The cup that cheers

Having posted on the follies of polarisation, I am now going to divide the world neatly into two.

It seems to me that people are either Tea Drinkers or Coffee Drinkers. They may pay cautious and polite visits to each others’ country but are often more likely to compromise on a hot chocolate when they do. (And what a puling, foolish, bastardised, homogenised, saccarined simulacrum that is in most of the tea-rooms and cafes that sell it. I could divert myself with the delights of a French cafe in Bath where the hot chocolate was dark and bitter and made out of melted chocolate with milk stirred in, but I won’t. I am here for another bigoted rant entirely.)

The trouble with coffee is that it is purveyed with a hundred different adulterations in clanking, banging, over market-researched, minimum waged ertzatzeries (spit the word out) such as Starbucks and Costa and Cafe Nero. Pity the poor tea drinker who stumbles into such a place. The noise, for a start. BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG as the grounds are dislodged from whatever crevices of the machinery they have been rammed in to. What kind of relaxation requires such force?

No. The real evils of the Cafe Costbucks of this world lie not in the coercive abominations they apply to the relatively innocent coffee bean (if you really want raspberry syrup with your coffee you are damned beyond redemption anyway). No, the true horrors of these places are the pathetic and derogatory nod they make in the direction of tea.

Tea. Tay. The. Chai. Char. Forget herbal teas, which are tisanes anyway. Forget the chimeras created out of mixed fruit and synthetic oils. We are talking about the dried top leaves of the camelia bush. Grown high, and harvested young.

Tea has to be made with respect. Do you know why tea should always be made with freshly and briefly boiled water? Read on. You are about to find out. Take a glass of water. Leave it standing overnight. Observe the little bubbles on the inside of the glass which makes it look like a glass of lustreless cream soda. These bubbles are air. Good fresh water has air dissolved in it. It is the lack of air in the water which makes tea taste nasty and sharp and tannic. The owners of tropical fish will tell you that they need to oxygenate the water in their fishtanks. This is because warm water cannot retain dissolved air, and the longer the water is warm, and the warmer that it is for that time, the less air remains dissolved in it. Thus, to make a decent cup of tea you need freshly and briefly boiled water.

Tea should be made with hot water in china. The china retains heat in a different way from the way that glass or – worse – pyrex retains heat. I don’t know how or why. But I have yet to meet an American other than my Ma’s friend Connie who could grasp these two simple facts. Hot water. China. Not warm water and glass. Glass beakers with steel handles look elegent, if you think glass and steel the height of sleek moderne good taste of course, but the tea tastes like pee.

Water matters to tea. Some teas taste best with hard water and some with soft. (Hard water comes from limestone aquifers and is pure but full of calcium. If your kettle furs up with chalk, then you live with hard water). Good tea blenders know this. My Ma used to buy tea from a tea-merchant who blended a mix for the local water. The Yorkshire Tea company still do a local version of their soft and delicious dark tea and a version for exiles designed to produce the same flavour in a hard water area.

Different cultures make tea in different ways. Last night I had a cup of Persian tea, tasting slightly of mint, made in a heavy china teapot which balanced on a stand which contained a single tea-light, (oh moment of epiphany!) which kept the pot warm. We had delicately gilded thistle shaped glasses to drink it from, with a bulbous base to keep the tea warm and a flaring lip to hold.

Chinese tea: scented with jasmine and served in wafer-thin porcelain translucent with grains of rice.

Japanese tea: green and delicately harsh, served in heavy little earthenware handleless cups.

European tea: black but light and clean-tasting for serving with lemon.

English tea. Dark. Strong. Tannic. Transformed into a foodstuff with milk. Sergeant Major Tea strong enough to kill most Sergeant Majors. Tea advertised by Chimpanzees.

South African Redbush tea: naturally scented and aromatic, orange in the cup, lightly tannic but without caffeine, drunk with or without milk.

Indian tea: smoky, dark, strong, from Assam or Darjeeling.

Gunpowder Green tea: whole leaves rolled into tight little balls that bounce open in the hot water.

White tea: made from leaves so fragrant and delicate they used to be picked by virgins.

Spiced chai: strong, sweet, milky, aromatic with cardamons, hot with pepper and sharp with ginger.

Turkish tea: pungent with mint, made palatable with sugar and served in tiny glasses.

Russian tea: too strong to think of, but diluted with water from a samovar.

Tea accommodates eccentricities. My Ma used to mix Early Grey (a strongly aromatic china tea scented with the oil of the bergamot orange) with Darjeeling. Me, I drink spiced chai mixed with roibosh. My aunt would add a sprig of rosemary to her Assam. But we all made it with hot water in china teapots or earthenware mugs.

You see, tea should always be treated with respect. It does not require snobbishness. Single Estate Cylon tea just tastes like tea to me. I buy my every day teas in bags. But it does deserve respect.

You can keep your steamed, boiled coffee, with a flavour which has to be smothered in milk, frothed up and fluffed, disguised with sprinklings of chocolate or nutmeg, and drowned in hazel syrup.

I should be grateful that the Cafe StarryCosts of this world have not adopted tea, I suppose. Or people would assume that something vaguely brown made from water which has been kept at 85 degrees for half an hour, poured into a glass with the offer of maple flavored corn-syrup comprises tea.


15 responses to “The cup that cheers

  1. Hi Aphra-
    Great hot beverage post. But you forgot one of the most fascinating of all traditional hot drinks. I was introduced to Yerba Mate by some Argentinian friends at music school in Pittsburgh about 8 years ago. It’s the traditional drink of southern South American countries. It has a very earthy flavour….almost dirty. The Mate itself is packed tightly into a small gourd and a metal straw (with a screen attached to the end for filtering) is placed into the tea leaves. Hot water is poured into the gourd and after a few minutes the “juice” is sucked out with the metal straw. It is an extremely stimulating beverage. Not caffeinated…. there is some other chemical that really kicks you in the bum. The gourd is often shared with multiple straws and the beverage is said to bring clarity and stamina to the consumer. The neat thing about this “tea” is the way it is traditionally transported. My friends walked around the conservatory carrying beautifully decorated leather satchels over their shoulders that contained their gourd, thermos of hot water, metal filter straw and bag of loose Mate. They drank this beverage constantly throughout the day…….during classes, between classes and during breaks at rehearsal.
    I purchased some of the paraphernalia since moving from Pittsburgh and the Mate tea itself is fairly easy to find here in Nova Scotia.
    I’m more of a strong french coffee with cream type of person and try and stay away from the dreaded Charbucks except for in cases of emergency. I too enjoy the traditional cup of tea from time to time but more often than not I drink Japanese Green tea or straight Mint tea. And of course, living in Canada, the hot cup of dark cocoa is always welcome on a cold winter’s night.

  2. Another enjoyable piece, AB.

    Have never been a keen tea drinker, being far too much of a coffee addict, but do find green tea and rooibos tea very palatable.
    Interestingly, redbush tea comes from a different genus – Aspalathus linearis – and contains no caffeine. It features heavily in Mma Ramotswe’s daily diet and is supposed to be good for all sorts of things.

    Tea from Camellia sinensis is also supposed to be full of lots of beneficial minerals and trace elements.
    Back in the late 1970s there was a massive stushie in Glasgow over plans to fluoridate the water supply. There was an important legal case with the anti-fluoridation lobby using the edentulous Catherine McColl to front their argument. Unfortunately, they didn’t keep her on a tight enough rein and one of her quotes to the media involved an objection on the grounds that fluoride at 1ppm would make her cuppa taste funny. She didn’t know that tea leaf naturally contains a small amount of fluoride.

    Re your comments on costacoffeebucks inc – I find it pleasing that there’s one thing these corporates can’t get their grubby mitts on. I’ve never even had a decent cup of coffee in one of these places – it always tastes burnt.

    Can’t say I share 1loneranger’s liking for yerba mate. G brought some home from Chile, complete with all the doings which is now gathering dust in some forlorn corner of his bedroom. It must be an acquired taste – but the same must be true for tea and coffee, I suppose.

  3. I was feeling mildly outraged at the idea that I can’t be a tea drinker and a coffee drinker, and then I remember that while I drink a lot of coffee I have no descrimination about it whatsoever. I will drink any kind of coffee, but I am fer more fussy about my tea. Spot the caffine addict.

    I like green tea with fresh ginger chpped into it. I confess to being partial to some of the teas I bring back from Russia which do have dried fruit and such added though. Sorry.

    When B’s cousin was over from St Petersburg, by the way, we sent her back loaded with different Brisish tea samples, including ones from Fortune and Masons.

    And lo the word trickled back that everybody in Russia agreed that Yorkshire Tea was by far the best of all the blends and brands we’d given her.

    Great post.

  4. Oh here I am Ms Middle Ground again. I like coffee, I like tea, I like the java jive and it likes me. My favourite teas are rooibos, green tea with mint and Yorkshire Strong Tea for hard water, which is essential where we live.

  5. Recommend earl grey/lapsang mix.

  6. In this God-forsaken country where I live (Sweden) they almost always have those nasty, terrible oil-and-fruit teas. It always makes me shiver…I ask for tea and they say “What kind?” and I say “Ordinary tea. Normal tea. Just TEA!” And they shake their heads and stare funny at me.

    And then they serve me tea in a glass. A glass, I ask you!!!

    I’ll just go and lie down now…

  7. I am both a tea and a coffee drinker, and infuriatingly fussy about both. I very rarely have tea-bags in the house, preferring to muck about with loose-leaf, fair-trade, single-estate, organic-if-possible, tea in canisters brought from a local tea specialist. My favourites are Russian Caravan, Yunnan, Lapsang Souchong… Friends coming round for a cup of tea end up being driven into a frenzy of indecision and cry ‘What is wrong with you? I just want tea!’

    As for coffee, I won’t have instant in the house and the pride and joy of the kitchen is the shiny espresso and cappuccino maker. I keep the freshly ground coffee in the freezer. Again, it’s all so socially responsible it picks up its own litter, is snootily single-estate and/or carefully blended by women’s cooperatives and each individual bean is hand-polished with a little silk rag by organic marmosets.

    And it is entirely because I spent too many years drinking lukewarm tea in a glass in Italy (where tea is regarded as an affectation) and too many of the same years drinking some foul acrid slurry made from instant coffee in jolly care-bear mugs in Britain.

    If I’m going to be a caffeine addict, I may as well enjoy it.

  8. If you think tea drinkers look at coffee drinkers funny (and vice versa), I get it even worse from both sides. I can’t stand either tea or coffee.

    I can make a cup of tea, even though I don’t drink it. You do learn the rites by rote when growing up in a tea drinking house and now living with a committed tea drinker.


  9. I’ve never tried mate, 1loneranger, but you make it sound very enticing. Oddly enough, I used to sell it in the dim and distant past, when I worked for a shop which sold medicinal herbs. It does sound as if it has a pleasing amount of paraphenalia.

    I didn’t know roibosh was a different species, aberdeenqueenie. How fascinating. I shall try not to let that prejudice me! It is a great favourite of mine though. Interesting to know from a coffee drinker that the coffeecostabucks can’t even make coffee.

    Sol, I really want to try russian tea. I don’t object to tea with fruit in, it is the “herbal teas” which have neither tea nor herbs I object to. You know the ones, they smell like hot ribena. I must admit, I am increasingly impressed by yorkshire tea, and would drink it all the time if I hadn’t got myself addicted to my spiced chai and roibosh mix.

    Charlotte and Reed, you are the only two peeps I know who like both equally. I am going to have to adjust my world view. How disorientating!

    Ann, Earl Grey and Lapsang sounds a potent mix. I once asked my sisters what the difference was between china tea and indian tea and they just opened the two caddies. The perfume from the china tea was so strong it made me sneeze. I always think of them as being like the contrast between whisky and beer.

    Paddyk. Ah. Sweden. Yes, well. I do agree. On the other hand you have Kokkens / Knorr Citron Peppar. I have seen people twitch with excitement at the sight of a rucksack half packed with Citron Peppar.

    Phil, it took several weeks of wide eyed innocent looks from the one who never voluntarily drinks tea before he would believe that I could in fact taste when the water wasn’t fresh. I think he thought I was watching. He has finally learned that it is quicker and easier and cheaper in tea and milk if he makes it properly!

    Thank you all for reading, and sharing your comments.


  10. Well, I drink both tea and coffee, but I have to say that I prefer coffee.

    In this house we take our coffee very seriously, I’m afraid. We do have an espresso maker, but it doesn’t get used very often. But we buy green coffee. It is always organic, shade grown, fair trade because otherwise the beverage has a karmic bitterness I cannot tolerate. We roast our coffee the night before we make it. Grind it fresh in the morning, and prepare it (with briefly boiled water!) in a chemex coffee pot equipped with an unbleached filter.

    I enjoyed this post. The one thing that nobody has mentioned is the fact that while both the Chinese and Japanese cultures have created a Tea Ceremony, which is rich in tradition and meaning, as far as I know there is no Coffee Ceremony. So perhaps this is further evidence that tea is superior to coffee?

  11. I like both tea and coffee. I prefer the coffee I make at home from freshly-ground ethically lovely beans to tea although in my current caffeine-deprived state I prefer my raspberry-leaf tea (NOT hot-ribena-flavoured stuff) or rooibush to decaf coffee. Came as a surprise that you can get decaf beans for grinding but they just aren’t the same.

    I do like the fruit infusion things, for drinking when I am trying to cut down on caffeine.

    The thing that most english tea drinkers seem to have a problem with, when making tea for me, is the fact that I don’t take milk in it. I’ll have a slice of lemon for prefrance, but nothing but hot water is fine. They look at me strangely as if to make sure I’m not kidding them along. People always make it *far* too strong.

  12. healingmagichands-

    The Ethiopians have a wonderful coffee ceremony in their ancient coffee drinking tradition. Roasting and drinking java juice started in the hills of Ethiopia after all. Their coffee is prepared very strong, long roasted – almost burnt, just before drinking. It is traditionally served with sugar only. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of coffee, but the ceremony is lovely and the food……oh… is my absolute favorite.

  13. I think I know ‘this place in Bath’.

  14. I’m a tea and a coffee addict, but on reading this, I’m a tea philistine and a seroius coffee drinker (I won’t drink instant coffee, and I will only have my coffee from a proper espresso machine). I do like properly made tea (Lapsang souchong is my favourite) but I can’t be bothered making it most of the time.

    But I drink so much that you’ve made me wonder whether I should just buy a teapot for work and do it properly.

  15. Gosh, lots of comments here I’ve completely ignored. My bad.

    Interesting comments and good points about ceremonies, hmh and 1loneranger.

    kelli – black tea! You’d love european teas which are blended weak for drinking black or with lemon. I had a favourite book about the Brits written by a German which said “the British drink their tea with milk; you may consider this habit barbaric, until you taste British tea”.

    Buffy, it used to be called Cafe Rene, and was tucked away in a courtyard but the last time I went it wasn’t there. Maybe it’s moved rather than closed.

    Penguin – do it! More people should be made aware of the glories of proper tea. That’s why Marxists always use teabags. They believe proper tea is theft.



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