Is Tea Really That British?
Tea is often considered a very British thing, but not enough is its origins spoken about. Tea is commonly grown in many areas of the world, but what brings a lot of these areas together is the history of British colonies; Sri Lanka, India, Africa, South Africa, West Indies, Indonesia. And much of this is in relation to the slave trade. For Black History Month, we want to raise some awareness of black trade in relation to tea and celebrate traditions and unique practices around certain teas in black culture, as well as highlight the hardships that have led us here.
Tea needs specific climates and altitudes to grow fruitfully, of which the UK generally does not have enough of. This is where outsourcing became a priority for Britain between the 18th and 19th century and, unfortunately, where exploitation was utilised. Tea clippers were introduced in the 1840s as a rapid way to collect tea crops overseas, and with this, the demand increased. The slave trade was very much taken advantage of here and, allthough slavery was abolished in 1833 and 1865 in the UK and US respectively (but with some South American states not abolishing slavery until the 1880s), the infrastructure was already there to be exploited.
It is very much because of the exploitation of people of colour that tea is what it is today. And make no mistake, exploitation still very much exists in this industry - lack of pay; poor working conditions; high targets and expectations; difficulties with crop yield in a changing climate. It is important to remember this when we think of the brilliance of tea - the fight is very much not over.
What Can We Do?
A Celebration of Black Tea: Kenya
Tea is one of the world’s biggest trade items, but it cannot be forgotten the hardship, exploitation and brutality that got us here. So, when you think of tea - don’t assume this is a British tradition - appreciate the countries of origin that represent it and let them be acknowledged.
Kenya, for example, is amongst the top 3 tea producers in the world; within the UK, Kenya fulfills almost 44% of the UK's total tea imports. Kenya only began growing and trading tea in 1903, so its achievements are pretty astounding. Possibly most popularly, Kenya produces a lot of black tea that uses the CTC process - meaning the tea leaves are cut, torn and curled to ensure a larger surface area for a stronger, richer brew.
Kenyan tea (usually CTC) also generally makes up what is traditionally known as ‘English Breakfast’ tea - normally a combination of Assam (India), Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and Kenyan black teas blended together for a robust, flavourful brew… Ironic?
We have just released an October ‘Breakfast Brew’ to mark this (and have made a point not to label it as English as it is simply nothing of the sort!) The artwork for this blend was specifically designed to represent the countries of origin (India, Kenya and Sri Lanka) from their flag colours; it wraps tea cups in blacks, reds, greens, yellows and oranges - a gentle nod to the teas that make up the blend.
A Celebration of Black Tea: South Africa
South Africa is the predominant grower of Rooibos tea. Rooibos (/ˈrɔɪbɒs/ ROY-boss; Afrikaans: [rɔːibɔs]) translates to ‘red bush’ - which is how it often recognised by english speakers - which references the red-look broom-like leaves when dried. This tea is naturally caffeine-free and has a bread-y, sweet taste that pairs well with many flavours. Rooibos makes it a perfect, naturally non-caffeinated alternative to black tea. It is also packed full of antioxidants and vitamins, making it a great uplifter for those who are looking for a substitute stimulant, and very popular amongst wellbeing enthusiasts.
Rooibos only grows in South Africa thanks to its fynbos biome, so we have a lot to be thankful to this continent for.
A Celebration of Black Tea: Brazil
Mate tea is often associated with South America, more specifically Argentina. However, there is a chain of Mate that is traditionally drunk in Brazil known as Erva Mate - where it is drunk hot typically through a metal straw from a container made of a calabash gourd (long melon). Mate tea is unique in its caffeine content - often referenced as mateine - which directs its stimulant to the brain for increased focus and alertness. The flavour is earthy, similar to green tea, and has a distinctive yellow/green hue.
A Celebration of Black Tea: Jamaica
Jamaica boasts good practice of drinking “bush tea”, considering them to be full of ill-curing qualities. These are often herbal substitutes (or alternative tea plants not from the more commonly used camellia sinensis strand) steeped in water, but still sit happily in the ‘tea’ category. Top choices include:
Cerasee - characterised by its extreme bitter taste, it is often nicknamed ‘Bitter Melon’. Cerasee is rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties, as well as being good for detoxing, making it a great go to.
Fever Grass - more widely known as lemongrass, fever grass is frequently used in Jamaica to help reduce fevers - hence the name.
Guinea Hen Weed - originating in the Amazon rainforest, this plant has been studied for its medicinal benefits - including antibacterial properties, immune system strengthener and possible pain relief.
Lime Leaf tea - this plant is high in vitamin C to help boost the immune system, as well as having nausea and digestive relieving effects.
Fair treatment of traders
As a small business it can sometimes seem impossible to make a huge change to an enormous industry. But what we can do is be thoughtful and educational with our products. The origins of tea are important to mention when we run our workshops, as well as the other ingredients. Flavour gives a strong sense of nostalgia, and different cultures have their own responses to these tastes, which is why we choose to use a breadth of ingredients in our blends. We want to make sure individuals can have a personal response and an understanding of where ingredients come from.
With regards to treatment of workers on plantations and other crop sources, it is important to source thoughtfully. This does not necessarily mean that everything has to be labelled as fair trade or organic, but eco-agricultural. This represents crop traders (often smaller businesses) who simply cannot afford the titles that mark products with this legitimacy, but certainly practice the same ethical and planet-conscious efforts.
The disparity of pay is also a huge concern. For many UK supermarkets, only around 8p in the pound that a supermarket makes in trade is paid back to their sources. This must be addressed; it seems smaller, younger businesses have a pressure to tick a lot of ethical boxes to be noticed and ‘approved’, and yet larger companies do not hold the same standards.
Good Food, Good Farming March on 15th October has a message to make food trading fairer - efforts like this are worth joining! - You can attend this in London: event details here.
Our Action Promise
This year's Black History Month slogan is 'Time for change: actions not words' and so we are acting on our efforts. Tea communities are often in areas of deprivation, especially in African and Asian countries. Although there are efforts to support these communities, the impact can be quite small in comparison to the vastness of the tea communities. It is therefore necessary to continue to help and donate where possible.
Rare tea company has a simple aim, to source and supply the world's best loose leaf tea, directly from farmers and their tea gardens. They founded a charity in 2019 - Rare Charity - funding educational opportunities to talented people in tea communities, currently focusing their efforts in Malawi. We think this is brilliant and we want to help support the cause:
Until the end of November, we will be donating profits from the sales of our Breakfast Brew to Rare Charity. Shop our delicious new breakfast tea blend and help make a difference to young tea communities.