When used without qualification, the meaning of the term ‘tea’ as it is commonly accepted by contemporary Britons has been pretty stable throughout my lifetime. Indeed, this has been the case within anyone’s living memory. ‘Tea’ is the hot infusion of dried Camellia sinensis leaves, heavily oxidised (until almost black) and typically cut into tiny, uniform grounds that are sold loose or in tea-bags. Since the final quarter of the nineteenth century ‘tea’ has denoted such a version of the beverage. Then served regularly with sugar (and sometimes with milk), now habitually with milk (and less often with sugar), this tea has long been made using the produce of Indian (and later Sri Lankan and East African) plantations. Granted, other kinds of tea are now available, and to some extent always have been (even setting aside the huge number of tisanes that contain no trace of the tea-plant); but these are not simply ‘tea’ as most of the population of the UK knows it.
It is no surprise, I think, that when it was first imported into Britain in any significant quantity during the 1650s, ‘tea’ was likewise an homogeneous, undifferentiated product. What is more unsettling is the recognition that this tea was ‘green tea’ (a substance of which I was only distantly aware in childhood as the mysterious manufacture of an unimaginable Orient, and which even now seems momentarily ‘not-tea’ as I brew it on a daily basis). The tea sold by Thomas Garway and ordered by Samuel Pepys was green tea; the tea gifted by the East India Company to Charles II was green tea; the tea celebrated and made fashionable among the Restoration nobility was green tea. Only around 1700, almost half a century into Britain’s tea-habit, did the Directors of the East India Company begin to place orders with their supercargoes for a variant on this fashionable commodity: ‘bohee’ or ‘bohea’ tea, as it was contemporaneously described by travel-writers such as John Ovington and Louis-Daniel le Comte.
Bohea rapidly gained esteem and market-share among British tea drinkers. It was not a green tea but rather (by comparison) a dark, semi-fermented infusion that would today be classed as an ‘oolong’ (although it was often described as ‘black’ during the eighteenth century). The difference was one of preparation. Bohea leaves were left to wilt and oxidise prior to firing, meaning that they discoloured to a dark yellow or light brown, a process that softened the astringent vegetal notes of green tea. The word itself was originally a geographical designation: bohea tea came from the Wuyi mountain region of Fujian (where its production was pioneered by monks), and the name ‘Wuyi’ was reformulated in British mouths as ‘Bohea’. Similarly green tea, which now needed to be distinguished from its oolong counterpart was christened ‘Singlo’, an anglicised word recalling the Sung-lo mountains (Huangshan) of Anhui where it was apparently first sourced.
Throughout most of the eighteenth century ‘bohea’ and ‘singlo’ dominated British sales. Any sense of their topographical specificity was soon lost; the designations instead became synonymous with the most basic grades of oolong and green leaves. During the first half of this period – the second 50 years of Britain’s love-affair with tea – bohea and singlo were sold in roughly equal quantities. Nonetheless, a popular preference for the darker (and cheaper) product gradually asserted itself: between 1750-1800 the relative proportions averaged 70% / 30% in favour of ‘black’ teas, while from 1800-1850 it was more like 80% / 20%. A simple recipe in the first edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management confirms the residual nineteenth-century taste for green tea, while also showing that it continued to wane. Beeton advised that when making ‘mixed tea, the usual proportion is four spoonfuls of black to one of green; more of the latter when the flavour is very much liked; but strong green tea is highly pernicious, and should never be partaken of too freely’.
As tea imports rose during the eighteenth-century, so did public interest and connoisseurship. Writers on tea regularly offered taxonomies of tea-leaves available from retailers, designed to demystify for their readers the ever-changing range of options on offer. One of the earlier practical guides of this nature was contained within A Dissertation upon Tea (1730) by the physician Thomas Short. His intelligence is summarised below, and indicates that consumers already had multiple options available that belie any single conception of ‘tea’. Three types of oolong – or as Short calls them, ‘Bohea’ – are detailed: Pekoe (fine tea made from leaf-buds, and a term that even today retains currency in British and South Asian tea cultures); Congo (from the Chinese ‘gongfu’ meaning ‘skill’, and later normalised as ‘congou’); and Common Bohea. Alongside these are four main greens: Hysson (elsewhere ‘hyson’), the finest and priciest grade; Imperial (sometimes called ‘bing’ in early European accounts); Common green (Short doesn’t use the term ‘singlo’); and Ordinary green. (Short also lists two further greens that he hasn’t tasted: ‘Dutch Bloom’, and the ‘rough, coarse, unpleasant Green Tea’ of the northern Tartar – or Manchu – people.)
What is remarkable to me about all of this – and a salient reminder of what cultural history teaches us – is that throughout the century when Britain’s tea-habit was forged, Britons drank only oolong and green teas that were almost solely cultivated in China. This tea was markedly different in terms of appearance, flavour, and preparation from the consistent (and more truly ‘black’) cuppa bequeathed to us by the mechanised food-production of late modernity. Furthermore, tea was understood and experienced via a transculturated and fairly complicated Chinese lexicon: almost all early tea consumers would have understood the distinction between bohea and singlo (and by the mid-century, those between pekoe, congou, and hyson). This other British world of tea remained intact – albeit with evolutionary modifications – for over 150 years. Only after tea had become a universal British practice did the possibilities of hyper-processed Assam tea from imperial India transform tastes once again.
Sorts of Bohea Tea
|Sort||Description of Dried Leaves||Tasting Notes||Waters*||Price per lb|
|Pekoe||‘the leaf is very small and black, and has many small white Flowers mix’d with it’||‘the most pleasant and delicate flavour of [Bohea teas]’||4-5||15 shillings|
|Congo||‘a larger Leaf, and is of a deeper brown Colour than [Pekoe]’||no tasting notes, but a mixture of Pekoe and Congo makes ‘an admirable fine Tea’||5||14 shillings|
|Common Bohea||‘blacker and larger leav’d than [Pekoe or Congo]’||‘smells and tastes more faint, not unlike dry’d Hay; it gives the Water the deepest tincture’||2-3||12 shillings|
Sorts of Green Tea
|Sort||Description of Dried Leaves||Tasting Notes||Waters*||Price per lb|
|Hysson||‘more curled Leaf than the common Green; ’tis of a more blue colour, tastes crisp in the Mouth when chew’d, and afterwards looks green’||infusion of a ‘pale greenness’ with a ‘delicate smell and bitterish-sweet Taste’ that is ‘most delicious’||4-5||36 shillings|
|Imperial||‘lighter green Colour’ and ‘a more flat, large, loose Leaf’ than other green teas||‘the faintest Taste of any Green Tea’||2||18 shillings|
|Common Green||‘not so large a Leaf’ and ‘of a darker green Colour’||‘rougher and more astringent to the Taste’||3-4||15 shillings|
|Ordinary Green||‘a darker (or if very coarse, of a light whitish Green) Colour’||‘neither so pleasant to the Taste nor Smell’ as Common Green||?||13 shillings|
* Waters: the number of servings of hot water in which each portion of leaves can be infused.
 Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management, 2 vols (London, 1861), p. 880.