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Along with red double-decker buses, the Queen and crumpets, tea is a key component of British culture. The Brits love for tea is known globally and the beverage has become a huge part of British experiences. The humble tea leaf has come on an impressive journey to become the nation’s favourite drink. So, in honour of Britain’s National Tea Day, which took place on 21 April, I shall delve into how a plant originating in the Eastern hemisphere became a crucial part of Britain’s culture.
In the Beginning
There are many myths surrounding the origin of tea, the main being the Chinese story of Emperor Shen Nung, who was also a renowned herbalist. The story goes that when a tea leaf from a nearby shrub blew into his boiling drinking water, he then tasted the brewed tea and the beverage was born. Having said that, tea does indeed have a rich history in China, being consumed from 550 BC, and was passed from royal circles to the average man by 900AD.
A Political Past:
Tea first came to the UK through the East India Trading Company. In 1664 the monopoly put in its first order of tea from China. Tea had become popular in Britain thanks to the marriage of Charles I and Catherine of Bragnza, a Portuguese Princess who loved a cuppa. From this, tea became an admired drink in courtly and aristocratic circles. By the 17th Century tea drinking had become a common activity for the whole population, and the East India Trading Company’s imports and profits rocketed. The East India Company started to run into financial issues in the 1770s, forcing Parliament to allow them to ship directly to America, but with tea that would be heavily taxed for the Americans. This led to The Boston Tea Party in 1773, which saw 342 chests of tea dumped into Boston Harbour. After this revolution, interest in tea in the American colonies dwindled as coffee became the new favourite pick-me-up. No longer used as a political chess piece, tea is enjoyed by many in Britain, and is seen both as a home comfort and an indulgence all in one.
The Taste of Tea
60 billion cups of tea are consumed in the UK each year, according to the Tea and Infusion Organisation. Chugging more than 900 cups a year each, the British public must truly love the taste of tea, but why? The taste of tea all boils down to how it’s grown, processed and brewed, and the level of sunlight each plant has – all these factors impact what we taste when we drink our brew. Green Tea, for example, has a higher level of chlorophyll as the bushes are grown in the shade. The drying of the tea leaves that can also amp up a tea’s flavour. Green tea leaves are immediately steamed or put into a hot pan after the leaves have been picked, whereas black tea leaves are bruised and then dried over a long period of time before being popped into a pan. While the tea leaves dry, enzymes that are naturally found in the plant begin to turn their simple molecules into more complex ones, hundreds of different compounds build up in the tea leaves over time impacting the flavour. When the tea is then fried it halts the process by killing the enzymes.
Considering the popularity of tea, you’d think that there must be some health benefits to drinking the beverage. So far there is only inconclusive and conflicting evidence as to whether tea does much more than accompany biscuits on a lunch break. It is true, however, that tea is a stimulant. Brewed tea has around half the caffeine of an equivalent amount of coffee, so it’s perfect for a little pick me up if you’re looking to avoid a complete caffeine induced buzz. It is also true that tea has a good level of antioxidants in it, specifically flavonoids, which can soak up ‘free radicals’ produced by factors such as pollution and UV rays that may challenge our normal state of health. So drinking tea does in fact have some small benefits other than just breaking up library sessions and going well with scones and jam.
The Perfect Brew?
According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, to make the perfect cup of tea you need to ensure any teabags or loose leaf teas are stored away in an airtight container to ensure maximum freshness. For black tea, boiling water is best to ‘energise’ the leaf and ‘extract its character’, whereas green tea can taste bitter if the water is boiling when adding it to the tea, so having water at around 80 degrees is better. The water you use in your tea must be freshly boiled, oxygen is key to draw out fresh and fragrant tones, and each time water is boiled, it loses oxygen. One teabag or teaspoon of loose leaf to one cup ratio is best for a full flavour. Brewing time should be around three to four minutes and, of course, unless you’re a monster, milk goes in last.
The Team’s Favourite Teas
We asked the Nouse Team what their favourite brew is and why:
Chamomile tea because it makes me feel relaxed and sleepy - Andrew Young, MUSE Editor
Yorkshire Tea, milk no sugar: it’s the perfect way to start and end the day, and reminds me of home - Jonny Wellington, Comment Editor
Yorkshire Tea strong with one sugar: the only way to have it - Alex Thompson, Music Editor
Green tea with a slice of lemon, it’s very refreshing and a nice palate cleanser - Saskia Starritt, Deputy MUSE Editor
Earl Grey because it gives you a bit of a ‘zap’ in the throat (and I do like spicy food, I’m not as korma as that seemed) - Maddie Thornham, Chief Sub-Editor
I only drink green tea because it makes me feel like I’m looking after myself - Charlotte Rogers, Sub-Editor
Betty’s Special Blend because it’s got a nice box - Joseph Silke, Editor
Earl Grey because I like the citrus notes, but
it has to be without milk - Beth Colquhoun, Music Editor
I’d go for Jasmine tea because it has a wonderful fragrant aroma - Jodie Sheehan, Deputy Features Editor