Until the 1840s all the world knew tea as being large leaf.
From that time in Assam the British developed small leaf black tea which became very popular in Britain. It was strong and tasted very good with the plentiful amounts of sugar available from England’s monopoly of the product in Jamaica. English consumption of sugar was enormous compared to Europe where most of the sugar came from beet. By the 1900s the world had divided into two camps – small leaf black tea in the British Commonwealth and large leaf China tea in Europe, Russia and the United States. This market separation is basically the same today for leaf tea.
World War ll caused shortages of tea all over the world and probably caused tea to be stretched and used a second time which meant that the consumer was getting used to weaker tea. The introduction of the teabag as a real market force from the 1950s changed everything and reduced sales of leaf tea immensely; even today they represent over 90% of the market in most countries. The hundreds of little grocers selling tea from tea chests disappeared under the growth of supermarkets and their increasing sales of teabags.
The arrival of the teabag indicated that everyone wanted to make one cup of tea at a time. The biggest problem was that nobody had ever thought to market a one cup teapot which is what the market needed. Had someone done that, I doubt if the teabag market would have expanded to the extent that it has. There is hardly a teapot like that, to be found anywhere in the world.
Capitalism welcomes opportunists and some of the old tea companies took the opportunity to discard small leaf tea and switch to large leaf tea. They spread the lie that small leaf teas were the sweepings from the floor and inferior to large leaf tea. In one sense their conclusion had been based on the idiotic behaviour of tea tasters who continued to brew tea exactly as they had done from the first days of the Calcutta auctions in 1861 – using the same time for small leaf tea and large leaf tea. The result was that small leaf tea became bitter because it was never recognised that the correct brewing time should be much shorter, around 30 seconds. It was very easy to sell the story that the small leaf teas made a bitter cup and were inferior to the softer, less bitter liquor of the large leaf teas. It was the great lie.
I well remember making CTC tea in an Indonesian tea factory for 30 seconds. The tea taster said to me, “Oh, you are making tea for drinking. I am making tea for tasting.”
Now, there were two major sources of large leaf tea in the world. China and Japan supplied green tea in large leaf only. And while manufacturers in Ceylon, India, Kenya and Indonesia supplied small leaf tea for teabags, they did produce a much smaller quantity of large leaf tea. The biggest aim of any company in a capitalist society is to maximise profits but it was difficult when all the black teas were being sold at auction and the green teas from China and Japan and Taiwan were being sold through private negotiation at undisclosed prices which allowed significantly higher mark ups. Is it any wonder that the tea chains set up to take advantage of this situation concentrated on green teas and large leaf. Not only was there a philosophy based on Chinese customs going back a few thousand years but there was also the prospect of selling the specialized tea gear that came with it. Small leaf tea was the enemy.
The tea shops reached back into the past for their ambience. By displaying large tins with evocative names such as Blend 1, Blend 2… and Chinese names with mystical significance they tried to tell the customer that there was a whole new world hidden in the tins if only they could afford enough money. It was a highly successful ploy to sell tea bought for pennies and sold for pounds. With every shop adopting the same tactic consumers had no point of reference as to what was cheap or dear. They could only find out if the tea was up to their expectations by buying. They just knew that if you bought tea from a tea specialist shop you were going to pay a lot. In their ignorance they were actually paying top dollar for teas that were long past their prime. All the books said that teas would stay fresh for two years but the authors about tea were part of the conspiracy to fool the public. After all what better place to sell books about tea than in tea shop. It was well known within the tea industry from research done in South India that vacuum-packed tea stayed fresh.
While tea from China might have been sold in one way, outside China, it was totally different inside China. Tea was very definitely a major product and department stores had very large tea sections selling tea from large containers but mostly in packets sold in many tea company stalls within the market. The consumer would find a representative from a particular tea company, generally an attractive woman, sitting behind a beautifully carved traditional tea table with a well in it to trap liquid spills. The tea maker would make cups of tea in the traditional way and serve them in the little cups to prospective customers who sat on tiny stools.
One of the major differences was that much of the tea was in packets and indeed in supermarkets you could find vacuum-packed tea. You can find many packets of Chinese tea at reasonable prices from well-established Chinese brands in Chinese supermarkets but not in the specialist tea shops of the West. It is well known that vacuum-packed tea – provided it is packed within 24 hours of manufacture – will retain the freshness for a very long time and also increase the flavour level by around 15%. How was it that the Western tea shops did not do this? It all comes down to money and competition. If there is a packet of tea with the same brand that you can buy in another shop then there is the possibility of price comparison and they were determined to avoid such a scenario.
In markets and shops all over India and Sri Lanka tea is available in packets. At least it is reasonably fresh because it is made there but very little if any is vacuum packed except in 20 kg slabs for export. You can find a good range of Indian and Ceylon packet teas in Asian grocery shops in the West but in spite of the money spent on beautiful packaging and delightful tins, very little in the supermarkets of the West. A couple of very large Indian manufacturers now supply their own brand of tea in supermarkets around the world.
It seems to me that there is a conspiracy of inaction.