What did tea taste like in the eighteenth century? We tend to assume that the way we experience tea now is a good guide to how tea was experienced in the past, in the eighteenth century for example. But almost everything about the way we now take tea is a specifically modern invention, some aspects of which began to emerge in the eighteenth century, but most of which were established in the nineteenth century. George Orwell famously wrote an essay on tea for the Evening Standard in 1946, describing how to make ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’. Almost all of his eleven ‘rules’ still make sense today, but almost none of them would have been accepted in the eighteenth century.
Recent research in the history of taste has proposed that the act of tasting is both cultural and natural. The ‘natural’ aspect of taste describes how the make-up of food or drink (its combination of chemical compounds) is tasted by a physiological interaction with taste buds on the tongue. In the case of tea, these effects are principally wrought by what are now understood as comparatively small quantities of caffeine (3-4%), tannins, and a great number of other alkaloids and essential oils, L-theanine especially. Although some tea manufacturing may have changed since the early eighteenth century, it is thought that the neurophysiology of the tasting process has not. However, as the Harvard historian Steven Shapin has argued recently, taste also has a cultural aspect, constructed through ‘networks of expectations and understandings about how things should taste, with frameworks relating taste both to the nature of aliments and to bodily consequences, and with the available vocabularies for talking about them and describing them to others’. In this way, Shapin argues, taste is ‘temporally and culturally variable’.
Tea was a particularly good example of this process, because it was a new and exotic commodity, with no deep or extended culture of tasting in Britain (although of course the same was not true in China or Japan). Identifying and describing the taste of tea was an important and experimental mode of creative enquiry for natural philosophers, poets and consumers in the early eighteenth century. Finding or inventing a language and vocabulary of expression for the experience of tasting tea was required to properly experience its consumption, to know whether it was prepared correctly, or was of as high quality as the merchants claimed. Certainly in the case of tea, as with coffee, relying on simple mouth-filling pleasure was not a reliable guide, especially for newcomers to the astringent, bitter beverage.
One of the signal innovations of John Ovington, in his Essay on Tea (1699), the first extended British treatise on tea and its preparation, was that he was prepared to propose aesthetic descriptions of, and value judgements about, different kinds of tea. The dominant medicalized discourse on tea mostly described the sanative effects of tea drinking, rather than its taste, flavour and appearance. The qualities Ovington admired about tea were that is was green and refined. On being green, Ovington commented on ‘the remarkable Ingenuity of the Chinese, to prepare the Leaves with so much Art to make them still continue green, notwithstanding all the Length of Time they have been dried’. The aim of tea storage and tea preparation, Ovington concluded, was ‘to preserve the spirit and Verdure of’ the tea. ‘Verdure’ was a word that summarised both the colour and taste of tea, both its greenness and vegetable aromas. On the refined cultivation of the tender leaf: it was, he said, ‘planted in the most refin’d Earth, and carefully defended from all Injuries of the Air, from all excessive Colds and Heats, and every thing that may be apt to offend the tender Leaf’. Tea was not a robust [vulgar] vegetable, but was a sophisticated and delicate plant.
Having noted that there were different kinds of tea, which he called Bohe, Singlo and Bing, Ovington then described their different appearance and taste.
(i) Bohea, he says, ‘generally tinges the Water brown, or of a reddish Colour’. Bohe, he added, improves with age: in both ways this makes it distinct from other teas.
(ii) Singlo or Soumlo has a ‘blewish green Colour, which tastes very crisp when it is chaw’d [chewed], and afterwards looks green upon the Hand, and infuses a pale Greenness into the Water. The Flavor of it is fresh and fine, lively and pleasant.’ Here Ovington adopts a language of connoisseurship and aesthetic appreciation, as again: ‘For the fragrant Smell, the green Colour, and the bitterish sweet Taste, are the distinguishing Characters of the Goodness of this kind of Tea’.
(iii) Bing is ‘a large loose Leaf’, the ‘finest Sort of it looks both green to the Eye, and is crisp in the Mouth, and the Smell of it is very pleasant, which inhances the Price of it here in England; and ’tis highly esteem’d likewise in China, being sold there at three times the Price of the other two’. Refined judgements of taste, it seems, command higher prices.
These descriptions are of course based on observation, and perhaps translation of terms of value in Chinese culture, that Ovington encountered amongst the Chinese merchant community in Surat, India, where he visited in the 1680s. But they are also a profoundly creative act, inventing for the first time in English a language to describe the differing tastes to tea.
With its delicate array of sensory experiences (taste, aroma, colour), tea lent itself to connoisseurship, unlike the more robust flavours of coffee. In an important analysis of the category of ‘taste’ in 1712, Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator, described a person of considerable sensory acuity, possessed of a ‘Sensitive Taste which gives us a Relish of every different Flavour that affects the Palate’. Taste is a capacity for making distinctions between like objects, and although Addison’s focus is on ‘perfections in writing’, he argues that such ‘mental taste’ is related to the sense of physical taste, as both are examples of the ‘Degrees of Refinement in the intellectual Faculty’. His example is a connoisseur of tea whose palate is so refined he can distinguish between different kinds of tea in a blind tasting:
I knew a Person who possessed the one in so great a Perfection, that after having tasted ten different Kinds of Tea, he would distinguish, without seeing the Colour of it, the particular Sort which was offered him; and not only so, but any two Sorts of them that were mixt together in an equal Proportion; nay he has carried the Experiment so far, as upon tasting the Composition of three different Sorts, to name the Parcels from whence the three several Ingredients were taken. A Man of a fine Taste in Writing will discern, after the same manner, not only the general Beauties and Imperfections of an Author, but discover the several Ways of thinking and expressing himself, which diversify him from all other Authors, with the several Foreign Infusions of Thought and Language, and the particular Authors from whom they were borrowed.
Mr Spectator’s expression of surprise at the man’s tea-tasting abilities registers what a prodigy this man was. Addison sees evidence of a surprisingly sensitive palate, discerning differences between types of tea, even in a blind tasting, that are simply lost on most consumers.
 Steven Shapin, Changing Tastes: How Foods Tasted in the Early Modern Period and How They Taste Now, The Hans Rausing Lecture 2011, Salvia Småskrifter, No. 14 (Uppsala: Tryck Wikströms, 2011), pp. 7-8.
 Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 409 (June 19 1712), ed. by Donald F. Bond, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), III, 527.