Welcome to 2020! With the start of anything comes reflection on what has passed. In our case, that includes what teas we drank and where. Without further ado, here’s an ever-so-serious review of what hot leaf water we sipped in the ten countries we visited in 2019 – in case you need some tea-spiration for future travels!
The Gers, France
Although the French are famous for their love of coffee, they have also adopted a love of British teas. So much so there is even French Earl Grey which is ever more common. This is your typical Earl Grey (bergamot oil + black tea from all over the world) with added rose petals.
The previous year we were moving city or country so frequently that France was a nice chance to stop for a few months, and that allowed us to order tea online and not only rely on whatever the local tea shops (or often, the local supermarkets) provided. We were in the deep countryside and so ordered in a load of French loose-leaf teas from Lupicia.fr and went full Instagram, as the setting was. Just. So. Scenic. Or should I say picturesque?
We were surprised by how many herbal teas were on offer in Prague, with a heavy emphasis on fresh mint tea. Restaurants, cafes and even majorly touristy attractions offered black tea, green tea, chamomile, rooibos, traditional fruit tea (Ovocný čaj) and mint, the leaves still in the pot. What heaven was this?! The best thing about mint tea is that it’s almost impossible to overbrew. We don’t know where this love of fresh mint comes from - is it originally Czech or perhaps German? Austrian? Ottoman? If so, how did they come by it? If you know, please comment!
London, United Kingdom
The home of Western tea culture, with tea consumed throughout the day as a matter of course. And yet, a stubborn refusal by cafes to use freshly boiled water for brewing (instead of the cooler coffee machine water). Still, free hot water refills make up for it.
The teabags used are generally PGTips, Tetleys or Twinings, or more upmarket at hipster-like cafes. It would signify a new level of desperation for a Brit to serve or drink Lipton bags the more common international stable, which is curiously barely in the UK.
We visited an exhibition on Manga with Vien’s older sister, an artist with eclectic tastes, and of course being the British Museum walked past Egyptian sarcophagi to find the right room; it’s true what they say: bored of London, bored of life.
Sofia offered us an exciting mix of Western and Eastern tea cultures: typical black and green tea offerings in restaurants and cafes, but also Taiwanese bubble tea everywhere, some mint tea, freshly dried chamomiles, and the fragrant Bulgarian Mountain Tea made from Ironwort (a tea also common in Greece, Albania and North Macedonia).
We found loose-leaf teas for sale without having to hunt: in the open-air stand outside the nearest chain supermarket, for example! All the tea vendors said their teas were from German distributors, which we have also encountered in Spain and Malaysia. (Impressive considering Germany doesn’t grow any tea!).
An oddly high number of places claimed to sell Yellow Tea, too, which is almost false by definition. Yellow Tea is so laborious and difficult to make that most of it is reserved by the Chinese government for diplomacy and state gifts. The yellow teas we saw were likely sweltered green teas that were intended to be Yellow Tea, but didn’t make the cut. (Yellow tea is made in part by wrapping the harvested tea leaves to ‘swelter’ them, which changes the taste considerably)
India, the home of masala tea. Chai masala is a heavily spiced brew, made by boiling black tea with various spices, such as cinnamon, black pepper, chili, cardamom and clove, as well as milk and sugar. In Kerala, the southerly state that Kochi is in and where Vien’s Indian side is from, masala chai is slightly less common than in the north, and is more expensive than ‘normal’ chai.
A typical Kerala chai is again made by boiling the black tea with milk and sugar until it is nearly strong enough to hold a spoon upright, but this time no spices are added. It is thick, sweet, and shockingly caffeinated. Enough so that tea vendors, or chaiwallahs, bicycle from office to office during the working day, and it costs 10 rupees ($0.14) for a small paper cup of chai. That tiny cup gives workers the energy to finish the day!
In addition to the classic chai, Tulsi Holy Basil tea is a common tea, drunk for health and energy. Tulsi is an important herb in Ayurveda, so it’s typical to see it advertised as a health tonic. For an introduction to Tulsi, read our Spotlight on Tulsi piece.
Green tea has been growing in popularity too, with billboards shouting about its weight-loss properties. Given India has the world’s highest levels of diabetes, this shift towards unsweetened green tea from sugar-laden chai may be a boon for public health!
Nong Khai & Udon Thani, Thailand
Although Thailand grows some excellent green teas, and is famous for its sugary, milky, spiced Thai tea, on this visit we enjoyed Thai-Chinese Friendship Centre showcasing their Chinese loose-leafs. In addition to a floral oolong and delicate Silver Needle white, we were served Kuding, or ‘bitter nail’ tea, is an herbal tea used in traditional Chinese medicine. It was, unquestionably, the bitterest substance either of us have ever encountered. One sip and our tongues, throats and I think our lungs were coated in a harsh, bitter and oddly sticky coating that stayed with us for hours. Up to then, I had thought Durian was my nemesis, but it seems there’s a new archenemy in town.
However, the ceremony was beautiful and several ‘true’ teas came home with us on that day (our anniversary!). We then had some lovely Thai jasmine green tea to wash away the ‘gack’, as a coffee-loving tea-mistrusting friend calls it!
This is a country coming into its own in terms of tea exporting (as of course they have enjoyed their own tea for a lot longer). Laos is now producing black, green, and puerh teas that are rich, subtle and complex, with tea gardens in both the north and the south. However, bubble tea is the main tea served in the capital, as well as Thai milk tea and many herbal tisanes, such as butterfly pea tea, chrysanthemum tea, ginseng, and ginger.
Sugamelt Café, in the city center, makes and bottles their own fantastic herbal tea blends, and we also discovered a high-end Lao tea exporter with enormous bags of high-end tea filling their garage and framed photos of Chinese President Xi trying their tea on their wall. So now we can say that we and President Xi have similar tastes in tea – external validation of our tea-ness! :-D They were surprised when we wandered in but with the aid of smiles and Google Translate, happily made us a variety of teas so we could try before buying.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
In trafficky Phnom Penh, filled to bursting with jostling motorbikes, it is not only mandatory to wear a helmet, but also apparently a rule that all motorcyclists must carry an icy cup of bubble tea. Truly – every single bike seemed to have tea swinging from its handlebars. As we didn’t motorbike through the city due to not having a death wish, we sourced our tea a different way: afternoon tea style (what else could we do with both our birthdays passing while there?!).
As in France, the British approach to tea is ever-present in this ex-French colony, with tiers of scones and crustless sandwiches more easily found than a simple tea house. We surprised the restaurant staff with how many pots of green tea we ordered too… (One day we headed out, thinking we had found a pure tea house and it served…more bubble tea. Sigh.)
We spent Christmas and New Year’s in Manila this year, and found that, although the Philippines won independence from Spain in 1899 and the US in 1946, it’s retained the Spanish and American dedication to coffee. Still, our hotel offered unlimited tea so I shouldn’t complain!
Given the complex colonialism and the incredibly diverse culture being brought back to one of the world’s largest diasporas (more than 12 million of the 105 million population of the country live abroad), it was a little difficult for us to discern what may have been ethnically Philippine tea traditions. Every other restaurant in our area was a Korean or Japanese BBQ, too, with the associated unlimited tea. We’ve heard the Philippines is starting to produce small batches of tea, though, so perhaps a return journey in a few years is in order!
Louisiana & Vermont, United States of America
Oh, America: how we love thee, despite what you do to tea… The USA prides itself on being a free-thinking, independent, self-sufficient nation that doesn’t need to follow anyone’s rules – but unfortunately applies this to tea-making. Microwaving a Lipton teabag does not a satisfying brew make, but the worst tea-offense appears at traditional diners: six bags of Lipton, long dead, lying in tepid water at the bottom of a coffee pot on a hotpad since early that morning. Uff. Definitely a country in need of our teas, and some tea-ducation!
No photo available of the Lipton debacle! But here's one of us in Vientiane, Laos instead...
There you have it – a full year of tea drinking across Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia and the USA. Our suitcases are straining due to all the new teas we’ve picked up (including some exciting new blends and types that we’ll be sharing with you all soon), and I blushingly must admit we are now traveling with:
- Five teacups
- Four strainers
- Three mugs
- Two teapots (and a gaiwan)
- One tea thermometer
- …and about twenty types of tea.
I’d better stop writing and start drinking. Need to make tea memories for next year’s blog roundup! ;-) What are your best tea memories of 2019?
Explore our Posts & Teas
Keep Calm Lavender Rose Rooibos - Like traveling through the lavender fields of southern France, with a touch of rose for extra Frenchness
Mighty Mint Green Tea - As close as you can get to a Prague fresh mint tea, without going to Prague. Seriously minty.
Classy Earl Grey Rooibos - A quick trick to London in a cup, with the refreshing zing of bergamot.
Calming Chamomile Trio (3 Sleep Teas Bundle) - A tour of the world of chamomiles: 'The Purist' Organic Chamomile; Citrus Beauty Lemongrass Chamomile; and Pretty in Purple Lavender Chamomile. The taste of lazy summer afternoons in Sofia.
'The Purist' Organic Tulsi Holy Basil - This loose leaf Tulsi tea has a rich, warm, herbaceous flavor with a light spice and sweetness that immediately takes us back to Kerala.
Sweet Jasmine Organic Green Tea - Sweet green tea blended with delicate jasmine flowers always reminds us of Thailand, even though this is made with a Chinese green!
Chai Ginger Quartet (4 Gingery Teas Bundle) - Ginger tea makes me think of Vientiane, with its refreshing herbal teas. This bundle includes: Candied Pineapple Ginger Green Rooibos; Don't Ginger Yourself Chai Rooibos; Happy Tummy Ginger Rooibos; and Roasted Ginger Chai Yerba Mate
Finest White Monkey Paw Bai Mao Hou Green Tea - Lightly floral with a smooth and round liquor with hints of honey and honeysuckle. Takes us back to lazy birthday afternoon teas!
Sleep Easy Hojicha Roasted Green Tea - This roasted Japanese green tea is almost caffeine free and has a rich roasted rice nose, with a strong toasted barley flavor. This was the main tea on offer in the multitude of Japanese restaurants in Manila!
Apple Cinnamon Crumble Rooibos - You thought I was going to put Lipton here, didn't you?! Nope! Cinnamon always makes me think of America, and this tea is my fastest way home. Just brew a cup and close my eyes, and I'm instantly in the States!
All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.
References and Further Reading