Fans of Downton Abbey may be fascinated—and a bit envious—of the Crawley daughters’ morning ritual of awakening to a tray of hot tea placed upon their recumbent laps by their ladies’ maids. I suspect the great estate house was quite drafty, and more than a few cups of hot tea were consumed before the pampered ladies placed their delicate toes upon the cold floor. 

Indian tea growers of the Edwardian era did their best to propagate this idyllic scenario as depicted in this advertisement sponsored by the British tea industry (left). Taking a few cups of “bed tea” was considered quite stylish—as long as you could afford the staff to bring your tea and toast to your boudoir. 

Black tea from the Assam region of India, blended with a bit of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or Kenyan tea, was the standard breakfast blend found in British teapots at the turn of the 20th century. 

But America’s taste for morning tea tended toward a more mellow blend emphasizing Ceylon teas. We had our own tea packagers, such as the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) and White Rose. And by 1919, the British giant Lipton had established a tea bag plant in Hoboken, New Jersey to supply the growing American tea market.  
Lipton’s Hoboken (NJ) mammoth tea packing operation photographed in the 1920s.

I am often asked “what goes into a breakfast blend?” There is no master recipe book where tea blenders look for recipes. We are guided by tradition, creativity, consumer demand, and our own personal tastes. Here are a few notes on traditional breakfast teas.

English Breakfast in Britain is often a blend of teas from Assam, Kenya, and Sri Lanka. British consumers usually add milk, so the tea must be strong with a full mouth-feel. Several American blenders still use Chinese Keemun, a classic full-bodied tea which works well with or without the addition of milk. By the way, the term English Breakfast was first used by a New York blender over a century ago.

IrishBreakfast tea will be heavily dependent upon malty Assam teas, often in the form of hearty CTC (cut, tear, curl) grades that quickly steep a deeply-rich cup of tea. They take milk or cream very well. There is an old adage that says the Irish cup of tea should be strong enough for a mouse to scamper across.

Assam teas are often the perfect choice when you want an unblended breakfast tea. This bold, powerful black tea from Northeast India yields a deep, burgundy-red cup with a malty rich flavor. It can have smooth astringency if not steeped too long. Add a minute to the steeping time if you are adding milk. I have started my day with Assam tippy grade single-estate teas for 15 years. 

After describing all these traditional black tea blends, I must admit that tea tastes are changing and consumers are also drinking green teas and herbals at the breakfast table. Some new tea drinkers are looking for the boost of antioxidants that only green tea can deliver. Others simply prefer the smooth clean taste of caffeine-free herbs. 

All of these choices are all okay. Just drink whatever tea helps you, like the Grantham girls, go gently into the morning.

Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson is the co-author, with Jane Pettigrew, of The Social History of Tea (2014) by Benjamin Press.

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