The Great British Tea Test•
Posted on 20 June 2019
By Helen Pidd at THE GUARDIAN newspaper:
I made the mistake of buying some Lancashire Tea bags recently. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I was born in Lancaster – and they were on offer in Morrisons.
What a disappointment. We Lancastrians may have won the Wars of the Roses* and be vastly better at football than our transpennine rivals, but, by ’eck, the brew bearing my county’s name is an insipid affair. More than once I had to go back to the cupboard and check I hadn’t picked up a decaf bag in error. Lancashire Tea is murky. It has a sinister tinge of that slightly bruised purple you get when suffering a tea with the good stuff removed.
Chances are, you have never tried Lancashire Tea. You probably didn’t even know it was a thing. It has only existed since 2002, when Paul Needham and Lynn Hitchen looked enviously at the success of Yorkshire Tea and decided to copy the gimmick over on the rainy side of the M62.
It is, I would argue, a bit of a swizz. The website gives little away, but moderate sleuthing reveals it is not even boxed in Lancashire. They blend it in Newton-le-Willows, St Helens, which hasn’t been in Lancashire since 1974. I guess Merseyside Tea doesn’t carry convey quite the same romance.
Of course pretty much all British tea is a con. Yorkshire Tea, like most of its rivals, is grown in various plantations in Assam, India, and east Africa – a fact that occasionally surprises devotees, such as the Twitter user who called for a boycott after discovering his favourite brew was not as homegrown as he thought. “YORKSHIRE SOIL MAKES THE BEST TEA [three union jack emojis]” tweeted @FleetwoodTerryO, a self-declared “patriot” last year. When the truth was pointed out, he was not amused: “WHY CALL IT YORKSHIRE TEA IF IT’S NOT GROWN IN YORKSHIRE. WONT BE BUYING FROM YOU AGAIN.”
It was all excellent viral marketing for Yorkshire Tea, which used the resulting publicity to clarify that the tea is in fact only blended in Yorkshire, before being shipped around the country.
Despite living in Stockport (the west, correct, side of the Pennines), I drink Yorkshire Tea. It’s strong and northern, like me. We don’t even keep it local in the Guardian’s Manchester office, despite the paper’s 198-year foundations in the historic county of Lancashire. We too buy the Tykes’ tea, in 3kg sacks from our stationery supplier.
But is Yorkshire Tea really the nation’s finest mass-produced regional chai? I decided to find out, with the help of Jimmy Green, an ex-military man who became addicted to tea when serving in Hong Kong alongside teetotal Gurkhas. He runs Tea from the Manor, which blends loose-leaf teas for hotels across the north-west.
He invites me to his office, in an unpromising oblong building on an industrial estate in Denton, Greater Manchester. Appearances deceive. Inside is a tea lover’s paradise. His desk is made of tea chests and two walls are packed floor-to-ceiling with his blends, which include everything from traditional oolong (a superstrong Chinese number only for the hardcore) to a gin and tonic concoction he had made recently for some Cheshire hipsters.
Glancing up at a framed glossary of tea terms, I realise I have a lot to learn. There’s “Crepy: a term used to describe tea which is crimped in appearance, usually a BOP [Broken orange pekoe] grade” and “Baggy: an undesirable taint found in both dry leaf and liquor of tea withered on inferior hessian.” Help! Despite drinking at least seven cups a day, I don’t speak tea.
A brew with Green is a formal affair. I immediately feel underdressed. He is wearing a dickie bow and pristine white shirt and boils water not in a kettle but in a shiny samovar. Cups are china, naturally, and he has put on a tantalising spread of chocolate eclairs and slices of Victoria sponge that he forbids me from touching until after the tasting, lest I sully my palate.
He has laid out some tea leaves on a saucer. One pile, fine brown shavings, he dismisses as “dust”. That, he says, is what we will find inside all the tea bags we are to test today – blends, he suggests, that are fine only in texture. Cheap and tawdry, lowest common denominator stuff. He wants me to compare the dust with the much bigger dried tea leaves he puts into Tea from the Manor blends, which he insists will impart vastly more flavour.
I line up the teas we are to taste: Yorkshire Tea, Lancashire Tea, Cornish Tea, West Country Tea, Welsh Tea and Ringtons (which trades heavily on its Newcastle-upon-Tyne origins), plus the only tea I could find that is grown wholly in Britain: Kinnettles Gold, propagated and hand-rolled on a farm in Angus, north-east Scotland, in such tiny quantities that they produce no more than 2kg a year.
Green is not keen to taste these heathen teas: “It’s like asking someone used to drinking fine wines to have a bottle of cheap cider.” Nonetheless, he forces down a few mouthfuls, grimacing as if I have made him drink meths. He complains of a “furry taste” (Ringtons), being left with a coating on his tongue (Cornish) and points out some white scum that gathers in the Yorkshire bag. We decide to make each cuppa as I would at home or in the office: straight into the cup. We are not to stir – or worse, use a teaspoon to squeeze out the flavour: “Stirring it is wrong. We should let it steep itself.”
I can’t tell the difference between most of them – apart from the fairy-light and appleish Kinnettles, which isn’t an English Breakfast blend and really belongs in a totally different category. I decide I like Ringtons best: it is neither baggy nor crepy and has slightly smoky overtones. Yorkshire and Welsh are pretty much interchangeable: a discovery confirmed by blind tastings in the Guardian’s Manchester office, where even proud Bradfordian Josh Halliday, a lifelong Yorkshire Tea drinker, was fooled by its Welsh brethren.
Nazia Parveen, a Brummie, manages to distinguish northern from southern. We all agree the Cornish and West Country brews are a bit too light for our unsubtle palates. It could be the water: ours in Manchester is soft and might not bring out the best in teas blended in England’s lower half. That said, most tea blenders import water from across the UK to check their product will still be drinkable outside their home region.
Back at Tea from the Manor, Green reluctantly tastes a sip of Lancashire. He rolls out another simile to explain the offence I am causing his taste buds – “It’s like making a Bugatti owner drive a Transit van” – and makes a face. “Not nice.” He prefers its transpennine rival, too, not that you would ever catch him drinking mass-produced “dust” on his own time.
But before Yorkshire folk get too cocky, their brew didn’t come out top in my tasting test. That honour went to Ringtons of Newcastle. Forget the Wars of the Roses: the Geordies win the Guardian’s tea tussle.
TOP OF THE POTS
Yorkshire Tea (£2.79 for 80 teabags) A no-nonsense brew, befitting a county that gave us Geoffrey Boycott and Sean Bean. Like a Yorkshire terrier: feisty but reliable and surprisingly domineering. 4/5
Cornish Tea (£2.99 for 80 teabags) Pleasant enough but lacking in personality. I was expecting more subversion from a tea with the subtitle “smuggler’s brew”. 3/5
Welsh Brew Gold (£3.69 for 80 teabags) A hearty brew – strong and confident, yet strangely comforting, like a male voice choir. Can double for Yorkshire Tea. 4/5
Ringtons Gold (£3.97 for 100 teabags) Blended on Tyneside since 1907, Ringtons is my fave: a slightly smoky brew with a bright and golden hue. 5/5
Miles West Country Original (£2.50 for 80 teabags) Barely there. Disappointing for a region famed for its cream teas and Cheddar cheese. 3/5
Lancashire Tea (£2.30 for 80 teabags) Odd purplish hue. As satisfying as a weak handshake. Very “meh” for the county of strong women like Thora Hird, Emmeline Pankhurst and Barbara Castle. 2/5
Kinnettles Gold (£40 for a 20g tin) Grown and hand-rolled on Kinnettles farm in Angus, north-east Scotland, this delicate yellow-green tea bears no relation to any of the above but scores highly for refreshment and novelty value. 4/5
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