Elephant Tea Tin Helps Real Elephants

Clearance sale? Heck yeah! Years and years ago, when I picked up this tin filled with teabags, I did so only because I bought it for next to nothing!front-webI think I liked the tea, but I do remember that I nearly tossed the tin—but then stuck it in with Christmas decorations because, well, it’s not everyday that you run across an elephant dressed as Santa and carrying a bag of gifts in its trunk. And this isn’t an overtly cartoonish elephant either, which made the tin a bit intriguing to me.back-webA quick online search brought up this same Santa elephant tin as “vintage” (what does that make me then?!), but the company behind this unusual tin is still very much around and still produces elephant tea tins.lid-web

Williamson Tea, according to this tin, has been around since 1869, an era when

tea fever infected governments, companies, and private individuals in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe (Rappaport 2017:111)


as early as 1866, when writing about Brazilian tea, The Grocer quipped: “All the world is intent on supplying all the rest with tea” (Rappaport 2017:114).

It turned out that not all the world could actually, successfully, grow tea, but Kenya was one of the countries that did succeed. Currently, Kenya is one of the world’s top exporters of tea, with tea being the country’s most valuable export product.

And today, according to their website, Williamson Tea is “committed to growing the highest quality sustainable teas to the benefit of Kenya, its communities, wildlife and environment.” While they offer a limited number of teas, each tea is grown, without pesticides, on one of their own farms in Kenya.

And the elephant tin?

Williamson partners with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which, according to the Williamson website, is

the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world and one of pioneering conservation organisations for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa,

and a portion of each tin sold is donated to the trust.

My elephant tin makes me smile, and also reminds me that its real-life counterparts are benefitting from tea.


A Thirst for Empire, by E. Rappaport, 2017, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
“Kenya’s top 10 exports,” by D. Workman, June 23, 2018, World’s Top Exports.


Prefer Tea over Coffee? Your Choice—or Decided by Your Genes?

Tea or coffee? As in, which one do you prefer?ying yangInnocuous question, right? Yet earlier in history, as tea and coffee were first arriving to their shores, a European’s response might have reflected such weighty issues as:

  • power (who had the means to bring tea and coffee to Europe)
  • wealth and status (who could initially afford to purchase tea leaves and coffee beans)
  • gender (e.g., men’s coffeehouses vs women’s social teas)
  • politics (again, those coffeehouses vs social tea venues in which business—albeit of different types—was conducted)
  • even citizenship (aside from East Frisia, Germany, for example, was slower to embrace tea)

in cups

Today, however, these factors aren’t really factors, and we assume our selection is simply a matter of personal preference, some liking tea more, others coffee.

However, according to a recent study by Jue-Sheng Ong and colleagues, this tea/coffee preference may instead be due to our individual genetic makeup!

The Real Question—Caffeine or PROP/Quinine?

Although most of us know about caffeine‘s bitterness, there are also two other bitter compounds at play here: propylthiouracil (PROP) and quinine.

Being able to taste bitterness has been a useful defense mechanism through most of human history, helping us avoid poisonous foods. This ability is even encoded in our genetic material—which allowed Ong’s team (2018) to use genetic markers for PROP, quinine, and caffeine perception as “genetic proxies for bitter taste perception and test their association with the consumption of coffee, tea and alcohol.”

Using genetics sidesteps the subjectivity of people rating their own perception of bitterness, although the participants did self report on how much tea, coffee, and alcohol they drank (only those whose consumption levels fell within the 20–80th percentile were included in this study). The study group comprised over 400,000 people, members of the UK Biobank.

The results?

The researchers detected a direct correlation between genetic markers and the subject’s beverage of choice:

  • higher perceived intensity of PROP and quinine ⇒ tend to drink tea


  • higher perceived intensity of caffeine ⇒ tend to drink coffee


The researchers note that while quinine is naturally found in coffee (PROP is not), an earlier study showed that “coffee drinkers tend to be less sensitive to quinine” (Ong et al. 2018), again supporting their preference for coffee.

Of course there are additional reasons for a person to choose coffee over tea:

caffeine . . . contributes to the perceived strength, body and bitterness of coffee, which has been related to its intake. It is possible that coffee consumers acquire a taste for (or an ability to detect) caffeine given the learned positive reinforcement (i.e. stimulation) elicited by caffeine. (Ong 2018)

Interestingly, no differences were found between males and females except that there was a stronger “association between caffeine perception and tea intake” (Ong 2018) in females.

pots_betterSo, tea or coffee? Your genes just might be driving your decision!

Source: “Understanding the role of bitter taste perception in coffee, tea and alcohol consumption through Mendelian randomization,” by Jue-Sheng Ong et al., Scientific Reports (November 15, 2018) 8:16414.

Christmas Tea: Why Does It Contain Oranges?

Picture any holiday and I’ll bet that specific foods are part of that snapshot. After all, holidays mean gatherings of people—and festive gatherings of people mean food and drink!

When you think about this, it makes sense from many standpoints. The very evolution of our species meant learning to cooperate and share resources to ensure our survival, so the “holiday meal” is, in a way, engrained in the human psyche.

Christmas Tea: black tea with orange peel, cinnamon, almond, & cloves

Now here we are, having recently celebrated Thanksgiving. My husband and I had bucked tradition for years but then our daughter went to kindergarten and learned that you were “supposed” to have turkey on Thanksgiving. Ah well, turkey it is, because tradition and social norms, with their evolutionary roots, have great sway.

brew-closeup-webSo when looking at tea, what about those billed as “Christmas teas”?

Why do they traditionally contain orange? And why did oranges become associated with Christmas anyway?

Possibility One

Some oranges, today’s navel and Cara Cara for example, ripen in December so it’s logical that a person might connect orange with tea at this time—except that tea production and the orange harvest don’t necessarily take place at the same time or in the same areas of the world.

Citrus bergamia, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen 184

Bergamot oil was apparently added to tea as early as 1824, but probably to mask the properties of inferior tea (read more about bergamot) and not because anyone was clamoring for bergamot-flavored tea for the holiday season.

Possibility Two

For those who grew up in the U.S. during the Great Depression, money was tight, and in northern areas of the country, tropical fruit was still precious.

The orange’s long journey from warmer climes, its relative rarity, and its sweetness made it a prized gift for the holidays.

Possibility Three

In his blog, Richard Howe says:

In western Canada there’s an age-old tradition of the Christmas season beginning with the delivery of the first batch of mandarin oranges from Japan in British Columbia. The Vancouver festival combines Santa Claus and Japanese dancers. Bright as light bulbs on the kitchen table, the oranges promise sunshine as late December daylight shrinks in the shortest days of the year.

Poetic sunshine—along with prosaic vitamin C, especially important in those early years when fruit and vegetables weren’t so readily available.

Possibility Four

Brewing Christmas tea


Many cite the St. Nicholas story as the inspiration for gifting oranges at Christmas. Tradition says the saint put a bag of gold into the shoes or stockings of young women who needed a dowry so they could marry. A bright orange, then, symbolizes the saint’s bag, or ball, of gold.

Possibility Five

Beginning in the 1500s, the House of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands strategically portrayed oranges, orange branches and blossoms, and the color orange in their artwork, reinforcing the association of “orange/Orange” with power.

Oranges were a symbol of wealth in other countries as well, so when used as decoration, like at Christmastime, they advertised status.

Possibility Six

For a religious take, an apple and orange were put into Christmas stockings to symbolize the tree of knowledge (apple) and the tree of good and evil (orange) in the garden of Eden, according to Answers.com.

In the End,

Christmas and oranges became so entwined—for so many reasons—that orange-flavored tea seems a natural for “Christmas tea.”

whole-spices_crop-webSomewhere along the line, spices also became part of that mix, perhaps because they, like oranges, were first available only to the wealthy, and upon reaching more people, were reserved for special occasions (read more about cinnamon). Today’s Christmas tea, then, is a fragrant blend of orange, cinnamon, and cloves.

Oranges, spices, and tea—once exotic, reserved for the elite—are now commonplace, even taken for granted. Yet Christmas tea’s warm spiciness is still a treat, offsetting an evening’s chill and welcomed by any gathering of family and friends.

Sources: “Oranges at Christmas,” Richard Howe, December 19, 2010, RichardHowe.com; Holidays and Traditions, Answers.com.

Christmas tea pictured here is available at TeaHaus.com.

Britain, World War I—and Tea

Every Veterans Day we honor our veterans and those still in the armed forces, remembering their sacrifices and paying tribute to their unselfish service. This year is especially poignant, being the 100-year anniversary of World War I.

Although Veterans Day was actually yesterday, financial institutions and many federal offices remain closed in observance. And so today, here is a very brief look at how tea was entwined in Britain’s war efforts during WWI.

Earl Grey 69 crop-web
Earl Grey tea

For British troops, tea was a staple, and there was never any argument against the soldiers enjoying the beverage.  Perhaps serendipitously, it ended up serving a dual purpose (if you can imagine this actually working):

It was a familiar comfort and concealed the taste of the water, which was often transported to the frontline in petrol tins. (Lee 2014)

Meanwhile, on the home front, things were not so clear-cut. Yes, tea was a given for soldiers, but that afternoon tea for everyone else was being called out as an unnecessary and dispensable luxury.

Certainly the supply chain of food and beverages had been greatly disrupted, and in 1916 the newly founded Ministry of Food was responsible for sorting it all out. So the question became, what exactly was tea?

silverwareIn the preceding years, tea had been taxed as a luxury item and although growers in India were irate, the fact was that the tea industry had remained pretty robust.

By 1916, however, shipping costs had increased, stocks had fallen, and tea prices in Britain had gone up—and people were complaining. Controls on price were put into place for 40% of the total tea supply but with quantities of this controlled-price tea limited, complaining increased so much so that by winter of 1917–1918,

crowds were . . . rushing shop and stalls demanding tea and other basic foods. (Rappaport 2017:226)

Price controls were then put on 90% of the tea, and finally, in 1918, tea was rationed.

So what exactly was tea?

Nutritionists discounted the benefits of tea, agreeing with the British government that it had little value as food.

Those in the lower and middle classes, however, begged to differ!

tea hope mugThey insisted that “afternoon tea was a democratic meal enjoyed by men and women of all classes, and that as such it aided the war effort” (Rappaport 2017:227).

For example, fortified with tea, a munitions factory worker could withstand long hours, and tea helped people cope with the myriad hardships they encountered every single day.

The Cake and Pastry Order of April 18, 1917, clarified the entire question in one respect. Sweets were decreed as luxury items, but—undoubtedly seeing the wisdom of keeping those in the armed forces, and those toiling in factories necessary to the war effort, fortified with at least a bit of comfort—

tea was protected as a weapon of war. (Rappaport 2017:227)

Tea growers and importers immediately benefited from this decision, and in India, the industry flourished so much that tea was vastly more affordable to Indians. Further taking advantage of the opportunity, the tea industry worked to make tea part of Indian culture, serving tea in factories so that workers would begin to consider tea an everyday beverage. Likewise, tea was available on ships and trains and in grocery stores, and it was aggressively advertised.

In the end,

marketers acknowledged the importance of working-class and colonial consumers. (Rappaport 2017)

tea in a styrofoam cupSo did it stick?

Not really. After the war, attention turned to the potentially lucrative market in the United States. . . .

Still, during the war, at least some of those who suffered the most were offered a slight, fleeting, solace in the form of a cup of tea.

Sometimes, sadly, that’s all we can do.

–”The battle to feed Tommy: new exhibition looks at the diet of a WWI solder,” by A. Lee, Express, Aug. 23, 2014.
A Thirst for Empire, by E. Rappaport, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

A House with the Aroma of Pu-erh Tea

Wouldn’t it be quite heavenly to live in a house that smells like tea? And by this I mean the fabric of the house itself.


Tea offers an aroma that is generally delicate, often complex—perhaps faintly sweet or fruity or spicy or earthy or malty or a mingling of attributes. The fragrance alone seems to transfer some of the brew’s calm alertness to you, if just by association.

So in today’s world, can a house offer up the aroma of tea?

In the United States, not so much, with the outgassing of carpet and cupboards and paint and adhesives—so much so that damage to our immune systems can occur! Further, all these chemicals react with each other, creating new chemicals, and all of these are absorbed by pretty much everything in our homes and then continually released into the air we breathe! Great news to start your day, eh?

In contrast:

hanok [are] the traditional Korean tile-roofed residences. . . . When newly built, hanok are redolent with the bright scent of a coniferous forest; as they age, the fragrance softens toward pu-erh tea and damp bark. (Swanson 2018)


Built of natural materials—wood pillars, wood and stone floors, clay walls, tile roofs—these buildings are neither outgassing toxins nor harming the environment (assuming that the felled forests are replanted). Paper made from mulberry tree bark covers interior surfaces (walls, ceiling, doors, windows), serving as insulation, allowing ventilation, adjusting humidity, letting in diffused light, and acting as an air purifier.

These houses have been developed for comfortable living in both hot and cold weather. A large wooden floor, maru, is ideal for southern parts of the country that are warm, while floor heating, ondol, was developed for more northern areas. In this system, stone flooring is heated, with the warm air naturally rising. This led to the Koreans’ practice of removing their shoes indoors and sitting on the floor.

The hanok’s courtyard boasts no gardens or decoration. Rather,

the courtyard was also left unfettered based on the idea that by leaving it empty, it would be able to hold all things. (Antique Alive)


It has to be pretty amazing to live in one of these lovely traditional homes with their elegant simplicity and woodsy fragrance. But seeing as my chances are pretty much, well, nil, I guess I’ll have to resort to pulling out some pu-erh and pretending I’m in another time and place.

And indeed, my chocolatey brown to dark slate-colored pu-erh (or pu-er) leaves have an aroma that reminds me of walking through an autumn woods with that slightly damp but pleasing smell. Sort of mushroomy, a bit pungent, a little spicy. (Pu-erh can be loose leaves like these, or pressed into a cake or brick.)

Yunnan Pu-erh leaves next to Korean Sam-Taegeuk symbol (heaven, earth, humanity)

But although the Korean hanok develops the aroma of pu-erh, the tea itself is a specialty of China’s Yunnan Province. Unlike other black teas that are oxidized, this unique tea is microbially fermented.

puer brew

After the tea leaves are harvested, they are tossed in woks to stop the oxidation process—but not so long that the leaves are completely dry because that would kill all the bacteria that is normally found in them.

That retained bacteria ferments the leaves, meaning that carbohydrates are converted to organic acids (think wine, cheese, and coffee, all of which depend on fermentation).

This results in pu-erh, a dark cup with an earthy and rich intensity.

A hanok’s central courtyard has been described by architect Cho Junggoo as the place

where ground, nature and sky meet in your life. (Swanson 2018)

An apt description of pu-erh. . . .

–”Hanok (traditional Korean house)—a place of subtle beauty and quiet dignity,” Antique Alive, http://www.antiquealive.com/Blogs/Hanok_Traditional_Korean_House.html.
–”Home again,” by Sonja Swanson, This Boy’s Life, The New York Times Style Magazine, Sept. 9, 2018.
–”Outgassing,” by HHI staff, Healthy House Institute, healthyhouseinstitute.com.

Note: Yunnan Pu-erh shown above is available at TeaHaus.

What Tea Is Brewing in My Cauldron?

Tonight, there are only two things to consider for my perfectly magical Halloween potion. And make no bones about it—these are absolutely paramount:

  • name of tea (must fit the holiday)
  • color of tea (must fit the season)

Of course some might argue in favor of more morbidly mundane considerations. You know what I mean—the usual suspects: type of tea, flavor, caffeine or no.

But I’m afraid all that is howlingly boring—and frighteningly irrelevant—when October 31st swoops in.


Because the allure of an Earl Grey or Irish Breakfast wanes when werewolves are on the prowl and black cats lurk in the shadows.

Nope, it’s gotta be BLOOD ORANGE fruit tea.

Mangled [intermingled] fruit and bloodcurdling [curled] flower blossoms scream Halloween with their jack-o’-lantern hues.

And the unearthly deep orange brew, bursting with citrus, will satisfy any wraiths floating around your home this spooky eve.


Happy Halloween!

Frightfully delicious Blood Orange fruit tea is available at TeaHaus.

Tea Traveled from China to India—and Now Returns to China

China Yellow Dragon

First their tea plants were stolen. Then their rival started producing tea with those plants. Now they are buying tea back from said rival!

0kay, that would be vastly oversimplifying and misrepresenting a very complex history!

Still, China was the tea producer of the world for centuries; however, as trade expanded and others developed the taste for tea, competition for this burgeoning market was inevitable. Britain was one of the primary contenders.

assam mangalam
Assam Mangalam

Beginning the Venture

In the early 1800s, the British East Indian Company (EIC) invested in the tea industry in Assam—which already had gardens of the native Camellia sinensis var. assamica—because:

[I]f tea could be grown in a British colony, Britain could chastise the Celestial Empire [China], improve its ever-worsening trade deficit, and find a new source of imperial revenue and legitimacy after the EIC lost its monopoly to the China trade. (Rappaport 2017:85)

Branching Out

Seeking to establish tea in other areas of India, botanist Robert Fortune set out in 1848 to obtain seeds

of the tea-shrub for the Hon. East India Company’s plantations in the north-west provinces of India. It was a matter of great importance to procure them from those districts in China where the best teas were produced. (Fortune 1853) 

Why collect seeds from China when there was tea native to Assam? Because the variety native to China is different, being Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. (The sinensis variety is still grown primarily to produce green, white, and oolong teas whereas assamica is ideal for strong black teas.)

As for Fortune’s target area, where the “best teas were produced”—it was accessible only through Chinese agents, who may or may not give him the specific seeds he wanted.

No worries. Fortune traveled in disguise, personally collected seeds from tea farms, planted those seeds, and then shipped the sprouts to India. But mostly the plants died.

tea leaves growingUndeterred, Fortune tried planting tea seeds between other plants and then transplanting them—and in March 1849, 12,000 seedlings made it to the Himalayan area.

What were the stakes? Well, beyond all the political and economic reasons given above, Fortune said that because people in India were poor, tea would be a healthy option, plus would have “great value in the market,” as long as it could be produced inexpensively, that is, grown in India. He continued:

[i]f this is accomplished, and I see no reason why it should not be, a boon will have been conferred upon the people of India of no common kind, and one which an enlightened and liberal Government may well be proud of conferring upon its subjects.” (Fortune 1853:296)

Irritating then, I am sure, and irritating to read today. (In his defense, Fortune also recommended that other fruit trees be introduced to the area for the benefit of those who lived there.)

Bearing Fruit (well, tea, actually)

But anyway, Fortune’s gamble paid off, decades went by, history was made, and today India rivals China for tea production—with 20.70% of global output compared to China’s 35.13%.

And although China exports some 772 million pounds of green tea each year, they now need to import black tea as more and more younger people in China are choosing to drink black tea over green!

Indian tea currently accounts for around 30% of that black tea that China imports; by August, India had already sent over 13 million pounds, and their goal is to increase that amount each year.

916 crop alt
Cream black tea

Robert Fortune might well beam with satisfaction when Sujit Patra of the Indian Tea Association asserted that:

Indian tea is competitive [and] can offer all types at various price points. (Ghosal 2018)

“Great value” indeed, although perhaps not quite the way in which Fortune envisioned it.

–”India exporters happy as China drinks more black tea,” by Sutanuka Ghosal, The Economic Times, Oct. 24, 2018.
Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya, 3rd ed., by Robert Fortune, London: John Murray, 1853.
–”Top 4 tea producing countries in the world,” Countries of the World, accessed Oct. 2018.