Four Things That Make It Lapsang Souchong

Tea plus smoke equals lapsang souchong, yes?

Well, sort of.

This indescribably smoky tea is a product of its exact spot in the world! It is unique among teas.

Of course every fine tea has its particular processing method, which makes it one of a kind, and lapsang souchong does have its own, very specific, manner of production.

But this particular teaproduced only in China’s National Wuyi Mountain Nature Preservation Zone, and the first of the world’s black tea—is uniquely unique!

(See my last post for a description of what this tea is and how it is made.)

1. Tea species and growing environment.

Lapsang souchong is produced from leaves of the Bohea variety of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is native to the forested Wuyi Mountain region. Every variety of tea has aroma constituents that are specific to it, and, as with wine, the terroir contributes to that.

But there’s more to the story. Researchers have shown (Yao et al. 2005) that the leaves of the Bohea variety absorb more of the elements of pine smoke than do the leaves of tea grown outside this region. Thus, the tea leaves themselves have a quality that heavily contributes to lapsang souchong’s final smokiness.

fire

2. The wood used in tea production. Yep, it matters.

In the processing of black tea in the Wuyi region, native pine wood is used for the drying and smoking stages. Importantly, the oil of this pine tree—Pinus taiwanensis—contains alpha-terpineol, and this particular variety of pine contains more longifolene (a component in pine resin) than do other types of pine trees.

3. Tea leaves + smoke — OR — like bergamot makes it Earl Grey, longifolene makes it lapsang souchong!

When Yao and colleagues analyzed the constituents of lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong, they found high levels of longifoline and alpha-terpineol in the tea. In fact, these were the “major components of volatile oils contributing to the odor of such teas,” and longifoline “can be considered as the unique constituent in such tea” (2005:8689).

While alpha-terpineol is also found in the tea leaves themselves, its high concentration in lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong comes from the pine smoke.

Comparing the volatile constituents of lapsang souchong with smoked lapsang souchong: lapsang souchong contains more tea leaf than pine constituents, and smoked lapsang souchong contains more pine than tea leaf constituents.

This of course makes sense—the more smoke the leaves absorb, the more pine constituents there will be!

4. Products that form when pine is heated or burned, such as phenols, also contribute to both lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong. There are more of these pyrolysis products in the smoked lapsang souchong, unsurprisingly.

Why People Love Lapsang Souchong Tea
(yes, there are some; I have met them)

When comparing lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong tea to other smoked food, there is a definite difference. The tea leaves, specifically, have high terpenoid levels from the pine that itself has a lot of longifoline.

Thus, to have the real thing, you must first grow Camellia sinensis var. sinensis cv. Bohea within the Wuyi Mountain region, and then process the leaves per the prescribed method, using Pinus taiwanensis pine wood.

This results in tea with “mountain flavor,” as Yao’s team describes it, the “aroma of pine smoke . . . plus the sweet note of black tea” (2005:8691).

If you have some lapsang souchong sitting around your house, you may be happy to know that this tea can be stored for years. It can also be re-brewed a few times. And if you just can’t get past its smokiness to actually drink it, try adding the brew to sauces. Or use the leaves as a dry rub.

If all else fails, find someone else who loves this tea. After all, Yao et al. (2005:8688) assert that:

The quality of lapsang souchong is superior to that of other black teas. Its taste is rich, giving a harmony feeling, and its aroma is sweet and fruity plus a special flavor of pine.

Okay, if they say so. . . .


Source: Yao, S-S., et al., “Flavor Characteristics of Lapsang Souchong and Smoked Lapsang Souchong, a Special Chinese Black Tea with Pine Smoking Process,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53:8688–8693. 2005.
And no, I still do not drink lapsang souchong, although I have tried to, yet again, but nope, can’t do it. . . .

Curious?  Try China Lapsang Souchong from TeaHaus.

What Is Lapsang Souchong?

Smoky Tea (or, you mean you actually drink this?!)

Subtle tea smokiness may fall within meh territory, but:

full-blown-campfire-smoke-ingesting lapsang souchong 
or
can-it-get-smokier-than-this smoked lapsang souchong??

These intensely smoky teas tend to stoke a love/hate response—so how did they become a thing?

Wisps of Smoke

Some teas, of course, are intrinsically and pleasantly—lightly—smoky. These include keemun, first grown and produced in 1875 in China’s Anhui Province, quickly becoming a Western favorite.

Russian breakfast teas are blends that contain smoky tea (e.g., keemun and lapsang souchong). Some say that the typically smoky flavor of these teas originated from the 1700s, when the tea, transported by camels, was exposed to repeated campfires on the caravan’s months-long journey from China to Russia.

Another slightly smoky tea is black gunpowder, grown and produced in southeastern China’s Fujian Province, and given its name by ship captains, who thought that the tightly rolled “pearls” of tea leaves resembled granular gunpowder.

But these teas aren’t lapsang souchong, which is something altogether different!

Billows Fill the Air

If you have ever tossed some pine boughs into a campfire, you know what happens—a hot fire and a whole lot of flames and smoke! And sometime in the 1400s, tea producers in China’s Wuyi Mountain area started capitalizing on this fact, especially with the Ming Dynasty opening trade with the West in 1405.

To start at the beginning—

Tea has a long history in the Fujian Province, a region that encompasses Wuyi Mountain. We know that tea was grown here already during the Qin Dynasty in 221–207 BC, and Fujian later was a crucial stop on the silk routes. Although the Chinese drank mostly green tea, a more fully oxidized (black) tea traveled better—so it was in the Wuyi Mountain region where black tea, from the native tea species Camellia sinensis var. sinensis cv. Bohea, was first produced.

Its name—

Thus, lapsang souchong began, although not with that name.

lapsang souchong tea

Souchong is indeed Chinese in origin (mid-1700s), meaning “small sort,” but lapsang is an English “market name” that was invented in the 1880s, first appearing in print in 1883.

Before that, tea from this region was called Bohea, a word that derives from the Minnan dialect for “Wuyi Mountain” and accords with the Chinese method of classifying tea geographically (they also classified it by how it was prepared, its quality, and so on).

According to some, several types of tea, including congou and souchong, fell under the umbrella of Bohea. (For perspective, the first leaf below the tip plucked from a tea plant was orange pekoe, the second pekoe, the third pekoe-souchong, the fourth souchong, and the fifth congou.)

But Chinese researchers S-S. Yao et al. (2005: 8688) say that “the word ‘Bohea’ meant the black tea (lapsang souchong) produced in the Wuyi area in the early world tea trade.”

In the early 1700s, Bohea was reaching both Europe and America, but the English East India Company had a different method of classifying tea:  by color and appearance. That is, “black” and “green.”

Hence, the oxidized Bohea was known as black tea.

How it is produced—

Today, “black tea” broadly refers to oxidized teas, which are produced by many countries. But lapsang souchong is produced only in the Wuyi Mountain region.

To make any tea, tea leaves are plucked and withered, which is a light oxidation. By stopping at this stage or by tightly controlling how much more oxidation the leaves undergo, you end up with green, white, and oolong teas.

To produce black teas, the oxidation continues much farther, resulting in a very dark leaf. Basically, you oxidize a leaf by damaging it, so by controlling the damage type/level/speed/etc., you control the oxidation. Because you want a lot of oxidation, leaf cells are ruptured, either by cutting or rolling them (orthodox method) or by mechanically cutting them into pieces (crush-tear-curl or CTC).

But lapsang souchong is different.

To produce this tea, as Yao and his team explain, the bud and two leaves are plucked and withered, first in the sun and then, because the Wuyi Mountain environment is very humid, indoors at around 140°F. But for this second withering, the leaves are placed on a slatted floor above a heating room—containing a smoky pine wood fire—which allows the leaves to absorb the smoke.cup of lapsang souchong

The leaves are then rolled, fixed by pan firing, rolled a second time, and again dried. For this last step, the leaves are placed into bamboo sieves that are subjected to hot air and smoke produced from a pine wood-burning stove.

To produce smoked lapsang souchong, lapsang souchong tea leaves are sprayed with water, put into a bamboo basket, and then exposed to pine smoke. Interestingly, there is no flame in this process. Pine wood (without bark) is placed on burning charcoal that is in a hole; this creates high-quality pine smoke, without flame, because the pine is heated but not burned.

But only in the Wuyi Mountain area??? 

Okay, so oxidized tea + smoke = lapsang souchong, right?

Sort of, but not entirely. It turns out that this specific tea can be made only in this specific part of the world, or by using the specific tea and specific pine that are found in this exact area of the globe. Why is that?

Coming in my next post!


Try the gamut of smokiness for yourself! TeaHaus offers these high-quality teas:
China Keemun Finest Chuen Cha
Black Gunpowder
Russian Samovar
China Lapsang Souchong
(pictured above)


Sources: (1) Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Oxford University Press. 2016. (2) Yao, S-S., et al., “Flavor Characteristics of Lapsang Souchong and Smoked Lapsang Souchong, a Special Chinese Black Tea with Pine Smoking Process,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53:8688–8693. 2005.
And no, I do not drink lapsang souchong, although I have tried, several times. . . .

Does Caffeine Protect Against Dementia?

A Moving Target

Health claims and dietary guidelines seem about as stable as Michigan weather—wait a moment and things’ll change.

That Perhaps Hasn’t Moved Far Enough

But sometimes, guidelines should change. Consider this:

Although study after study has demonstrated the many benefits of tea and coffee, our federal dietary guidelines for Americans for 2015–2020 first say

“when choosing beverages, both the calories and nutrients they provide are important considerations. Beverages that are calorie-free—especially water—or that contribute beneficial nutrients, such as fat-free and low-fat milk and 100% juice, should be the primary beverages consumed,”

followed by a tepid

“coffee, tea, and flavored waters also can be selected” (USDHHS 2015:61).

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of coffee or tea, even for those of us who drink our tea and coffee black.

And although milk might well be part of a balanced diet, the endorsement of juice (which, as many nutritionists caution, is far less healthy than eating whole fruit) over coffee and tea? Seriously?

And as far as water goes, some have suggested that tea—with its many beneficial polyphenols—is even healthier than plain water!

New Reasons Why Coffee and Tea May Be Healthier

It seems that tea impacts cognition. The more tea consumed, the lower the rates of functional disability and dementia, according to many studies that look at how polyphenols (micronutrients in plants) protect the brain.

But new research indicates that caffeine also offers some protection against dementia!

A recently published study on the caffeine-dementia link spent ten years following nearly 6,500 healthy women who were 60–80 years old and without dementia when the research began (Driscoll et al. 2016). Because this study was embedded in another project, it isn’t as exact as one might wish.cup of coffee

For one, the women self reported, not the most reliable way to compile data.

Secondly, via questionnaire, the women were asked simply if they drank coffee, tea, and/or cola. The researchers assumed these were caffeinated. And although the women were asked how much of each of these they drank, only the amounts of coffee were used to estimate caffeine levels.

Say Yes to Caffeine (and No to Dementia)!

However, the study results were striking.

Of the women who consumed higher amounts of caffeine on a day-to-day basis, fewer of them developed probable dementia or global cognitive impairment (during the study’s duration) as compared to the women who drank lower amounts of caffeine daily.

So How Much Caffeine Are We Talking?

The mean amount of caffeine for everyone in the study was 172 mg/day, which translates to about 14–15 oz of coffee or 29–30 oz of tea a day (Driscoll et al. 2016:4).

The mean of the group that had fewer cases of dementia was 261 mg of caffeine/day (Driscoll et al. 2016:4).

This is about 3 cups of coffee (22 oz) or 5.5 cups of tea (44–45 oz) per day.

But Does the Caffeine Have to Be in Coffee or Tea?

The researchers acknowledge the limitations of their study, writing that “the source of caffeine may be an important consideration for future research” (Driscoll et al. 2016:5). Indeed, while I don’t think that getting caffeine from soda would outweigh the ill effects of drinking soda, what about supplemental caffeine in the form of pills?

Also, I wonder if there were women who didn’t drink a lot of coffee but did drink a lot of tea—their caffeine levels would be considered low in this study, which may not be entirely accurate.

BUT, Is It the Caffeine or the Polyphenols?

pot of teaBecause this project was based on nonhuman studies on the caffeine-cognition connection, the researchers were looking specifically at caffeine levels. But coffee and tea also have polyphenols, and the more coffee/tea ingested, the more polyphenols and caffeine ingested.

Because polyphenols have also been shown to protect against dementia, the effects of caffeine vs the effects of polyphenols must be teased apart, especially if they are to be used pharmacologically. It is also possible that caffeine and phenols are working synergistically.

The Upshot?

So does caffeine protect against dementia? Maybe.

But we can say that this exciting news from Driscoll’s team offers greater insight into how we may—one day—be able to treat, and possibly even prevent, cognitive decline.

In other words? It give us hope.


Sources: (1) Driscoll, I., et al. “Relationships between caffeine intake and risk for probable dementia or global cognitive impairment: The Women’s Health Initiative memory study,” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, adv access publ:1–7. Sept. 21, 2016. (2) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, 8th ed. Dec. 2015.

Prior posts on caffeine in tea:
The Case for Caffeine
Why Doesn’t Tea Make Me Wired?
Caffeine in Tea: How Much Is in Your Brew?
Prior posts on the protective benefits of tea against dementia:
Protective Power of Tea
Black Tea’s Protective Power
Protective Power of Tea–3

China Teapots of the 1700s: Are They Still Chinese?

In the Beginning . . . Quality was Already Second-Rate

Right from that first porcelain teapot made by China (see earlier post) for the Europeans:

export tea ware was designed specifically for the Western market

(and yes, that meant a lower quality of porcelain—partly just to meet demand),

particularly because 16th- and 17th-century-Europeans seemed more concerned about teapot design—and the status it embodied—than about how the tea tasted in the pot.

The Chinese, after all, preferred using porous stoneware teapots, which slightly retained tea’s aroma and flavor.

So porcelain teapots, in both shape and ornamentation, quickly and increasingly reflected Western preferences.

While the Europeans, Too, Looked to Maximize Profits

For their part, 18th-century-European merchants did all they could to streamline the process of ordering/shipping/selling tea ware.*

The goal, after all, was to make money.teacup

  • Simple and sturdy ware meant fewer errors in orders and less breakage during shipping
  • Traditional Chinese handle-less cups were easily stackable (like the modern example shown here), meaning they could be efficiently stowed in ships
  • It was easier to add ornamentation than to order complex shapes

Tea and Coffee for the Masses—So the Elite Drank Chocolate

As tea and coffee became more available, prices dropped—making tea and coffee more accessible to the middle class—but that third new European drink remained an elite beverage.

Therefore, savvy merchants commissioned chocolate cups with handles.* These more breakable cups obviously could command higher prices.

The Point of a Saucer, Necessitating New Rules for Drinking Tea

Meanwhile, the absence of a handle on teacups—and the presence of a deep saucer—informed tea drinking etiquette.

First off, a saucer was useful to hold that tea-spoon (see teaspoon post).

Second, because gracefully holding a thin porcelain cup filled with steaming hot liquid was liable to be really challenging, people held the saucer instead. And poured tea into the saucer to cool it. And drank directly from the saucer.

Eventually the upper classes wanted to re-distinguish themselves from everyone else: drinking from the saucer became gauche.

By 1760, tea and coffee cups with handles were in style, although scholar Shirley Mueller has tea sets from as early as the 1740s that include handled coffee cups.

Teapots Become Totally Westernized

As more people could and did drink tea, teacups and teapots grew larger. Designs became more ornate and featured entirely Western shapes and motifs—as beautifully demonstrated by Mueller’s collection:

1700s teapots

detail of 1790 teapot
grate in spout

And Design Flaws Remedied

And that pesky problem with the tea leaves clogging the teapot spout?

As teapot design evolved, a web or grate—with an increasing number of holes—separated the body from the spout. This kept the tea leaves in the pot while allowing the liquid to easily flow through the spout.§

The Westernized China Teapot

The imported china or porcelain teapot of the late 1700s was a very different thing than those first teapots that delighted the Europeans.

As Mueller puts it:**

What began as Chinese in inspiration and appearance became Western in nearly every aspect in less than one hundred years. . . . By the end of the eighteenth century, the only relationship the Chinese export teapot had with China was its location of manufacture and the tea into which it breathed life.

And tea, after all, is where it all began. . . .

brewing tea


*Maldini, Irene, “Design History of European Tea Cups and Saucers,” Master’s thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2012.
Shirley Mueller, email, Sept. 9, 2016.
The Luxury of Tea and Coffee: Chinese Export Porcelain, Highlights from the Shirley M. Mueller Collection, by Shirley M. Mueller and R. Craig Miller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, 2016. http://www.imamuseum.org/exhibition/luxury-tea-and-coffee-chinese-export-porcelain-highlights-shirley-m-mueller-collection
§Shirley Mueller, pers. comm., Sept. 2016.
**Mueller, Shirley Maloney, “Eighteenth-Century Chinese Export Porcelain Teapots: Fashion and Uniformity,” American Ceramic Circle Journal XIII:5–16, 2005.
Note: tea pictured above is Sumatra Barisan, available at teahouse.com.

From China to Europe: The First Porcelain Teapots

The Shiny New Thing Everyone Wanted

When porcelain first reached their shore, sixteenth-century Europeans were utterly transfixed. What was it and how was it made? (Soon to be followed with “how can we make it?”)

To their eyes, hard paste porcelain had properties that were distinctly superior to those of stoneware, explained scholar Shirley Mueller as we examined her current exhibit of export Chinese porcelain at the Indianapolis Museum of Art:*

The very nature of porcelain (see previous post) allowed artisans to produce pieces with thin walls (even as thin as paper)—yet porcelain was stronger than stoneware!

Further, it didn’t break when hot water was poured into it, and when it chipped, it chipped cleanly. In fact, early on, some European artisans thought that this translucent substance was actually glass.

And, porcelain was less expensive than silver, Mueller added.

Perfect for 17th-century coffee and tea.

Which Led to Novel Adaptations . . .coffee pot made with Chinese vase

Around 1680, a resourceful Dutchman bravely drilled into an mid-1600s Chinese porcelain gourd vase and added gilt fittings (shown on right).

Voilà! The first porcelain coffee pot in the West!

. . . and a Burgeoning Market

And although the Chinese preferred using Yixing stoneware, they quickly responded to the European demand for porcelain tea ware. There was clearly great sales potential here—at least until the Europeans figured out how to make their own porcelain!

And indeed, millions of pieces of porcelain were imported by the Dutch East India Company alone. Porcelain served both as ballast on the ships (especially helpful since tea was relatively light in weight) and as profitable merchandise.

The First Porcelain Teapots

So China came up with designs specifically for the Western market, and initially produced export teapots of underglaze blue-and-white.

Underglaze painting had been developed in China centuries earlier, around 1000 AD. For blue-and-white ware, a white slip (a mixture of pigment, the components of the porcelain itself, and water) was first applied to the piece. Using imported cobalt, designs were then hand painted on the white ground—errors in painting could not be corrected—and the piece was fired. A glaze, which brought out the true color of the blue, was applied, and the piece was again fired, completing the process.

The example shown below is an underglaze blue-and-white teapot that dates to 1643 and features an Asian aesthetic. Its lid is a solid piece of porcelain, not pierced in any manner.Teapot, China 1643

Fine-Tuning Required

And here is where that liquid-absorbing property of Yixing stoneware (see my previous post) comes in.

As Mueller pointed out, the lids of Yixing pots did not generally have a vent to allow steam to escape because that wasn’t much of an issue. When hot water is poured into the pot, the pot itself absorbs some of the liquid.

But when hot water is poured into an impervious porcelain pot that does not have a perforated lid, there is nowhere for the steam to escape as the tea steeps. Hence, the hot liquid rises up the spout!

This, the Europeans definitely did not like.

Which Proved to Be a Nearly 100-year Process

But with communication between East and West a years-long affair, it took awhile—decades actually!—for improvements to be incorporated. 

Mueller—who has studied multiple examples of non-perforated, partially perforated, and perforated lids that date from 1643 to 1750—explained that there was no smooth progression from unvented to vented.§

Rather, it seems there was some confusion in China as to why the vent in the lid was needed, as evidenced by the existence of some lids with partial perforations. In these, the holes either do not go fully through or are mere pinpricks. This ineffectual venting would not have prevented the hot water from rising into the spout.

By 1750, however, most lids were vented for steam, thereby solving one problem.

So, Were There Other Complaints?

Well, there was that problem of tea leaves clogging in the spout . . .

In addition, the falling price of tea brought about other stylistic changes, while motifs became increasingly westernized.

All coming in my next posts!


*Pers. comm., Sept. 2016. Also, The Luxury of Tea and Coffee: Chinese Export Porcelain, Highlights from the Shirley M. Mueller Collection, by Shirley M. Mueller and R. Craig Miller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, 2016. http://www.imamuseum.org/exhibition/luxury-tea-and-coffee-chinese-export-porcelain-highlights-shirley-m-mueller-collection
Malone, Laurence A., How to Mend Your Treasured Porcelain, China, Glass, and Pottery, pp. 104–105. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing, 1976.
Weiss, Bustav, The Book of Porcelain, translated by J. Seligman, New York: Praeger, 1971.
§Pers. comm., Sept. 2016. Also, Mueller, Shirley, “Lifting the Lid: Early Chinese Export Teapots,” Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 71:89–93, 2006–2007. 

Tea Arrived in Europe—and Launched the Quest for the Perfect Teapot

Teacups and Teapots Are Everywhere!giant teacups on truck

Tea ware is fully embedded into our culture. After all, we immediately recognize a teacup, even when encountered very unexpectedly!

But in 17th-century Europe? Not So Much.

When the Dutch brought tea to Europe in the beginning of the 1600s, people knew they wanted it. After all, it was costly and rare and new.

But it was also met with some bafflement. What, exactly, do you do with the stuff?

So, as my previous post pointed out, the arrival of tea triggered a slew of new needs—including suitable teapots. Which didn’t yet exist in Europe.

– An Aside, or a Fortuitous Detour –

Jill with Shirley MuellerIn looking into this, I quite inadvertently initiated a chain reaction of my own!

When I downloaded a research article about tea ware, the author of that paper graciously invited me to see her exhibit of 1643–1790 Chinese export porcelain,* which resulted in my driving from Ann Arbor to Indianapolis—encountering the above teacups en route—and learning a great deal about early tea and coffee ware from scholar Shirley M. Mueller.

Europe: In Need of Teapots . . .

As we examined her collection at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Mueller explained that although the Dutch East India Trading Company was ordering teapots from China by 1626, it wasn’t nearly as straightforward as we might think.

. . . but Not Like These . . . or Those . . . or Those

Initially, the Chinese weren’t quite sure how to make teapots for the European market. In fact, throughout the 1600s, they struggled to figure out what the Europeans wanted and needed. Feedback, after all, was a laborious process. Mueller pointed out that it took a year for a European ship to reach China; it typically spent a year there, and then took another year to return to Europe—a three-year turnaround!

stoneware teapot, 1680At the time, the Chinese generally brewed their tea in Yixing stoneware. These unglazed pots were porous, which meant that when hot water was poured into the pot, up to 4% of it was absorbed by the pot itself, Mueller explained.

Interestingly, this attribute was to have real repercussions for the export industry.

Further, although these stoneware teapots did make it to Europe and were even embellished, as in this example, this wasn’t really what the Europeans wanted!

China-Ware

China had long been producing ware that was made with petuntse, which contains quartz, and kaolin (from felsite). When these two substances are combined, they reinforce each other: the kaolin facilitates molding while the quartz contributes to the ware’s glassy and translucent surface.†

The Portuguese named this ware porcelain, evidently due to the “resemblance of the finish to a lovely, colorful, glossy tropical marine shell found in the Mediterranean area.”†  It was also called China-ware, meaning literally “ware from China,” later shortened to china. It also came to be called hard paste porcelain or true porcelain. Because Europe had not yet identified a source for petuntse and kaolin, they could not produce porcelain.

So What Did Europe Want in a Teapot?

Coming in my next post—and I guarantee that you won’t have to wait three years!


*The Luxury of Tea and Coffee: Chinese Export Porcelain, Highlights from the Shirley M. Mueller Collection, by Shirley M. Mueller and R. Craig Miller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, 2016. http://www.imamuseum.org/exhibition/luxury-tea-and-coffee-chinese-export-porcelain-highlights-shirley-m-mueller-collection
†Malone, Laurence A., How to Mend Your Treasured Porcelain, China, Glass, and Pottery, p. 104. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing, 1976.

The Teaspoon: A Necessary Part of Having Tea

You get one new thing and bam—you’ve triggered an avalanche of new needs.

  • Play Pokémon GO? Gotta have a portable charger for when that elusive Dragonite actually hits your screen.
  • Found that perfect sofa? Guaranteed—any chair/coffee table/end table/lamp you already own won’t be quite right.
  • Having a baby? Just try to stop the flood of stuff that will enter your home for the next two decades!

So it was when tea hit Europe several centuries ago. People immediately needed all sorts of things they didn’t know they were going to need!

Introducing Tea: A Marketer’s Delight!

Tea instigated a plethora of requirements. Lockable tea caddies to store the pricey product and caddy spoons for measuring it out. Teapots and teacups and tea saucers. New words were necessary (“chinaware,” “porcelain”). Sugar in your tea? Call that spoon the “teaspoon”! And to display all these acquisitions: china cabinets! Not to mention tea carts, spoon holders, tea tables, and on and on.

Let’s Start with the Not-so-lowly Teaspoon

Although spoons have been used since the Paleolithic, the earliest ones were undoubtedly made of natural materials such as pieces of wood or shells—as suggested by our English spoon from Old English spon (from chip, as of wood) or the French cuillère (from Latin coclear, with the same root as cochlea, meaning snail, spiral).

First-century Romans designed two spoon types that they eventually brought northward into Britain. The custom stuck, and subsequent upper classes used precious metals to fashion spoons. For those who could afford it, a silver spoon was given to babies at their baptism (hence “born with a silver spoon”). By the 14th century, however, pewter spoons were commonplace, available more broadly.china teacup and saucer setting

The obvious usefulness of the spoon resulted in quite a variety of types, described by their composition, such as wooden or silver, or by their intended use, as in dessert, salt, sugar—or tea!

The spoon that was designated for stirring tea (sugar was added with the sugar spoon) made its first (known) appearance in print in the London Gazette in 1686—”three small gilt Tea Spoons.” 

Which Became a Unit of Measure

By 1731, a teaspoonful was used as a measurement: “not above a Tea Spoonful of Water” (Phil. Trans.). Robert Griffith’s 1859 A Universal Formulary gives the teaspoon as one fluidrachm, the dessert spoon as two fluidrachms, and a tablespoon as half a fluid ounce. (A fluidrachm or fluidram equals 1/8 of a fluid ounce in the imperial measure of the apothecary system.)

However, Griffith asserts that “the teaspoon is rated too low; they [these estimates] apply very well to the teaspoon formerly used, but not to the much larger kind now in general use, which approaches the dessertspoon in capacity.” 

And indeed, both the size of the teacup and the size of that teaspoon for stirring the tea had increased—concomitant with falling tea prices. By the 1730s, a teaspoon was 1/3 of a tablespoon.

While Still Remaining an Item of Status

spoon holder or spooner (?)Although the price of tea had come down, “tea” and its accouterments were still a way to signal your social position. Early Victorians put their teaspoons in a spoon holder or a spooner—oftentimes similar to a coverless sugar bowl—displaying both their spoons and their status. In the later 1800s, silver commemorative and souvenir spoons became a fad, another indicator of rank.

Social norms were paramount. In his Manual of Social and Business Forms of 1888, Thomas Hill advises that tea be “gently sipped from the spoon or cup, taking cup and spoon in hand . . . when drinking,” and he thoughtfully illustrates proper hand and finger position. In fact, he cautions that “the spoon should never be removed from the cup when the guest is satisfied with its contents” because a spoon that is placed next to a cup that still contains tea means there is a problem!

Today’s Oh-so-lowly Teaspoon

Nowadays, spoons—teaspoons or otherwise—are utilitarian drudges. We carelessly set them anywhere on the saucer or plate or table, ascribing no meaning to their placement. The capacity of a “teaspoon” in a flatware set in the U.S. varies wildly, requiring the use of measuring teaspoons for cooking and baking. And a teaspoon is used only incidentally for actually stirring tea.

In our home, a teaspoon is never used for its original purpose—drinking tea, as we do, without sugar or milk! However, we find our tea measuring spoon to be indispensable! It easily measures out bulky tea, and although it is not called a caddy spoon, it fulfills that same purpose—and does indeed serve as a true TEA spoon.

measuring spoon for tea


COMING UP: A look at some of that other must-have teaware!
Note: tea measuring spoon is pictured with Le Touareg tea, both available at teahaus.com