Today’s post is a bit different: a look back to our tea beginnings, at the start of our path that has ultimately led us here, and to you reading this post. A bit of summer nostalgia!
- How loose leaf found a Vermont gal & a British-Indian-Persian guy
- London, the loose leaf capital
- Madrid, an unlikely tea-cher
- We Knew Nothing
The second most drunk drink in the world (after water) with literally thousands of types and variations, is a good place to start with a (thankfully) healthy hobby. So join us as we reminisce about how we got here! Read on also for lots about Earl Grey - only in writing this article did we realize how big an influence it has had on our lives!
Elizabeth enjoying a cup of Twinings Earl Grey with family
First Loose Leaf Memories: Leaving the Teabags Behind
I (Elizabeth) grew up in Vermont, drinking bagged Twinings and Celestial Seasonings, usually with milk and honey. Snapple was my go-to iced tea, and I was even known to microwave a bag of tea to brew a cuppa.
The only exception to the above tea travesties was thanks to my sister, who moved to Tokyo in the 1980s and married a Japanese man. Thanks to regular trips to Japan to visit them, I grew up with a Tiger electric water heater. These are an essential appliance in your average Japanese household, and keeps water at your chosen temperature.
With the press of a button, perfectly heated water for your matcha, sencha, etc. What I didn’t realize, though, was that I should be boiling my water for black tea, but that revelation came later!
Around the same time, I met Vientiene during a term abroad in London, in the lobby of the first Environmental Economics lecture of the year :-). Vien came from British-Indian-Persian tea-drinking cultures. In the UK, most people use teabags, but the quality (and strength) is higher than in the US. Lipton teabags are viewed with deep skepticism in the UK!
Vien’s Indian family might brew loose CTC black tea (finely chopped and rolled leaves) to make milky chai on the stovetop, while his Iranian side would mix a bag of strong black tea, say Assam, with Earl Grey tea bags + fresh mint + cloves and cardamom to create the perfect Persian tea.
These weren’t every day occurrences though. Growing up, the daily drinking of tea was with teabags, almost entirely Twinings Earl Grey in this case.
Teabags Are Surprisingly Common in Londoninium
For me it was when I was setting off to college where the change began to take place. An old friend gave me a loose leaf sampler, beautiful little tins of fragrant teas including a Rose Earl Grey. She also taught me that loose tea was much higher quality than teabags, and that was that – I had to learn more. I’d never thought too hard about it before, but suddenly it was obvious!
After a long-distance relationship of 3 hours daily Skypes, we graduated and we moved in together in London.
We started feathering our new nest, and one of our first tasks was stocking up on loose leaf tea, with the same priority as buying a dining table and more fun-shaped IKEA glasses than we needed. London, is in the centre of the world - being in the middle of the map, at the top…according to the very successfully exported common map of the world!
As such, with wealth, empire and internationalism, you can get anything here, especially including tea. Whether it’s green honeybush, Duck Shit oolong, or Golden Monkey black tea, you’ll be able to find it. Covent Garden was our favorite haunt with multiple looseleaf shops all within walking distance.
We bought every tea we’d never heard of before (which was most types, at that point) and soon had about 40 glass jars full of tea, sitting on the windowsills in full sunlight. Never do this, by the way – the sun degrades the tea leaves and ruins the taste! (This photo is when we were just starting, and only had a few teas!)
We began to collect teapots and filters, and even forced friends to do blind taste-tests of bags vs loose leaf to share our exciting new world.
Over the following five years in London, through my masters and new jobs and opportunities we curated our selection and became known as those odd tea-obsessed people.
Guilty as charged! One year we gave the same Christmas present to everyone: hand-filled, stitched and labeled DIY teabags made with a selection of our favorite teas.
Yes, we were THOSE people.
Despite all the above, most restaurants and cafes in London still use teabags, both for price and ease. A formal afternoon tea, though, one expects will use loose leaf, and whenever we could Groupon whisked us off to swish afternoon tea experiences that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford.
All this was still just whetting our appetites. We wanted to learn more and more, not only about the actual tea but also about the various British ceremonies and experiences associated with it.
If you don’t know much about the societal rules and rituals associated with British tea drinking...
This Pride & Prejudice post will give you a nice intro!
Even though teabags are the go-to, your average Brit knows what makes a good cuppa: we once had a crew of builders working on our first renovation, and I served them mugs of Earl Grey with optional milk (we were out of Yorkshire or Tetleys ‘builders’ tea as they are oft referred to).
Three of them politely sipped away, but the fourth builder took one sip and gagged: Earl Grey!? He opted to pour it down the drain rather than drink that abomination.
Vientiene enjoying teatime like a pro. No pinkie extended though, but we can forgive that this time.
Earl Grey & Cafetières in Madrid
After five years in London, we packed up our tea collection and moved to Madrid. Why? For fun! No other reason. To earn our keep, and to integrate with Spanish society we decided to slowly reduce any UK work we had and start an English school. We named it Infusión Inglesa.
In Spanish this technically meant the “English Infusion”, as in, a tea is an infusion, but we also thought it was fun word play that one would be infused with English! Plus all our branding was tea based, we’re obsessed if you haven't picked that up yet.
Now, a standard guide to tea drinking would not recommend that you start in Spain. It is a country of coffee drinkers, with almost too-many variations on the standard cup of Joe. Yet, Madrid is exactly where our tea passion moved to the next level.
The prompt? Your humble Earl Grey.
A very Spanish breakfast: cafe con leche, hot chocolate, fresh orange juice, churros...all possible with a cafetière. Note the absence of tea!
What Is Earl Grey Tea Anyway?
Earl Grey is a popular black tea blend as we all know. It is usually created using a mix of Chinese black teas (Yunnan is one, but it is difficult to pin down the others as each blender has their own preferences) and adding oil from the bergamot rind.
Bergamot orange is the essential Earl Grey ingredient; it is also what makes it so distinctive. The orange itself is a cross between a lime and the bitter orange, and is most commonly found in Italy where it is often planted for decorative purposes as well as a crop.
We later learned that the little blue cornflowers often found in Earl Grey add nothing to the flavor and are purely decorative.
A bad Earl Grey, which is sadly common, is made using a generous dose of bergamot oil which is then mixed in with lower-quality black tea. The oil hides the tea’s faults, but the result is often overpowering and too citrusy for us. The same is true for many a blend, strong flavors often artificial, with the cheapest / lowest quality tea they can find.
A good Earl Grey takes more time and effort to blend, as it requires high quality tea and so you don’t want to cover it up. Natural flavors only, it is light, it is smooth yet fresh, and would be utterly ruined by milk for traditionalists (only a slice of lemon!).
When living in London, we had a few trusted Earl Grey suppliers, but in Madrid the situation was more dire, at least at first glance The grocery stores offered a meagre area of bagged herbal teas, as well as a few boxes of black tea bags, under the brand Horniman. Surprisingly this was a brand not far from us from when we lived in south London, but we had never heard of it! (We did try the Horniman, but ironically were left wanting more.)
What luck! Our street had a loose leaf tea shop, but they had only one pure Earl Grey (contradictory, as even Earl Grey is a blend); all the others were mixed with cherry or cinnamon. We tried a sample and the excess bergamot oil attacked our noses, leaving us smelling citrus in everything for the afternoon.
Then, one rainy evening early after our move, we stumbled upon Te Valle at the other end of our street, and down a couple blocks. An elegant and welcoming tea purveyor with an excellent selection. Their Earl Grey was perfectly balanced, and further, the encounter changed our lives far beyond finding a new tea.
In equal parts the owner of Te Valle and a Madrid tea sommelier who we met through him (actually an ex-partner!), it was the beginning of friendships that remain to this day. If not for the pandemic we would have been back in Madrid to see them both by now!
From Student to Teacher: Running Encounters with Tea / Encuentros de Té
As we talked and talked about tea in our stuttering Spanish, it also opened up new angles: we ended up leading English tea events we called Encounters with Tea, teaching the basics of tea production and manufacturing to groups of Spanish people keen on improving their English. Most loved tea, others were there for the English, but we all had fun!
We also ended up meeting some beautiful teas that changed our understanding of the world of tea, such as green rooibos (unoxidised rooibos needles); milky oolong and butter oolong; plus a yellow tea shipped from China at great cost to their tea sommelier; and an ancient pu’erh gifted by the Chinese diplomat to the owner....and many more.
This is also where our brewing education began as well. Up until then, while we had known that each tea has its own preferred temperature, we hadn’t given it the precise thought we do now. As a result, we sometimes had bad pots that were too bitter, or too weak.
Once our tea education took flight, our snobbishness rose to new and more obnoxious heights. As we spent much of the day working in different cafes, planning or teaching lessons in Malasaña, we would share notes as to which places we should patronise again and which should be avoided at all costs.
The root evil in most venues was the commercial coffee machine: As it spends most of its life making coffee, the machine itself can be forgiven (old dogs and new tricks, etc.). But it simply does not produce water that is hot enough to make black tea.
However, we did enjoy the ubiquity of pu’erh and rooibos in cafés, unlike in London. Pu’erh is often known as red tea, and rooibos is also often known as...red tea, which was tricky!
There were a few venues that, while they did have loose-leaf, and whether or not they were using hot-enough water, committed the ultimate sin of not providing enough tea leaves. Six leaves in a filter does not a pot make!
Setting out on another tea-focused adventure. Note that literally half of the large black bag is only tea...
What We Didn’t (and Don’t) Know About Tea Would Fill A Samovar + What’s Happened Since?
As we studied tea types in Madrid, and enjoyed more direct tea tutelage from two tea sommeliers (yes, this is a thing, and it’s an intense certification), we learned some critical tea laws that changed our tea-lives and leaves irrevocably, and helped inspire this blog.
These lessons and learnings are...
➡ The core of our Ultimate Brewing Guide
➡ The inspiration for our Tea Troubleshooting: 6 Tips for Tea Skeptics
Since Madrid, we have visited over 30 countries during four years of continuous travel, no home, just digital-nomadding about, including a year in India. All the while seeking out tea gardens, tea houses, tea events, and tea shops with a single-minded determination to learn and try more.
In fact our personal blog is called TravellingforTea.com and our Instagram is @TravellingforTea - can you tell we like tea?!
Now, when we look back at how much we have learned up close and personal, talking with tea producers directly, learning the history of tea production, and studying so many tea cultures at source, we have confirmed two important things:
- We knew nothing about tea before we set out: we didn’t use thermometers for water temperature or scales for weighing our tea, we didn’t wash (or ‘wake’) our leaves, we had no idea about Gaiwans or Yixing teapots or the Gong Fu Cha method, we didn’t know about tea cultivars, or Wuyi oolongs, or Ju Pu tea, or, or, or…the list goes on
- The more we learn, research, write, taste, travel and sample, the clearer it is: we still know nothing!
Socrates said that true wisdom is knowing you know nothing – by this standard, we must be SO wise it’s unbelievable.
One important thing here, tea is of course steeped in history and cultural significance from all sorts of places, but for us no one should ever feel guilty for enjoying it their way. We try to be as fair and anti-aloof as possible, in that even though we maybe fussy fuss-pots with tea, everyone should do what they prefer. Milk in Earl Grey? Prefer bags to loose-leaf? Also drink coffee? It’s all good with us :-)
Ultimately all these ways, methods, blends, variations and genetic breeds came about due to people wanting to do their own thing, and that's wonderful!
A Note From the Founders, Elizabeth & Vientiene...
We hope you’ve enjoyed this slightly off-piste piece, this break from your regular programing - we really enjoyed writing this! Since Spain, our tea highlights include visiting Japan, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, with a few dozen other countries included for good measure.
If you would like to read more about our years of tea travels and adventures in these countries let us know. :-)
Originally published on TravellingforTea.com in 2017. Updated and expanded July 2021.
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The contents are a masterpiece. you have performed an excellent job on this matter! Keep posting.
Thanks for this personal history of all things tea. Fun to be reminded of the origins of your passion. Onward!