If English Breakfast is the tea that you generally drink, what is it you like about it? What are the standout flavors that grab you, stay with you – or put you off? Which other black teas are worth your trying out?

These are very different questions than what’s the best English Breakfast. The answer to that is “Just about any other one at a similar price and on the same shelf in the store.” There’s not much range in them, which makes this a “reference” tea: a useful baseline for exploring the wider variety of black teas, exactly because it is so mainstream, midstream, familiar and average.

It is very difficult to put words to tastes and flavors and professional tea talk can take wings of fancy or plod into obscurantism: “the iridescent top flavors are anxious and unrestrained” (How can a flavor be iridescent and anxious?) or “nutty sweetness with gentle but rich liquor, slightly vegetal and kelp mineral-like note.” (You recall the ungentle nutty sweet kelp you had with your burger last week, of course; this one doesn’t have the same mellow finish.)

It’s much easier to take a reference tea and make simple more than/less than comparisons.”I enjoy English Breakfast but I’d like something a little fuller”, or “I’d enjoy a more lingering flavor – this one gives a quick jolt but that’s it.”

English Breakfast is the definitive Western reference tea in this regard: black, full and plain, without any flavorings or added ingredients. It’s still the best seller in the packaged tea world, around 50% of the UK and USA markets, with Earl Grey way behind at maybe 25%. Green tea gets all the attention in marketing and is the growth area, but it amounts to less than 15%. All in all, English Breakfast stands for “tea.” It’s generic, a style of tea. In UK market analyses, it is often classified as “ordinary” tea.  

The Tea

English Breakfast combines a range of ingredients. The main ones and their contribution are: (1) Assam: fullness and maltiness, (2) Ceylon: a brisk and bold flavor, (3) Kenya: inexpensive heavy base, (4) China Keemun: a lighter, smoky overtone, (5) Other mainly African and Indonesian teas to add body, liquor color and smoothness and reduce cost.

It will almost invariably be CTC-processed – Cut, Tear and Curl –not whole leaf crafted, and much of it will be dust and fannings. Basically, CTC produces a stronger taste with less aroma and complexity of flavors. The dust and fannings are targeted to the tea bag market and their larger surface area releases their flavor very quickly. Many of the lower end teas added to English Breakfast tea bags are chosen for their boost and jolt, not their taste.

Very, very roughly, the quality of the blend is suggested by the sequence of teas listed on the ingredient label (ignore any selling puffery on the front of the package). Keemum signals a superior  tea. It is the most subtle of the main choices for the blend. The equally complex and very varied Darjeeling isn’t a standard ingredient since it gets overwhelmed by the stronger main ones, typically Assam and Ceylon in the better blends and Kenyas for the bulk cheapies.

Ceylon and Assam are big teas that give an English Breakfast its distinctive character. They do vary in quality; when they are good, they are very good indeed, but there are, alas, more and more mass farmed overfertilized and pesticidal bulk machine-gathered CTC mulch. Kenyan and East African tea is rarely a positive; it’s low cost for good reasons. The poorest ingredients are what may be termed 5th Amendment tea bits; the producer declines to say what it is to avoid self-incrimination. If you see just “black teas”, a blend of traditional teas, fine teas and the like, there is no reason to add the differentiating name or for you to buy it. It’s basically Stuff in a Bag.

One question for you to consider if there is some aspect of your morning blend you really like, is it worth unblending your thinking and choosing a Keemun – a wonderful tea, if you want something a little lighter in its flavors. If you really want that big wakeup burst of taste, a Ceylon Kenilworth is an inexpensive as a branded tea bag. For a strong tea that gives you a momentary Ruler of the Universe feeling even at dawn’s bleary light, maybe try a really good Assam, such as a Halmari.

It’s easy to make English Breakfast your default drink: no real reason to choose it, no reason to avoid it. It’s worth asking how it got its name. It wasn’t really for the tea itself

The English

English Breakfast is not English. There are two main claimants to its invention an American dealer in New York City who added a little pekoe and pouching to a congou – i.e., he beefed up the basic China black that before the Assam and Ceylon colonies was the only import. More plausibly, a Scottish tea blender in Edinburgh created what he termed an “eye-opener” in 1892 by mixing a little of this and a bit of that. It filled a gap in the market, a tea that could stand up well to the new breakfast cooking. He used the now standard base of Keemum, Assam and Ceylon.

“English” in effect means ingredients from many countries that are blended in the style and with the skills of the English companies that created the packaged tea industry. George Orwell wrote a famous and often-referenced short essay in 1946 that captures how the English Breakfast style became the flavor of Britain. (We’re stuck with the misleading and tiresome misuse of English in marketing where British is more accurate. If you think this doesn’t matter to the Welsh, Scots and Irish, try calling a Texan a Yankee. Then duck.)

Orwell defines eleven rules for tea, every one of them “golden.” Here’s a quick selection, with highlights added:

“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues… but there is not much stimulation in it. The tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it to the brim, six heaped teaspoonfuls should be about right… one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones… Lastly, tea should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. Tea is meant to be bitter.”

You get the picture. This is the norm for the past generations of tea. Today’s English Breakfast is a continuation of it.

Perhaps the best summary, a compliment not a put down, is that it’s not bad. Definitely OK. That’s really what it’s meant to be: reliable, a balanced taste that is full but not too heavy, a little bit of bite but not weird flavors, plain, inexpensive, brews a nice bright looking liquor, pleasant… It’s made by firms that have sourcing, blending and tea tasting down to a precision of method.

Whereas the hallmark of Indian teas is growing and harvesting and that of China and Japan processing, the great English merchants’ strength was always supply chain and blending. Asia and Africa grew tea. England made it. The shifting nature of breakfast shaped what they made.

The Breakfast

“Breakfast” means “strong enough to stand up to a fry-up.” It’s the breakfast, not English, part of the label that is distinctive. Note that the tea is not English Morning or Wakeup but Breakfast.  

Mrs Beeton's book, a new bride's bible.
Mrs Beeton’s book, a new bride’s bible back in the day.

It was an evolution rather than a product. It continued the shift from green tea in the 18th century.  The “hyson” from Wuyi was rife with adulteration, the notorious adding of vegetable and less salubrious ingredients, and the use of cobalt blue – poisonous but made the tea look really nice. Chinese tea makers began to produce “bohea” “red” teas for the European market. (Red is still the Chinese term for black tea, a reference to the color of the liquor.) One of the advantages of these was that they remained far fresher than greens in the China to London sailing ship journey that could take a year. They, too, were often of poor quality and bohea moved from a general name for tea to one of dismissal. Congou teas from Anhui and Yunnan were far superior and became the base for black teas. The new Indian and Ceylon supplies offered improvements in taste, variety, price and quality control.

Then came a major transformation, not just of tea, but of the British way of life: It was strongly associated with Mrs. Beeton, whose 1861 cookbook was as influential as Julia Child or L’Escoffier (who created French haute cuisine, inventing and publishing 1,500 recipes.) She was an ordinary woman who raised herself to greatness. She died at 29 but the publishers who bought the book rights maintained her persona in the editions that kept it a perennial best-seller through the 1950s, positioning her as a staid Victorian matron.

Her book ranged across every detail of advice on household management with 900 of its 1,100 pages containing 3,000 recipes, only one of which was her own. The book covered everything a young wife needed to know just about every detail of running a household, even how to fold napkins. It’s brilliant in organization, structure, diagrams, checklists, writing, cross-indices and selection of content.

It also helped consolidate a key evolution among non-affluent families. The breakfast of England was beer and starch. It was a filler from the cheapest foods, with the best preserved for “supper” in the evening. Drunkenness among workers in the fields and factories was commonplace. Cheap tea had helped reduce the morning booze up, typically followed through the day by the beer top up and evening gin fill up. But it was breakfast that made the difference.

A quick indicator of the nutrition gap in the 19th century was that the average male enlisted in the Army was under 5 foot 5 inches, with the minimal height 5 ft 3; the officer enlistees were 2-4 inches taller. A study tracking 14-year old factory girls in London in the 1830s showed that their only breakfast and evening food year-round was plain bread and tea (there was no lunch break). This was in a country with no child labour laws (48 hour weeks were routine for even 11 year olds) and child prostitution was fully legal.   

The labor reform movement of the 1830s on was one of the great achievements of liberal humanism. Dickens was one of its most powerful voices: the poignant and angry advocate for neglected and mistreated children. Nutrition was a basic support to reform. Mrs. Beeton made a far-reaching contribution here. She believed very strongly that a key social need was for a meal to start the day that would help workers have the energy for their long and harsh labor, sharpen their alertness and give them stamina. This is the “hearty” breakfast that now fills the plate with fats and carbs, most obviously bacon, eggs, sausage, fried bread, and baked beans. She didn’t invent this but popularized it in the mainstream of British households.  

All these trends made English Breakfast inevitable. Whether in New York or Edinburgh, someone came up with a big, bold blend that was smooth and balanced in its flavors. The retailers and packagers who built the famous British brand names made this the norm and democratized tea. Green tea and China black tea got left behind. Earl Grey came on the market decades later.  

Orwell’s essay is a tribute to and in some ways an early obituary for English Breakfast. It became the tea of Britain through the long trends in black tea imports and breakfast bulking up: the tribute. Time is passing it by. Sales are falling and flavored teas, chais, coffee and specialty teas  increasing their market share: the obituary side of Orwell’s paean.

For what it is, English Breakfast offers a satisfying and reliable option. But it’s worth considering what it isn’t. Do you drink it because it’s an easy to find and well-balanced good morning gulp or would you rather have a more leisured savory personal selection? Your choice.

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