Where does “English Breakfast Tea” come from?

Essays > Culture

Subhuti reflects on a vital question – particularly if you live in England or India or anywhere else…

Subhuti drinking English Breakfast Tea

I was born into a nation of tea drinkers. Growing up in an average, middle-class, British family, tea was the standard drink to wake up with in the morning and also to have in the afternoon, around four or five o’clock.

But, as far as I can recall, there was nothing like a brand called “English Breakfast Tea.”

There was Lyon’s, Tetley’s, PG Tips, Twinings, Co-op and, for those who had a television with the new commercial channel, called ITV, there were advertisements showing cheerful young men and women waving tea cups and singing “Yoo-hoo! Typhoo!”

In the beginning, there wasn’t even a teabag to be seen.

Tea came loose, in the form of ground-up, blackened leaves, stuffed into a packet, imported from India and blended in the UK. When the packet was opened, its contents would be emptied into a tin, usually ornately-decorated with some exotic Chinese or Indian scene, and then stored in the kitchen.

A large, family-sized teapot would be warmed with hot water, which was then poured away, and spoonfuls of tea would be added to the pot, usually to the ratio of one per person… and an extra one for the pot. For those among us who may be mathematically challenged, this would mean, for example, five spoonfuls for a family of four.

Boiling water would then be poured over the tea and the brew allowed to steep, usually for four or five minutes, before serving.

A quaint English habit, which by now may well be extinct, was to add milk to the cup before pouring in the tea. This was a fine art, since even a drop too much or too little milk could ruin the whole tea experience.

As an added bonus, some thoughtful hosts might pour the tea from the pot through a small sieve to prevent tea leaves from entering one’s cup. This elegant ritual was still alive when I was a boy, but alas, the arrival of the lowly, mundane, but wonderfully convenient tea bag has all but killed it.

The teabag, predictably enough, was an American invention. At the beginning of the 20th century, a mail order merchant was sending out free samples of tea to his customers in small silk sachets.

The sachets were meant to be cut and the tea poured out, but some of his customers innocently assumed the bag should be dropped directly into a cup of hot water. When they complained that the tea didn’t seep out of the silk sachet into the hot water, the trader immediately saw their point, understood the potential market and sent out his tea in porous, gauze bags instead.

Presto! The teabag was born.

But it took more than fifty years to reach the UK, where traditional tea drinkers were wary of such new-fangled inventions. It wasn’t until 1953 that Tetley started selling teabags and ten years later only three percent of English tea drinkers had switched to the new format. But you cannot hold back high-tech progress for long and now, today, that figure is over 96 percent.

Tea bags are usually square in shape, but can be circular and even, in some cases, tetrahedral.
I’m told there are enthusiastic collectors of decorative tea bags around the world, with clubs, societies and catalogues.

As for coffee, I don’t think I even registered that there was such a drink until I was in my teens and then it was only in the form of Nescafe instant granules.

The idea of sitting down to a cappuccino in some fashionable cafe was as alien to me, in those days, as sipping freshly-brewed yerba mate through a straw, with a bunch of gauchos (cowboys), on the prairies of Argentina.

When I left the UK in 1976 and started living in India, at Osho’s ashram in Pune, there was no coffee.

Come to think of it, there wasn’t any tea, either, in the British sense.

No, there was only one universal drink: chai.

Chai, for those few who may not know, consists of fine, black, powdery tea granules, boiled vigorously in a 50:50 ratio of water and milk, plus cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and, of course, a massive dose of white sugar.

As I recall, we drank chai for breakfast, lunch and dinner – and also in between, during “chai breaks” which occurred mid-morning and, as I recall, mid-afternoon.

It is with some sense of pride that I remember my short career in the ashram kitchen as chai wallah, for a few weeks in the autumn of 1977. Rising early, I enjoyed boiling up huge quantities of dark brown liquid in large aluminium pots, heated by roaring kerosene burners.

It was fun. It was like alchemy, to get the ingredients right.

And it was in the days of the legendary Deeksha, who was regarded either as a loving, caring Italian mama, or a reincarnation of Benito Mussolini, depending on one’s personal experience.
I’m still proud of the fact that I managed to walk out on her, saying I was going to Goa for a holiday on the beach, and didn’t even get one smack around the ears!

Coffee wasn’t available in the ashram, but after a short walk, one could arrive at the notorious Café Bund, where, according to one old friend, “the coffee was so bad, even the flies wouldn’t land in it.”

One could also make a rickshaw pilgrimage to MG Road, to The Poona Coffee House, although this emporium was sought after more for its South Indian cuisine – idli sambar, onion uttapam, masala dosa – than for its beverages.

But still, in those days, inside the ashram or out of it, there was no sign of “English Breakfast Tea.”

I first noticed this novel brand about 20 years later, during the Nineties, while shopping at Green Grocer, on North Main Road, close to the ashram, which was the only local store supplying a variety of Western-style goods.

Scouting around Green Grocer, I think it was a red Twinings packet that first caught my eye, announcing “English Breakfast Tea.”

It puzzled me, because there was nothing like that on the shop shelves in England.

Seen from a reverse perspective, it was a bit like the story of Indian curry: The UK is full of curry houses, but when you come to India itself, curry isn’t on the menu in any restaurant.

Why? Because every dish, from navratan korma to palak paneer, is a kind of curry, using subtle and not-so-subtle blends of spices. Even if you ask for “not spicy, please” and the waiter nods his head smilingly, you’re guaranteed to get a burning mouthful.

It’s generic. And it’s the same with English Breakfast Tea. At home, there were dozens of brands that could qualify under such a blanket term.

It was only out here, in the world, that it made sense.

But the idea has caught on and now, at almost any airport in the world, at any cafe, in any store, you will see packets of English Breakfast Tea.

Even in English supermarkets!

And I have since learned that its origins are quite ancient.

Again, America seems to have been responsible. Apparently, a nineteenth-century New York trader offered it as a popular blend to his customers, although other historians claim it was Queen Victoria who discovered it in, of all places, Scotland.

Whatever the history, it’s easy to see the brand’s appeal internationally: tea is so closely associated with the English character, it makes a good sales pitch.

And you know what?

I rather like it.

Time for a cup?

Subhuti

Subhuti is a writer, author and gives workshops and sessions in the Enneagram, Tarot Card Reading and Inner Man Inner Woman.

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