What Tea Was Brewed during the Boston Tea Party?

Boston: Home of the World’s Largest Teapot

The Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773!  Letters, official documents, poetry—the colonial equivalent of Twitter and Facebook—were afire with details and gossip about this “Destruction of the Tea in Boston.”

So What Tea Was It?

The leaves brewed in the Boston Harbor originated in China’s Fujian Province. Although the English East India Co. brought several types of tea to the colonies, the English actually knew very little about tea, simply (or simplistically!) classifying it by color and appearance (hence the “black and “green,” terms that survived the Tea Party)—unlike the Chinese, who classified tea geographically, by how it was prepared, and by quality.

hyson_frontThe bulk of the loose leaf tea bound for that first Tea Party was bohea, whose name derived from the Minnan dialect for Fujian’s “Wuyi Mountains.” This tea was more black than green, and 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.

Green tea was also brought over for that first harbor-wide Tea Party, specifically Singlo (named for where it was grown) and Hyson (named for its first importer; reproduction tin shown here). Because it was not oxidized as much as black tea, green tea did not store as well as bohea.

The Brits Considered the Tea Preferences of the Colonists, Sort Of

The English deliberated about which teas to ship, evaluating flavor, price, storability, profit—and what they could get the colonists to drink! And they documented their decision-making.

A few months before the Tea Party, a Mr. Palmer mused that by offering a selection of teas, “the taste of the Americans will also be better known, that is, whether they prefer a fresh middling tea, provided it is not absolutely faint, or a strong, rough tea” (Drake 1884).

(It seems we preferred tea made with saltwater.)

Palmer went on to say that the Company should get the Americans to drink Singlo because (1) it spoils faster than bohea and they had a lot of it, (2) their rivals didn’t have much of this type of tea, (3) they could sell it for a higher price in America than in England, and (4) if they didn’t, they risked losing a lot of it to spoilage.

And the December 16, 1773, shipment had 240 cases of bohea, 60 of Singlo, 15 of congou, 15 of Hyson, and 10 of souchong.

(Well, they definitely lost it all to spoilage!)

But the Americans Turned to Their Own Gardens

Meanwhile, the Americans were pledging to not drink tea and were brewing herbs instead—with a few miscreants making tea in coffee pots or obtaining smuggled tea.

Patriot Susannah Clarke penned these verses in 1773:

We’ll lay hold of card and wheel,
And join our hands to turn and reel;
We’ll turn the tea all in the sea,
And all to keep our liberty.
We’ll put on home-spun grabs,
And make tea of our garden herbs;
When we are dry we’ll drink small beer,
And FREEDOM shall our spirits cheer.
So on this Fourth of July, throw your very own tea party—but please, do drink the tea!

In true patriotic spirit, brew some thyme tea or the leaves of the raspberry plant. Or, try these modern teas that are similar to what the colonists would have been drinking.

lapsang souchong tea leavesLapsang souchong (left) is smoky and pungent from being dried over a pine wood fire. This intense tea makes an excellent dry rub, or use brewed tea in a sauce.

Gunpowder teas were so named by ship captains, based on their resemblance to, well, gunpowder (another invention from China). There is black gunpowder tea (below left), also called black pearls, as well as green gunpowder tea (below right).

bl-gunpwd_0266 gr-gunpwd-leaves-webfireworks-web

–Drake, Francis S. Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year 1773, by the East India Tea Company, Boston: A.O. Crane, 1884.
–Ellis, Markman. “Teas of the Eighteenth Century: English Tea Trade,” Canton Tea Co., June 8, 2011.
Note: Lapsang souchong and both black and green gunpowder teas shown here are available at TeaHaus.com.


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