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 grand estate house was quite drafty; consequently, more than a few cups of hot tea were consumed before the pampered siblings 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 (above). 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 India’s Assam region, 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 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 teabag plant in Hoboken, New Jersey, to supply the growing American tea market.
People often ask, “what goes into a breakfast blend?” There is no master recipe book where tea blenders look for recipes. Blenders are guided by tradition, creativity, consumer demand, and our 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 potent with a full mouth-feel. Several American blenders still use Chinese Keemun, a classic full-bodied tea that works well with or without the addition of milk.
By the way, the term English Breakfast was concocted by a New York tea blender over a century ago.
Irish Breakfast 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. An adage 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.
The French have their preferences for morning tea as well. I think of lighter Sri Lankan (Ceylon) teas when I recall the teas I have had in Paris or Bordeaux. I’ve chosen a beautiful Orange Pekoe grade tea from the St. Coombs Garden in the Highlands of Sri Lanka for my French Breakfast Tea.
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. Low-caffeine Houjicha is the tea most often served with breakfast when I travel to Japan. Many tea drinkers are looking for the potent dose of antioxidants that green tea delivers.
You can’t go wrong with any of these choices. I suggest that you drink whatever tea helps you, like the Grantham girls, get out of bed in order to go gently into the morning.
Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson is the co-author, with Jane Pettigrew, of The Social History of Tea, published by Benjamin Press, a division of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas.