TGFOP or not TGFOP: a talk on black tea at The Tea Centre

“Tea and Conversation with David Lyons: Black Tea” at The Tea Centre, Sydney, 10 November 2012

After that talk on green tea back in September, I was keen to hear the history of Australia’s traditional favourite substitute for mother’s milk and before you can say “TGFOP or not TFGOP?”, here I was back at The Tea Centre to hear its ACT / NSW Regional Manager and tea historian / scholar David Lyons expound on this Essential of Life itself. Lyons is a most convivial host with a homely Manchester accent who offered me and several other attendees seven different kinds of black tea, some quite earthy and strong and all with a brilliant red-crimson colour which for some teas was almost deep blood-red, throughout his talk that ranged from an explanation of how black tea is made to how it differs from other kinds of tea, to the language used in grading black teas, the history of tea-growing and production, and which countries are currently prominent in growing tea bushes for the production of black teas.

The talk began with a quick explanation of what kind of plant the tea plant is and which parts of the tea leaf are used in making teas. This quickly segued into a description of how tea leaves are picked, transported to the factory where they are laid out on trays or mats, allowed to lose moisture through evaporation (originally out in the open under sunshine but now done in rooms controlled for temperature and humidity) for up to 18 hours and then rolled by machines so that the cell walls of the leaves are damaged, allowing enzymes to escape. The leaves begin to oxidise, changing colour as they do so. The leaves are spread out to allow the oxidisation process to work evenly. Once the leaves have reached a desired level of oxidisation, they are heated in different ways to halt the oxidisation: baking in ovens, wok-baking over charcoal and blowing hot air over the leaves as they move on a conveyor belt are three ways of stopping the oxidisation. When this is done, the leaves are sieved, sorted and graded according to size, then they are packed and shipped.

This explanation took up half of David’s time; the rest of the session was given over to the history of black tea production and how black teas came to be preferred over green teas by the Chinese and the Europeans after them. Interestingly, the invention of blue-on-white porcelain in China was a significant influence on the preference for black tea, since black tea looks better in a white cup than green and white teas do. David then switched over to explaining how the British began growing tea in Assam in northeast India, how they took tea growing to Sri Lanka (and thereby changed that island’s social history and politics irrevocably by importing Tamil-speaking workers to work in the plantations there) and later to other parts of their empire: Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and what later became Zimbabwe. The talk concluded with a description of tea production in Australia and some brief and perfunctory explanation on the future of tea growing and which countries were likely to take off as major tea growers and exporters.

So much more could have been said about black teas, at the risk of going into the minutiae of the rituals of drinking black teas and how they differ across the world. How and why, for example, did the British start adding milk and sugar to black tea? Why do Russians drink their black tea with spoonfuls of jam and a sliver of lemon, and drink the beverage from glasses instead of cups? Where did Indians get the idea of drinking their tea with sickly concentrated tinned milk and a cinnamon stick? If Americans had the Boston Tea Party in the 1770s, how did they lose the art of having Tea Parties for such a long time until recently and instead fall for slurping 7 – 8 cups of watery coffee a day? Another thing that was missing was the ideal conditions for growing tea: I gather that ideally tea should be grown in areas with a semi-tropical to tropical climate, plenty of humidity and a reliable water supply, and soils rich in minerals. Minimal frost would be tolerated and long dry spells would inhibit plant growth and leaf development.

The mention of the effect on Sri Lanka’s ethnic mix that the British decision to locate tea growing in that country made me think of how everyday things we take for granted, such as tea, coffee, the metals that go into consumer electronics gadgets, the cotton that goes into our clothes and the foods we eat that might be imported from overseas when we could be growing them here, might have an impact on global politics, economics and human social and cultural development through their production. Once upon a time, economists would have said that the decisions we make as consumers determine what is produced in which countries; but in a world where consumer decisions are now heavily influenced by advertising and selective media through which information important to us is withheld, either deliberately or not, the power of corporations, governments and their agencies, and the ideologies that inform their agendas, may be paramount in determining what we choose to consume or reject. Through our “choices” and the direct and indirect effects they have on economies locally and overseas and on environmental systems, these institutions uphold values, belief systems and structures that affect the future survival of humanity across the globe.

Incidentally the “TGFOP or not TGFOP?” question (erm, apologies to a Mr Shakespeare) was inspired by the grading terms used to sort and pack black tea leaves: TGFOP is short for Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. The terms start with filler, dust and fannings which are fine to small particles of tea used in tea bags (so the story about tea dust on floors vacuumed up and packaged into tea-bags is true!) and go through OP (Orange Pekoe – large cut leaves with a few tips) all the way through FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) to SFTGFOP (Superior Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – large cut leaves with the biggest number of tips).


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