I am a self-proclaimed tea lover. Tea motivates me out of bed in the morning, pulls me through my 9am lecture, and enables me to function as a living, breathing human being knowing that it is only hours until I can have my next cup of tea.
Surprisingly, however, we Brits appear to know very little about the history of our beloved tea. What continues to astonish me is how few people know about Newcastle’s legacy in the world of tea. Earl Grey tea is named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who was British Prime Minister in the 1830s and to whom Grey’s Monument is dedicated. There are many rumours about how the role he played in the creation of the first cup of Earl Grey. The story I personally heard was that, following the completion of his studies, Grey began a “grand tour” around the world, seen somewhat as the norm for aristocratic families, in which the young graduate would travel to visit family friends and experience new cultures around the globe. Upon arriving in China, however, he was dismayed to discovered that his beloved English tea didn’t taste quite as nice when used with Chinese water; and thus he commissioned a manufacturer in China to produce a new type of tea which was suited to the water there, and so Earl Grey tea was born. This, however, appears to have been disproved, as it is argued that Grey never actually set foot in China. A variation of this story, verified by the Grey family, is that the tea was specially blended by a Chinese Mandarin-speaker for Grey, to suit the water at Howick Hall, Northumberland, because bergamot counters the natural taste of the lime found in the local water there. Following this, the tea was used by Lady Grey when she entertained friends in London as a political hostess, and its popularity there led to the global success Earl Grey has today.
As a proud Yorkshire girl, however, I am additionally aware of the cultural role that the delicious beverage plays in God’s Own County. This is evidenced most of all through the tearoom chain Bettys. Following the opening of its first tearoom in Harrogate in July 1919 by Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont, Bettys expanded to own a total of six premises; two in York, two in Harrogate, one in Ilkley and one in Northallerton. Bettys offers an array of delectable and quintessentially-British treats, however it is perhaps most acclaimed for its delicious fat rascals, a type of scone containing cherries and almonds. No matter what you choose to order at Bettys, however, you simply have to order it with tea.
Tearooms are becoming increasingly popular in Britain among the younger generations. This comes as surveys suggest that decreasing numbers of British students are choosing to drink alcohol.
Tearooms offer a guilt-free way of socialising: no hangovers, no excessive calories, and certainly no questionable Snapchat stories the next day after a mad night on English breakfast or camomile tea. This is especially the case following the rise in late-night tearooms and cafes such as Quilliams Brothers which is open til midnight; this offers the perfect late-night socialising opportunity when your house is a tip and a pint sounds like you might miss your 9am. Independent tearooms in particularly have becoming incredibly popular, with coffee chains such as Starbucks being criticised by younger generations for their excessive use of plastic, rather high prices, and penchant for avoiding taxes. Furthermore, in an age where social media increasingly dominates people’s perceptions of themselves and each other, tearooms offer the opportunity to get some fab Instagram posts, with Quilliams Brothers, Olive & Bean and Cake Stories being renowned for their beautiful décor and presentation of tea and cakes.
Tea is incredibly popular around the world, albeit in different forms. My Turkish friend once told me that her Grandmother drinks upwards of 30 cups a day; this might sound terrifying to even the most addicted tea lover, but the tea served there is very different to what we drink here. Turkish tea is drunk in very small quantities in dainty tulip-shaped glasses, a far cry from the legendary Sports Direct mugs we use over here. Rather than resorting to a bag of trusty old Yorkshire Tea, tea in Turkey is often still served in the traditional way even when at home, using a high concentration of loose tealeaves and, contrary to English tea customs, it shouldn’t be drunk with milk. Tea is served in a similar manner in Syria, as shown to me by a Syrian friend of mine. Drinking tea in such small quantities means that you don’t have to worry about it going cold.
Rumour has it that Americans choose to prepare their tea by boiling water in a microwave, then adding a teabag.
One tea drinking culture I do have slight qualms with, however, is the American. While I am sure that not all choose to engage in such a shocking and quite frankly disturbing practice, I simply feel shocked that this is the tea drinking norm over the pond. Can tea really brew to its proper flavour when the water is microwaved and not boiled? I don’t know the answer to this, and I don’t really want to find out.
Last modified: 17th July 2019