Novelty continually Multiplies new kinds of this Plant upon us

Breach and Shutt Sales List
British Museum museum number Heal,68.41

As early as 1720 — when tea’s arrival in grocers’ shops all over London was still a matter of recent memory — ‘coffee-man’ Humphrey Broadbent complained that ‘of Tea there are but two Sorts […] Green and Bohea; a pravalent Curiosity after Novelty, especially in matters of sensual Gratifications, almost continually Multiplies new kinds or distinctions of this Plant upon us’. Depending on how you read this, Broadbent had either remarkable foresight for the future direction of the trade, or very little sense of just how matters would develop.

In his recent post on this blog – ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Tea’ – Richard Coulton has offered a snapshot of the teas typically being sold on the London market in the 1730s, as recorded by ‘physician’ Thomas Short. Among the oolong teas (known as ‘black teas’ in the eighteenth century), the ubiquitous bohea, the higher grade congo, and the rather dainty ‘pekoe’. For the greens, the common grade ‘singlo’, ‘imperial’ (also known as ‘bing’ tea, which British writers imagined as the favourite infusion of the Chinese Emperor), and ‘hyson’ (the premium grade, fetching the highest prices of all tea varieties). But if Broadbent in 1720 considered this degree of discrimination as faintly ridiculous, we might well imagine the astonishment (not to mention disparagement) he might have expressed concerning the retail market for tea some eighty years later.

At around the turn of the nineteenth century, Breach and Shutt — tea retailers of Paternoster Row in the City of London — advertised no fewer than thirty-five grades of green and black teas, an assortment which was by no means unusual at this time. Their trade card, originally a part of the vast archive collected by furniture entrepreneur Ambrose Heal and acquired by the British Museum in the mid-twentieth century, details the tea, coffee, and chocolate varieties available ‘for ready money’ in their ‘wholesale’ warehouse. The teas are defined as follows:

Black (or oolong) Price per lb Green Price per lb
Bohea standard 1s 9d Common Very Ordinary Below 2s
Bohea middling 1s 9d 1/2 Common 2s, 2s 2d, 2s 4d
Bohea best 1s 10d Common Good 2s 6d to 2s 7d
Fine Congou leaf 2s Common Best 2s 8d
Congou 2s 6d to 3s 2d Curled Leaf 2s 9d.
Congou Good 3s 4d to 3s 6d Curled Leaf Best 2s 10d
Congou Fine 4s, 4s 6d to 4s 9d Singlo 3s
Congou Superfine 5s Singlo Good 3s 4d to 3s 6d
Souchong 3s Singlo Fine 4s
Souchong Fine 6s 6d Singlo Superfine 4s 4d
Souchong Superfine 7s Singlo Fine Green 5s to 5s 3d
Pekoe 5s Bloom 3s 9d
Pekoe Fine 7s Bloom Fine 5s
Pekoe Superfine 7s 4d Bloom Superfine 5s 6d
Hyson 5s to 5s 6d
Hyson Good 6s 9d to 7s
Hyson Fine 7s 2d to 8s 6d
Hyson Superfine 9s
Gunpowder 9s 3d to 10s 6d
Gunpowder Superfine 11s

What is immediately noticeable from this sales list is that the basic tea categories had largely remained stable since Thomas Short offered his taxonomy some 60-70 years earlier, albeit that each is subdivided into three or more grades. The name ‘souchong’ joins bohea, congou, and pekoe to form the broadly-stable four-fold eighteenth-century hierarchy of ‘black’ teas. The variety was well known to the British market early in the eighteenth-century, though it appears to have been overlooked by Short. Souchong (probably from xiaozhong meaning ‘small sort’, a reference to the leaves from which it was produced) was typically viewed as the most desirable black tea. Pekoe, though more expensive, was often considered to lack a robust flavour profile when infused as a single leaf, and may have typically been used as part of a blend to counteract the harsher notes of the cheaper teas. Nineteenth century accounts of the tea trade occasionally acknowledge the existence of another variety in this hierarchy, ‘campoi’, typically placed between congou and souchong. The East India Company directors in this period often lament the poor performance of their factors in China in obtaining sufficient quantities of the prized ‘souchong’, and complain that they are – instead – being fobbed off with lower quality ‘campoi’. Notwithstanding the stability of this hierarchy, Breach and Shutt’s sales list makes it clear that there was significant overlap between the price that customers were willing to pay for each variety; ‘superfine’ congou is more expensive than standard grade souchong, and the same price as standard ‘pekoe’.

Among the green teas we encounter the terms ‘common green’ and ‘very ordinary’ describing the very lowest grades, phrases which recall Short’s taxonomy from 1730. Singlo itself – with no fewer than five separate grades – is understood as being a cut above this basic standard. By the 1810s, however, ‘singlo’ had virtually disappeared from the languages of tea retail, the standard green tea typically being described – often dismissively due to its bitter flavour profile – as ‘twankay’ (conceivably a corruption of ‘Tungxi’, another tea producing region in Anhui). The Company’s own sales figures demonstrate singlo imports gradually giving way to twankway from the mid 1780s, with no singlo imports listed after 1811. More expensive than most singlo, though more affordable than the premium grades associated with the name ‘hyson’, is ‘bloom’. This appears to have been a tea similar to the looser leaf ‘bing’ or ‘imperial’ available in the early eighteenth century (and which slips from view in the 1740s). The most expensive teas of all in the Breach and Shutt assortment are those described as ‘gunpowder’, the prices for which rise from 9s 3d per pound for the standard grade, to an eye watering 11s per pound for ‘superfine’, far and away the most expensive of all teas on offer (black or green). Gunpowder (zhu cha or ‘bead tea’) – a term which remains in use among the premium teas available in London’s high-end tea boutiques – is manufactured by rolling complete leaves into tight balls which unfold and open in contact with hot water.

One response to documents like the Breach and Shutt sales list, is to label such fine gradation as ridiculously over-determined; whether any regular consumers of tea had the requisite connoisseurship to discriminate between these varieties is a moot point. Humphry Broadbent, no doubt, would have rolled his eyes. But to complain in this vein would be perhaps to miss the point about the way in which tea was being marketed as a thoroughly modern product by this time, its tradesmen offering consumers a finely graded taxonomy that – at its base – featured varieties accessible even in the poorest homes, and – at its pinnacle – varieties which epitomised the very height of the high-society performance of luxury and exquisite taste.

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