Saturday, May 11, 2019

Orange Pekoe? English Breakfast? Earl Grey? Isn't it all just tea?

Most black tea we buy in Canada is labelled Orange Pekoe tea, but you never (or rarely) see Orange Pekoe on the menu in Britain, that bastion of tea drinkers. So, what gives.
Tea, whether it's black or green or white or oolong, all comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, originally from China. How it ends up mainly depends on how it is processed after picking. White tea undergoes the least processing, and has a delicate and subtle flavour. Green tea is made by withering the tea leaves, and then steaming, rolling and drying them. Oolong tea is a partly-fermented green tea, with its own particular flavour. Black tea is made to go through an oxidation and aeration process, similar to fermentation, which gives it a stronger, more distinctive flavour.
Orange Pekoe is essentually a grade of black tea rather than a particular flavour. The orange pekoe leaves are the small leaves just near the bud of the plant, the "new flushes", which must be harvested by hand. The origin of the label "orange" is uncertain (it does NOT have an orange flavour), but it may refer to the slightly coppery tinge of the leaves that make up this grade of tea, or it may refer to the Dutch House of Orange, which was largely responsible for bringing teas to Europe on a commercial scale during the 18th Century. Either way, Orange Pekoe is typically a higher grade of tea, made from whole or broken leaves, and not from the poorer quality "fannings" and "dust". In North America, though, Orange Pekoe has become in recent years a generic name for any black tea.
So what, then, are things like English Breakfast tea, Irish Breakfast tea, Scottish Breakfast tea, etc. Well, they're all really the same old black tea from the Camellia sinensis bush, but they are different blends which give a slightly different flavours (note the word "slightly). Breakfast tea in general is a strong, flavourful black tea that lends itself to the addition of milk, such as a Brit would like to drink with a traditional English breakfast or fry-up. It is more robust and hearty than an afternoon tea blend. English Breakfast tea was originally made from Chinese tea leaves, but over time became a blend of Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Indonesian teas. Irish Breakfast tea has a higher percentage of Assam tea leaves, which gives it a more robust, malty flavour, and a more orangey colour when brewed. Scottish Breakfast tea is even stronger, with a higher caffeine content, but is also blended from tea from a variety of different sources. However, there are no official regulations regarding what constitutes an English, as opposed to an Irish or Scottish breakfast tea, so there can be a good deal of variation.
Darjeeling (musky, spicy flavour) and Assam (strong, malty taste) are teas from specific regions of India (Assam tea actually uses a distinct sub-variety of Camellia sinensis). Chinese teas like Lapsang Souchong get their distinctive smoky flavours from exposure to the smoke of certain kinds of wood, and Pu'er teas are aged, often for many years, which adds complexity to the flavours, and are then compressed into hard cakes or buds of dried tea. There are hundreds of other regional variations in both India and China.
With Earl Grey tea, though, we move into the realm of flavoured teas. It is black tea flavoured with oil from the rind of bergamot oranges (bergamot is a kind of cross between an orange and a lemon, with a little bit of grapefruit and lime thrown in). It is not therefore a type of tea, or even a grade of tea, but a tea that is flavoured during processing, like hundreds of other flavoured teas available today all over the world. It just happens to be one with a storied history (Earl Grey was the British Prime Minister in the 1830s). Lady Grey tea is a modern, more delicately favoured variant of Earl Grey (although still using oil of bergamot), wbich was developed and trademarked in the 1990s.
But, in the end, it's all just tea. Some people have very strong opinions about which particular flavour they prefer. Others (like me) are happy with anything warm and wet, with a manageable dose of caffeine. The rise in popularity of chains like David's Tea and many trendy independent tea shops in Canada, has led to a bit of tea snobbery of late. But in England, the quintessential tea-drinkers' land, you can still go into a little village cafe and ask for "a cup of tea". And that's just what you'll get. Just don't confuse the issue by asking for orange pekoe.

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