1746 map showing Exchange Alley, where tea was first sold in England

Teas of the eighteenth century: English tea trade

Guest blogger: Markmann Ellis

Markman Ellis is Professor of Eighteenth Century Studies at Queen Mary University of London. He is the editor of ‘Tea And The Tea-Table In Eighteenth-Century England’.

No. 3 Teas of the eighteenth century English tea trade

All tea sold in the eighteenth century came from China and Japan, mostly the former.

Tea production in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) began after the ‘discovery’ and propagation of tea in Assam in the 1820s by the Scots brothers Robert and Charles Bruce. Tea was imported by the East India Company (and is thus sometimes described as ‘Indian’), and in the early years, before they established their own trade routes, purchased on secondary markets outside China – such as through the Dutch East India Company factory in Batavia, or from Chinese merchants in India. As a result, English merchants had remarkably little knowledge about the Chinese tea they purchased, and almost no knowledge of the extensive body of Chinese tea knowledge. Whereas Chinese tea classification in the Ming period was primarily geographical, secondly by mode of preparation, and finally by quality, English tea traders preferred simpler distinctions based primarily on colour and appearance. Indeed the Chinese term for ‘green tea’, lu cha seems to have been borrowed back from English. The first advertisement for tea, in a newspaper in 1658, sold by Thomas Garway at the Sultaness Coffee-House in Sweeting’s Rents by the Royal Exchange in the City of London, made reference only to ‘That Excellent […] China Drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha’ in 1658. It is probable that Garway and his customers knew no more than that: it was a Chinese drink. Samuel Pepys knew very little more when he was given the drink in 1660 by Sir Richard Ford, a wealthy Spanish merchant, noting in his diary that he ‘afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before’. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the tea-trade recognized only three different kinds of tea, though to be fair to them, they also recognised that some teas were better, and therefore more expensive, than others. The tripartite division was set out in the first British treatise on tea, the Essay upon the Nature and Qualities of Tea (1699), written by the chaplain and traveler John Ovington. He described Bohea tea, ‘a little Leaf inclining to black, [that] generally tinges the Water brown, or of a reddish Colour’; Singlo, or Soumlo, ‘of a blewish green Colour’; and ‘Bing, or Imperial Tea’, which he said ‘looks both green to the Eye, and is crisp in the Mouth, and the Smell of it is very pleasant’. As European knowledge of tea was very rudimentary in this period, determining which forms of Chinese tea these conform to is very complicated, partly because terms for tea themselves underwent profound changes in the eighteenth century as British trade and knowledge increased, and partly because the Chinese tea industry has also undergone significant change in this period.

Bohea was perhaps the most famous tea in the early eighteenth century, noted in numerous poems of the period, including Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714). The tea took its name from the Wuyi mountains between Fujian and Hokkien province: ‘Bohea’ is an anglicised pronunciation of Wuyi. Bohea was considered an inferior grade in the local trade, but was purchased with alacrity by European traders at Ningpo, Amoy and Canton. Bohea was most likely a form of oolong or wu lung: the harvested leaves were wilted slowly in the sun, allowing a period of enzymatic oxidation to occur prior to being panned, rolled, and dried. The semi-oxidised flavours of oolong are somewhere between green tea and what is today called ‘black tea’ by Western consumers (the Chinese term is hung cha, or ‘red tea’). Bohea was darker and browner than green tea, especially in the English preparation, but was not a fully-oxidized black tea or Hung cha of the kind now most widely consumed in Britain. According to the research of Huang Hsing-Tsung, which uses Chinese documentary sources, Hung cha black teas were probably not developed in China until the nineteenth century.

But bohea and green weren’t the only varieties of tea sold in England by the East India Company. In the early eighteenth century, after the company began their own direct trade with China through the port of Canton, knowledge of and appreciation for distinct varieties of tea expanded. By the 1720s, Thomas Twining was selling ‘pekoe’, a name transliterated from the Amoy word for a tea characterized by white flowers. By the end of the century, the English tea trade was still using a basic distinction between green and bohea tea, but admitted greater variety into their offering. In 1800, for example, the long-established tea merchant Winter, Hughes and Co. in Newgate Street sold an ‘assortment of tea of the finest flavour’ at a range of prices – from Bohea Tea at 1s 9d, through Congou, Souchong, and Green Tea to the finest Hyson which sold at up to 10s the pound. In explanation we might turn to the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1797, which divided tea into three kinds of green tea, and five kinds of bohea. Among the Green teas, there were: ‘1. Imperial or bloom tea, with a large loose leaf, light green colour, and a faint delicate smell. 2. Hyson, so called from the name of the merchant who first imported it; the leaves of which are closely curled and small, of a green colour, verging to a blue. 3. Singlo tea, from the name of the place where it is cultivated’. Among the Boheas were: ‘Souchong, which imparts a yellow green colour by infusion. 2. Camho, so called form the place where it is made; a fragrant tea, with a violet smell; its infusion pale. 3. Congo [congou], which has a larger leaf than the following, and its infusion somewhat deeper, resembling common bohea in the colour of the leaf. 4. Pekoe tea: this is known by the appearance of small, white flowers mixed with it. 5. Common bohea, whose leaves are of one colour. There are other varieties, particularly a kind of green tea, done up in roundish balls, called gunpowder-tea’. By the end of the century, bohea had gone from a prestigious elite beverage to the most common variety of tea. The greater diversity in classification of tea, mixing place of origin, appearance and preparation, meant that individuals purchasing tea, as today, would need to rely on their tea-merchant to offer consistent products to the market.

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