You may not rise to the sound of a cock crowing or the smell of scrambled eggs for breakfast, but surely a morning cuppa isn’t out of the question.

Everyone has a special skill and one of mine is sleeping. I can sleep on buses and trains, in parks and planes and neither light nor noise will trouble me. I did, however, discover that the power of smell could rouse me gently.

My mother, now retired, worked for many decades as a nurse. If she was rostered on for morning shift, which started at 7am, she’d have breakfast at 6am. By the time the waft from her morning coffee hit my nose, from the kitchen all the way up the stairs and down the corridor to my room, I knew I would soon have to wake up for school.

For many people, a morning cuppa—whether tea, coffee, or yerba maté—is a valuable ritual, often a necessary part of the waking up process. January 28, 2017 marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and, according to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Rooster. Welcoming this active sign is the perfect excuse to examine the wakeful effects of tea.

Breakfast tea

Few of us question this most ubiquitous black tea blend, the so-called ‘breakfast’ tea, but its origins are a little contentious. The version that favours the Yanks features an Englishman named Richard Davies who started selling a blend of black teas in New York around 1844. He called it ‘English breakfast tea‘, as his supply came from England, and the name stuck.

However, there’s an account that pre-dates Davies. Until the late 17th century, English folk used to have ale with their breakfast. It was reportedly the morning habit of Queen Anne (1665-1714) to instead take tea with the first meal of the day and that habit spread such that tea was a customary breakfast beverage by the mid 1700s.

The ‘breakfast blend’ moniker apparently came from the celebrity effect of another queen, Victoria. An Edinburgh-based tea master by the name of Drysdale had, in 1892, created a black tea blend designed for its strength and high levels of caffeine. On a visit to Scotland Queen Victoria tasted this blend and liked it so much she brought it back to London, where it was then popularised as ‘English’ breakfast tea—surely only royalty could get away with initiating a misnomer like that.

The Teasmade


Morning cuppas became such a British custom that they invented an alarm clock to serve tea in bed. In 1891, Samuel Rowbottom applied for the first UK patent for an automatic tea-making machine and by the early 20th century a machine called the Teasmade had become a fixture in many homes.

How does it work? The night before, fill the tank with water. Put the requisite amount of tea into the provided jug and dock it in its allocated position. Set a time for the Tea+Alarm: the water will begin to boil at the indicated time, then the alarm will go off.

Okay, so a friend mentioned the tea-making process was noisy, but I bet waking up to a fresh cup of tea beats a cock-a-doodle-doo in the ear any day.

Eyes wide open

Caffeinated morning beverages are a popular way to kickstart the day, but do you know about the difference between caffeine in coffee and the theine in tea? Chemically identical to caffeine but with a slower release due to its oxidised polyphenols, theine also has documented wakeful effects. However, whereas the caffeine in coffee gives drinkers a rush which ends in a crash, theine provides a stimulated alertness that is also simultaneously relaxing. It’s perfect for a morning of focus or a practice such as meditation. Which reminds me of a rather gruesome story…

One of the legends of tea features Zen Buddhist guru Bodhidharma, also known as Daruma in Japan. One day Bodhidharma fell asleep while meditating. Angry with himself, he cut off his eyelids so that it would not happen again. They say he threw his eyelids on the ground and from there sprung the first tea plants. Interestingly, the Japanese characters for tea leaf and eyelid are the same. Bodhidharma is today depicted as a wide-eyed meditating man and tea became an integral part of Buddhist practice, supporting both meditation and spiritual development.

So if your Year of the Rooster resolutions are to eat a proper breakfast, wake up refreshed or learn to meditate, be assured that history suggests it can all be achieved through drinking tea.

Featured illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin

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