story, science, technology and creativity

How to drink tea: more than just a cuppa


Cristy Burne: the culture of tea

Lush liquids: the culture of tea (in CRAVINGS magazine)

When I write, I drink tea. When I need comfort, I drink tea. When I’m catching up with friends, I drink tea.

And I’m not alone.

If you’re a fellow lover-of-tea, or you want to know…

  • what teas to serve with fried eggs, or
  • how to store your tea, or
  • what to serve when Prince Charles drops in…

…Here’s a story I did a few years back for CRAVINGS magazine. Make yourself a cuppa, and enjoy!


Few beverages have had greater influence on our history than tea. Tea has long been a symbol of friendship, cherished for its fine flavour, and cemented in our daily ritual as a respite from cold, fatigue, and ill health.

Five generations of tea

Tea has such a complex social history that connoisseur Hilary White has collected a library of more than a hundred books on the subject. “My family has been in tea for five generations,” he explains. “Three of my four great-grandfathers came to Ceylon to grow tea…one from New Zealand, one from England, and one from India. They married locals and stayed on for a hundred years.”

Hilary now owns Elmstock Tea, the largest tea wholesaler in Australia. He is also part-owner of the Leaf specialist tea houses in Cottesloe and Mount Lawley. “I’ve been in tea for 27 years,” he says. “It’s still a very genteel trade. Everything’s done with a handshake.”

Elmstock’s Balcatta warehouse is stacked floor to ceiling with some of the world’s finest teas; its contents turn over every month. “We supply about 32 million cups of tea a year,” Hilary explains.


Maidens in muslin gloves

As we chat, Hilary prepares water in a pot for two. He walks the length of his laden display cabinet, then selects a white tea: Silver Needles. “White tea is made from only the buds, hand-separated from the leaves. Traditionally it was picked only in the morning, by young maidens wearing muslin gloves. They cut the buds with golden scissors into muslin bags.”

He carefully scoops two teaspoons of shrivelled silver-gray tea into the glass pot. “This sells for around $400 a kilo, but you get 400 cups. In ancient China, only the nobility were allowed to drink white tea.”

The kettle whistles to its end: he takes it up and begins to pour. “Now watch them dance,” he says, and steaming water gurgles into the pot. The tea needles whirl and jump with the currents. “It’s almost as if they’re alive,” he says with wonder, and it is. Each needle seems to move of its own accord, stretching into the warmth of the water, lapping up its heat.

Tea for two

We chat while we wait for the tea to brew. There’s a strong sense of ceremony, but it’s welcoming and comfortable, like I’m in my own kitchen.

When the liquor is tinged with gold, we are ready. Hilary pours into two half-sized glass cups and hands me the one closest. “Cheers,” he says. And we breathe in the velvet smell, warming our hands through the glass. And then we drink.

The tea tastes pure, light, as if I’m cleansing my soul as I sip. “It’s a very subtle brew,” smiles Hilary. “You could drink this all day.” He sips again and exhales with approval. On finishing his first cup he stretches back in his chair. “How very civilised,” he beams, a picture of satisfaction. We pour a second cup and continue to talk.

brewing-teaThe Beatles, Bin Laden, Mick Jaggar

“Tea crosses boundaries,” Hilary explains. “Who drinks tea? The Beatles, Prince Charles, Hilary Clinton, Osama Bin Laden…Our stockman drink it. Mick Jaggar has it in his dressing room. Tea is a cultural thing. It’s international. An Indian villager in Darjeeling will drink tea from an iron mug. That same tea will be drunk at the Savoy, served on fine china.”

“You don’t have to drink the same tea that your granny drank. I drink a Chinese tea called Lapsang Souchong…it’s smoked over pine logs…you only use half a teaspoon. The nearest thing in flavour is Laphroaig Single Malt Islay Scotch.” (I take a whiff of the Lapsang leaves and am nearly knocked out. It’s a rich, pungent smell that reminds me of campfires and blows to the head).

A royal drop

Apparently Prince Charles’ favourite brew is, naturally, a white tea. “It’s called White Peony. When he came in 2005 there was this mad flap to find it, and of course we had it. We knew he was coming two months before it was even announced.”

It’s no surprise that Elmstock had the Prince’s tea: they stock 120 different blends, some traditional, some more curious. Their caramel black tea comes with chunks of caramel, the Pina Colada green tea is a symphony of pineapple and coconut (“just like the drink”), and one whiff of the quince-flavoured tea has my appetite racing.

Then there’s cinnamon orange, choc mint, chai masala… The colours and smells are sensational: there are reds, rich purples, blues, pinks and bright yellows. “There are different teas for different times of day and different occasions,” says Hilary. “Not all teas are the same. Just like wines, each region’s tea has a different characteristic. When a tea sales catalogue comes out it might cover 2000 teas.”

Matching food and tea

While coffee is usually served alone or at the completion of a meal, tea has for centuries been integral to fine dining. In the same way as certain wines complement particular foods, different teas can be selected to enhance your gastronomic experience.

Fried foods, eggs, bacon, smoked meats: Ceylon Pekoe, English Breakfast, Dimbula, Irish Breakfast, Flowery Pekoe, Assam, Darjeeling, Jasmine.

Breads, cheese, jams: Ceylon Pekoe, English Breakfast, Flowery Pekoe, Dimbula, Assam, Darjeeling, Jasmine.

Light savoury meals and brunch: Ceylon Pekoe, Dimbula, Assam, Darjeeling, Green, Oolongs, Sencha.

Meats and game: Earl Grey, Jasmine, Assam, Lapsang Souchong.

Poultry: Darjeeling, Oolong, Jasmine, Lapsang Souchong.

Fish: Darjeeling, Oolongs, Earl Grey, Green, Sencha.

Spicy Foods: Ceylon Pekoe, Dimbula, Darjeeling, Oolong, Green, Jasmine.

Strong Cheeses: Earl Grey, Green, Lapsang Souchong.

After a meal: Darjeeling, Green Tea, Oolong.

Tea time: Any tea! All teas!


Hilary White shares his tips on great tea:


  • “The enemies of tea are dampness, light, and age. If you ever see tea served out of glass jars, be careful. In seven days that tea becomes like straw…it loses all its subtleties. Use a ceramic jar and keep it airtight.”
  • “Tea absorbs anything in the area. If you put vegetables next to some tea, that tea will taste of vegetables the next day. It just soaks up moisture and odours – that’s one of the characteristics of tea.”


  • “We recommend rain water or spring water…boil it once, then tip it out. And always use freshly boiled water”

Choice of tea

  • “75% of all tea is now drunk in tea bags. But we don’t want to encourage that.”
  • “Always go for quality. It tastes better and you use less, because there’s less rubbish in it…less stalk.”
  • “The price difference between my tea and supermarket tea is probably ten per cent. A cup of supermarket tea might cost you 5c, so my tea costs you 6c. You don’t pay much more for a quality experience, and you’ll notice the difference.”

Brewing time

  • “One teaspoon of black tea for three minutes, maximum. Half a teaspoon of green tea, for one minute only. A lot of people don’t like green tea because they brew it for too long. And they use too much.”
  • “Longer brewing does not equal a better taste: letting the tea ‘stew’ releases more tannins.”

Caffeine in tea

  • “A cup of black tea has one third the caffeine of a coffee, green tea has half of that again. White tea has virtually no caffeine; infusions have no caffeine at all.”
  • “If you have a problem with caffeine a good trick to is to brew a pot of tea as normal, then tip it out within the first minute. When you brew the second infusion it will have much less caffeine. Most of the caffeine is extracted in that first minute.”

More tidbits on tea…

  • A teaspoon is around 20% larger than a coffee spoon
  • Tea is an infusion of the leaves of Camellia Sinensis plant in boiling water. Herbal teas aren’t strictly teas because they aren’t made from this plant.
  • Tea contains zero calories and can aid metabolism and digestion.
  • The English habit of pouring hot tea onto cold milk was developed to protect their delicate porcelain from shattering due to the heat.
  • Until 1784 the tax on tea was 119%, enough to encourage a thriving smuggling trade, complete with underground tunnels, clandestine encounters and cloak-and-dagger antics. Most of this excitement ended when William Pitt the Younger reduced the tax to 12.5%.
  • On April 25, 2007, Harrods held an auction of fine and rare teas, continuing an annual tradition dating back to 1679. Guest including tea connoisseurs from Russia, China and the Middle East competed to purchase limited edition tea lots from some of the world’s premium tea estates.

Photo credit: chumstock

Photo credit: Micke Nordin


Author: cristyburne


2 thoughts on “How to drink tea: more than just a cuppa

  1. tea… exquisite… no mention of my current favourite, Russian Caravan. Not so smoky as the Lapsang Souchong, more subtle, but lovely for the afternoon… mmm


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