you emphatically that yes, that is how it should be done.

For example, I recently happened to catch a few minutes of the 1943 movie “Lassie Come Home” that features child-star Roddy McDowell and a 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. In the story, Lassie treks from Scotland back home to England to be with her young owner. Along the way she rests for a bit in the care of an elderly Scottish couple. As the kindly woman gives Lassie the last of the milk in the house, her husband points out to her that she will have no milk for her morning tea. The woman says: “Well, I hear tell that in America now they drink their tea without milk.” He chuckles and replies: “That’s just because they don’t know any better.”

Was this movie referring to a trend towards green tea drinking that had caught on in a small way in America in the 1930’s and 1940’s or was it just dialogue? One may never know, but it does underscore the absoluteness of adding milk to black tea for that gentleman.

0121_Indian_ClaySetIt is true that Westerners are historically black tea drinkers. Chinese black tea and dark oolong (most likely these teas were not quite as we know them today) were the types of tea that first filled the larders of European households from the 17th century onward. And to properly drink this exotic beverage, handled tea cups, large tea pots and the numerous other tea wares and tea tools were devised to suit the Western sense of table-wares and decorum. This in turn gave Americans and Europeans a way to fuel their ever-growing desire to drink more tea in fancier and nicer ways.

photo courtesy of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto, Canada

photo courtesy of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto, Canada

The use of black tea consumed with milk/sugar (which was the European way with all temperance beverages and which fulfilled their voracious sweet tooth, as well) continued in America and Europe – and still continues today. Which means that most of us grew up drinking black tea steeped in a large pot (or from a teabag ) served with milk/sugar.

So, this familiar way of drinking tea leads some to suspect that the answer to how to drink certain other teas can be broken down simply as: “yes on milk /sugar for black tea and hold on both for all the others.”  While this approach might work some of the time it is a bit simplistic.

Since we always like our customers to look at the large picture, this is how we look at the answer to the milk/sugar question.

0284_puerh_teasFirst, think about which tea producing country made the tea in question. The methods of tea manufacture are different in every tea producing country, and the types of tea that each country produces is based historically on one of two purposes.

  • is the tea produced:1. as a product for local consumption and 2. as an export commodity?
  • or is the tea produced: 1. as an export commodity and 2. as a product for local consumption?

1.  China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan have the longest histories of tea production. Historically, tea production was begun and perfected in each of these countries with the intention of pleasing their local populations of tea drinkers. Over time, these countries exported their tea to other places, but the tea that was exported (with a few exceptions such as border tea and trade-route tea, and teas drunk by forest-dwelling ethnic groups in southwest China) was essentially the same tea that was being drunk in these countries. The important thing to think about here is that all of the tea made in Asia (which includes all of the six classes of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black and dark tea or Hei Cha) is manufactured to be drunk plain. These teas were and still are manufactured to please the local tea drinking preferences first, and as an export product second.

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2. India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and the collective countries of Africa, Indonesia and South America are all relatively new tea producing countries. The commercial tea industries in all of these countries were begun by foreigners, primarily the English and Scottish, in the 19th century to fill their home markets with strong, dark style black tea that was to their liking. Which means that these teas are manufactured to be drunk with the addition of milk and sugar, and so were made to stand up to this dilution without losing flavor or character.

With the exception of 1st Flush Darjeeling and some Nepal black teas which are light, fruity and tastier when drunk black, teas from the above mentioned tea producing countries will be most delicious with the addition of milk/sugar and less agreeable when drunk plain. English-style black teas are usually small in size, even when whole leaf, and tend to be quick steeping and astringent.

0273_tinsIn contrast, Chinese black teas are smooth, and complex and elegantly perfect to drink plain. These teas are whole-leaf teas of varying sizes that yield very little astringency in the cup. Their subtle flavors and aromas are masked by the addition of milk/sugar.

0382_gaiwan_potSo in a nutshell, if you know where a tea was made you will know how it is meant to be drunk.You may still prefer to drink your tea with a bit of this and a splash of that, but before you begin adding milk/sugar as always, taste the tea first. When in doubt as to what to do, remember that any tea will taste best when you ‘drink your tea like a local.’

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