Tea-drinking in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland

There is an interesting paper here by Dr Helen O’Connell, which discusses how tea-drinking in Ireland was viewed in the early nineteenth century.

Tea was first introduced to Ireland in the mid 18th century and at first its cost kept it a luxury that was confined to the upper class and aristocracy. The cost of tea fell significantly in the eighteenth century and the removal of tariffs in 1784, the price was halved again. Tea smuggling was widespread and it was the smuggled, cheaper tea that Irish peasants enjoyed. Its popularity grew quickly and by 1830s, tea was in staple in people’s diets and widespread amongst the poor. It seems that English reformers saw the pastime of tea-drinking as “reckless and uncontrollable” and something that could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

The rural workers in Ireland were seen as decadent and lazy and tea-drinking promoted these flaws in the lower classes. It was deemed that the consumption of tea was something that would “deepen the social backwardness seen to be endemic and unmanageable in rural Ireland”. The practice was seen as particularly distracting for women and elimination was necessary so they could focus on their homely duties and the prospering of the economy.  Behind these objections seems to be a theory that tea drinking would make the Catholic Irish appear more Irish (and less English). In addition, the symbolic equality attained by tea-drinking “could only prepare the ground for the eventual attainment of actual equality” which might render the reform impossible.

Dr O’Connell says that “the prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women. If that wasn’t enough, there were also supposedly drug-like qualities of tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time.”

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

English reformers distributed pamphlets to peasant households that condemned the drink and highlighted its dangers.  They emphasized the frivolity of wasting money on a substance that had no nutritional or practical benefits.

Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, 1811

“Now if you both take to drinking tea, (and sure you can’t sit down to one thing, and he to another,) you must have a quarter of an ounce of tea, that is three half pence at the lowest; and two ounces of sugar, that is three half pence more; a four- penny loaf will be tight enough; two ounces of butter two pence; all that comes to nine pence, and hardly enough; and weak food for a man.”

While economic historians interpret tea drinking as a sign of wealth, Leadbeater attempts to interpret the practice as a sign of backwardness and an inability to manage the domestic economy.

Reference: O’Connell H. ‘A Raking Pot of Tea’: Consumption and Excess in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Literature & History. October 2012;21(2):32-47

Oxidation

I briefly mentioned oxidation in my getting sorted post when I was talking about the different categories of tea and thought it might be worth talking about a little more.

Oxidation is basically what causes the leaves of the tea plant (that are green when they grow) to turn brown. It is a biochemical reaction which involves the absorption of oxygen (like when an apple is cut). Black tea is generally close to fully oxidised, Green teas are usually non-oxidised and Oolongs tend to be partially oxidised to varying degrees. Oxidation is pivotal to the processing of tea and will change its colour, smell and flavour.

Oxidation Chart

Oxidation Chart (Source)

Oxidised teas, are bruised (from lightly to extensively)  to break the  cell walls and allow the enzymes in the leaves to cause natural oxidation reactions. Heating the leaves stops oxidation by deactivating the enzymes. In this way the tea producer can decide on the extent of oxidation by introducing heat. Green teas are non-oxidised and so are heated early in the production process so that the oxidation process is skipped.

Sometimes tea-oxidation is called fermentation but no microorganisms are used so this is a misnomer. Generally when people talk about tea-fermentation they are talking about oxidation.

However, just to complicate matters, the proper micororganism fermentation does take place with pu-erhs.

There are exceptions to this, but here are the usual oxidation and fermentation levels:

Black tea – almost fully oxidised

Oolong tea – partialy oxidised (ranging from 12% – 80%)

White tea – minimal oxidation

Green tea – No oxidation

Yellow tea – No oxidation

Pu-erh – fermented (sheng pu-erh is not oxidised but shou pu-erh is)

Caffeine

I was reading an old article from Bord Bia that said that tea consumption was on the rise at night-time. The reason given was that “people are at home more often and tea is a comforting affordable reliable beverage”.

There have been several papers written on the effect of caffeine on sleep disruption and even more papers written on effect of caffeine on other health issues (good and bad). A major problem in this type of research is that all the papers tend to use very different values for the caffeine content in beverages and foods.

There are plenty of reasons for the variations. Preparation plays a large role and differences in the time and temperature of steeping, the size of the tea leaf and the type of tea used will all influence the caffeine content of tea. The variety of plant, care of the plants, soil nutrients, picking season and the part of plant used will also play a role.

Caffeine Crystals under the microscope

Caffeine Crystals under the microscope (Source)

Caffeine is a white, odourless crystal that occurs naturally in coffee, tea and chocolate and is added to colas and energy drinks. After a lot of reading, here is a summary of caffeine content in tea from sources that seems reliable:

Tea (~200ml after one steeping of three minutes)

Chinese white tea – 75mg

Darjeeling white – 56mg

Indian Green – 59mg

Kenyan Green – 58 mg

Chinese Oolong (Ti Kwan Yin) – 37mg

Assam (FTGFOP) – 86mg

Darjeeling Black (SFTGFOP1) – 54mg

 

For comparison here are some for coffee and other beverages:

Coffee (~200ml)

Coffee (ground roasted) – 115mg

Coffee (instant) – 80mg

Cola – 20mg

Decaffeinated coffee – 4mg

Espresso, single shot – 75mg

Espresso, double shot – 150mg

Red Bull (250ml can) – 80mg

 

Chocolate

It seems to be generally accepted that there are 6mg of caffeine per 30g serving. But it seems to vary a lot:

70% Green and Black dark Chocolate (30g) – 4.5mg

Green and Black milk chocolate (30g) – 2mg

White chocolate (30g) – 0mg

Cadbury dairy milk (28g) – 15mg

Herbal tea

Herbal tea – 0mg

(Note: other substances like theobromine, tanninic acid, caffeol also play a role)

 

I found it surprising how high the caffeine content of green tea is. Many claim that green and white tea have less caffeine than oolong or black tea because of the minimal oxidation. It seems to be well-proven now that this is not the case. White tea in particular uses the bud of the plant which has been shown to have a higher caffeine content that the leaf. I guess most people wouldn’t have a can of coke before bed but I wonder if they know that a Chinese white tea has three times as much caffeine?

With a few exceptions, herbal tea or tisanes have no caffeine at all. That includes Rooibos so there is a huge selection of tea alternatives for night-time. I’ve been going through a rough time with sleep lately so now I only drink tea up to about 3pm and right before bed I drink hops tea. It seems to really help. And no, by hops tea I don’t mean beer though sometimes that helps too :-).

 

Main Sources:

Barone JJ, Roberts, H.R. (1996), Caffeine consumption, Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 34, Issue 1, January 1996, Pages 119–129.

Richardson, B. (2009), De-bunking the At-Home Decaffeination Myth Story, Fresh Cup January 2009

Chin JM, Merves ML, Goldberger BA, Sampson-Cone A, Cone EJ. (2008), Caffeine content of brewed teas. J Anal Toxicol. 2008 Oct;32(8):702-4.

 

Steeping tea

I realise that my last post where I describe the preparation of Tieguanyin was probably confusing (my readership of two lodged their complaints!) so I’m going to try to clear things up today. The preparation of tea is called steeping and involves soaking the tea leaves in water to extract the flavour.

Yellow teapot

Traditional style teapot used here in Ireland

Here in Ireland (and in all Western countries that I have been to) steeping involves putting tea leaves (or tea bag) into a large teapot and then adding in boiling water. The tea is served from the teapot into cups after around two minutes if you like ‘weak’ tea and or after several minutes if you like ‘strong’ tea. After about five minutes, the tea leaves and the liquid need to be separated or it will over-steep and becomes bitter. If this happens, it is usually addressed by either adding more water to dilute or starting over and making a ‘fresh pot’. I’ve seen variations on this process where people add the tea leaves, add the water and then heat up the teapot on a gas hob. The teabag-in-a-cup is a another variation – the teabag  is put in the cup, water is added and the teabag is removed and discarded once the tea looks strong enough.  There are lots of variations but the basic process is consistent – the flavour of the tea is extracted by steeping the tea once (i.e single steeping).

Yixing Clay Teapot [Source]

Yixing clay teapot [Source]

However, in China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, there is a different way to prepare good quality tea that involves several short steepings rather than one long steeping. To do this we add the tea to the teapot (usually a very small teapot) and add the water but instead of steeping for ~five minutes, we steep for maybe 30 seconds (it depends on the tea). After the 30 seconds, we separate completely the leaves and the water by pouring off all the tea from the tea pot into cups. It may seem like a short time at first but don’t worry, it works. When we are ready for more tea, we re-steep the tea by adding water to the teapot again (with the same leaves). This time we will wait a little longer – maybe 40 seconds before pouring off all the tea. This is the second steeping and will taste and look different to the first steeping. We can repeat this several times, increasing the duration of steeping each time. During each steeping the water opens the leaf a little more and the colour, smell and taste of the tea will vary. Eventually, it will start to loose taste and colour and then we know to stop. Using this method we get smaller cups of tea but more of them with a variety of flavours and the tea does not over-steep. It is not unusual for a good quality Pu-erh to have ten steepings and it can go to 20 steepings or more.

Brew basket

Brew basket

The re-steeping technique does not need a teapot. The same result can be achieved if we put a brew basket in a cup, add the leaves and water and then wait thirty seconds before removing the brew basket. When we are finished drinking the first cup we put brew basket back in the cup, add water again and wait say 40 seconds for the second steeping. Again, this can continue for multiple steepings, increasing the duration with each steeping.

I hope that helps to clear up the difference between single-steeping and re-steeping. When I post about individual teas I’ll describe the steeping preparation that I’ve used, including timings. I have deliberately left out factors like water-type, temperature, rinsing, utensils and volume of tea. I’ll come back to those in future posts.With all that said, tea is meant to be enjoyed so don’t feel under pressure to prepare your tea a certain way. Experiment and see what you think!