January is National Hot Tea Month

According to Gail Schumann, author of the book Plant Diseases: Their Biology and Social Impact, coffee, not tea, was the popular drink in England in the mid-1600s. The Dutch imported the coffee from colonial plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Java, and Sumatra.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French forced the Dutch out of Ceylon but then gave the island to Britain as part of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens between France and Britain. In 1825, the British began planting coffee, and by 1870, Ceylon was the world’s greatest producer. Now, however, Sri Lanka is best known for its tea, and it is tea, not coffee, that helps define the culture of Britain. What happened? The answer is Coffee Rust Fungus, or Hemileia vastatrix.

Hemileia Vastatrix on Coffee Leaves

As Schumann reports:

“When the coffee rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, reached Ceylon in 1875, nearly 400,000 acres (160,000 hectares) were covered with coffee trees. No effective chemical fungicides were available to protect the foliage, so the fungus was able to colonize the leaves until nearly all the trees were defoliated.”

The result was pretty much complete devastation of the coffee plants. While in 1870, Ceylon was exporting 100 million pounds of coffee per year, by 1889, production was down to 5 million pounds.

Meanwhile, in 1866, James Taylor, a recently arrived Scot, was selected to be in charge of the first sowing of tea seeds, on 19 acres of land. Between 1873 and 1880, the Ceylon Tea Museum tells us, production rose from just 23 pounds to 81.3 tons, and by 1890, to 22,899.8 tons. [To get an idea of how much tea that is, as many as 375 to 425 cups of tea can be prepared from one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tea.] Four estates were purchased by the grocer Thomas J. Lipton. He came up with the idea of putting tea in packets instead of selling it loose from the chest. The Museum reports that Lipton’s 300 grocery shops throughout England soon could not keep up with the growing demand for his inexpensive product, and so Lipton teas became available in other stores around Britain.

Thomas J. Lipton enjoying a cup of tea

Today Ceylon is one of the largest producers of tea and the industry is one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange and a significant source of income for laborers. (Everyday around 300,000 estate workers pluck several million tea leaves by hand!)

Hand-picking tea leaves in Sri Lanka

Ceylon teas are graded by size and appearance. (Although the country has changed its name to Sri Lanka, the name Ceylon still applies to its tea.)

On a personal note, the best tea I ever had was in Russia. It was brewed in a samovar (a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water) and served in a glass placed in an ornate holder. You are supposed to hold a sugar cube in your teeth as your drink. I brought some Russian tea (“chai”) back to the U.S. with me and tried to replicate that great taste at home, but couldn’t do it. I guess you have to be there…

Silver Samovar

Tea glass and ornate holder

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23 Responses to January is National Hot Tea Month

  1. Kay says:

    Very interesting, Jill. I’m afraid I’m not coordinated enough to hold something between my teeth and drink. I’m sure I’d be covered in tea. LOL

    However, tea is a great favorite of mine. Hot tea, I mean. I drink coffee in the morning and then, more often in the winter, switch to hot tea. Sometimes herbal. Sometimes the real deal.

  2. Sandy says:

    Jill, always teaching me things! I really need to try the Samovar. My husband said that some Polish restaurants serve tea that way, so next time we go, it will be my mission to find one! And, BTW, I am drinking a nice Chinese Oolong, relaxing before I go get my butt kicked by Andre…

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I’ve just become a tea drinker, thanks to Candace and Julie, so I found this really interesting. I wonder if I can convince Carl to take me to Russia to try their tea.

  4. Beth Shaum says:

    What a cool post. I love tea. I drink it in myriad forms so your talk of the best tea you’ve ever had being in Russia only solidifies my desire to go there. It is my bucket list destination. Did you go with a tour or on your own? That has been my hesitancy to go there. I don’t like tour groups and I’ve heard it’s difficult to navigate on your own. But that was a few years ago. Perhaps it has gotten easier for independent travelers.

    • Beth,
      I went with a tour. It was quite difficult to navigate on your own when I went but that was a while ago. It also helps if you at least learn the Russian alphabet. A lot of the words are similar to English or French if you can transliterate and see what they say. But it was all worth it – most beautiful place I’ve ever seen!

  5. Julie P. says:

    Great post! You are just so smart!

  6. Barbara says:

    Fascinating! I’ve become an afficionado of tea in the past few years but I don’t want it sweet unless I have a sore throat in which case a tiny bit of honey is very soothing. I had tea from a samovar once in NJ with a family who had come here from Russia (after telling the gov’t. they were going to Israel). I was there to interview their daughter about her wonderful book called Growing Up in Moscow.

  7. zibilee says:

    I loved this post so much that I squealed a little while reading it. So, so fascinating and cool! I am a huge hot tea drinker, and am always looking for something new and unusual when it comes to tea. My favorite right now is chocolate hazelnut, but I also love Lady Grey as well. If you haven’t checked out ESP Emporium, I would highly, highly recommend it to you. I found it over the holidays, and have spent many an hour perusing their website. They have over 200 kinds of tea, that they deliver, with to your door! Great post today!

  8. Meg says:

    Now this is a month that I plan on celebrating fully 🙂

  9. You always have the coolest posts! I should try drinking my tea with a sugar cube in my mouth!

  10. softdrink says:

    Yay for tea! I will be drinking lots of it this month since I just quit Starbucks. Without the sugar cube though…that sounds like it takes more coordination than I have.

  11. Belle Wong says:

    I’ve always been a tea drinker, although I do have to have my two cups of coffee in the mornings. I didn’t realize coffee used to be the big hot drink in Britain!

  12. JoAnn says:

    If wine tastes better in fine crystal,why shouldn’t tea taste better from the samovar and served in ornate holders? Such an interesting post, Jill!

  13. Bonnie says:

    I loved reading this! I love coffee and Tea. I’ve never tried drinking tea with a sugar cube between my teeth! Your trip to Russia must have been fascinating. I have had Moroccan Tea served in glass cups which is wonderful. My favorite is English Breakfast Tea and Vanilla Roobius Tea.

  14. stacybuckeye says:

    I like the idea of holding a sugar cube between your teeth when drinking. I don’t usually sweeten mine, but who couldn’t use a little more sugar 😉 Interesting post, as always.

  15. Aths says:

    Now that’s more like my kind of month! I love tea! Thanks for sharing this!

  16. Jenners says:

    Tea, schmea. Let me know when it is Eat Chocolate Month!

  17. Alyce says:

    I have a similar philosophy about having chocolate in my mouth when I drink coffee. 🙂 But it’s not something I do every time. Hot tea month sounds like a good excuse to go out to eat Chinese food though; that’s about the only time I drink it anymore unless I’m ill.

  18. Aarti says:

    I recognize this comment has zero to do with tea. BUT I just read the children’s/YA book Crow by Barbara Wright. It’s about an African-American family living in North Carolina during Reconstruction and white supremacists stage a coup and the family has to deal with it. I know you read a ginormous amount of children’s literature that approaches race relations and history in very engaging and positive ways, so I thought I’d give you a heads up about the novel- I think you’d like it!

  19. Hot Tea Month!! I need to celebrate.
    Maybe by making a nice cuppa right now.

  20. Lisa says:

    Very interesting — I drink a lot of tea. I think the best tea I ever had was sent to me by a friend in China. She sent me hand-tied tea balls that opened into beautiful flowers in the hot water. It was the most delicate, fragrant tea I’ve ever had.

  21. how absolutely wonderful your post is! Thanks for all the facts and history.

  22. Oh, Jill – you’ll inspire me to upgrade my teabags to loose tea … and I want a fancy tea glass and holder 🙂

    This history – and a glimpse at your trip to Russia – is a treat.

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