Tea is my drink of choice. I have it first thing in the morning, during the day if I’m working from home, and last thing at night with a piece of chocolate (or two).
I’m not a tea connoisseur. I just pour near-boiling water over a tea bag dangling in a mug, add some milk and take out the tea bag. That’s it.
Tea comes from China and India originally and—something I didn’t know—the tea plant belongs to the camellia family. Today, black tea is a huge export crop also in Sri Lanka, Kenya and Turkey. It’s also grown in western countries, including Australia and the United States, but on a comparatively minor scale.
There are many brands of tea on the supermarket shelves. I used to think some expensive brands must be better than others, what with their fancy packaging and—in one brand’s case—appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, a strange nod to the distant past and days of the British empire.
But lately, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that all tea bags are the same. The ingredients listed on every box are the same, after all: “black tea”. I know there are different types of leaves, and some black tea tastes vastly different, such as lapsang souchong and Yunnan. However, I’m talking about your ordinary, everyday black tea bags.
As I said, I reckoned they were all the same. So I decided to do a tea tasting of five popular brands. And guess what?
I was wrong!
I’m pleased to say they are all different. No two tasted or looked exactly the same. So my logic was faulty. There is actually no big tea factory somewhere churning out tea bags that then are simply put in differently branded boxes.
And which tea bag was best? The expensive one or the cheap one?
I chose four brands: Twinings (two different types because I buy both English Breakfast and Australian Afternoon Tea and I was suspicious that they might be the same), Bushells Blue Label, Dilmah Extra Strength and Lipton.
The prices are based on buying a 100-bag packet (not on special) from Woolworth’s supermarket in Melbourne, Australia, in June, 2015.
Twinings of London Australian Afternoon 10/10
Price: 10.5c per bag
Mild and smooth, this was my favourite. I love its orange packaging complete with kangaroo silhouettes. But it’s so cute, I was suspicious that it was just the same as English Breakfast in a prettier packet. Not so!
Price: 4.6c per bag
Smooth with no trace of bitterness, this was very close to Twinings Australian Afternoon. Unexpected, because it’s half the price.
Bushells Blue Label 8/10
Price: 2.3c per bag
Almost as good as Lipton, but with a trace of bitterness that lost it half a point.
Dilmah Extra Strength 7.5/10
3.3c per bag
I wanted to like this one the most, since I met some of the family who run it at a publicity event once and they seemed so passionate about their product. Dilmah boasts that it is a “single source” Ceylon tea, so that has to be a good thing. It was smooth, and it had a slight sweetness about it that some people might prefer. However, the string connecting the tag was shorter than any of the others, making me think it could annoyingly jump into the cup as you were pouring it (even though it didn’t).
Twinings of London English Breakfast 5/10
Price: 10.5c per bag
This tea was pleasantly peppery, but had a bitter after taste when compared to the others. I was very surprised that this one rated lowest when compared with the rest.
So, on balance, my favourite is Twinings Australian Afternoon, but I’ll only buy it when it’s on special. The rest of the time, I suppose it will be Lipton, which is less than half the price, but has the most ordinary packaging. No matter, I have a tea jar anyway.
But if you’re on a strict budget and live in Australia, go for Bushells, which was even cheaper the day I visited the supermarket because it was on special, and could have been purchased for $1.66 for a 100-bag box. That’s only 1.6c a bag
And how about those tags on the tea bags? This is a whole massive global industry on its own. Lipton bags are stapled to the string (very unglamorous), while Bushells and Dilmah are fixed with miniature stickers, and the string on Twinings is knotted to the tea bag. Are these labour-intensive jobs? Probably, as I’m not sure how they could be done by machine.
Another interesting thing about tea, apart from packaging, is the stories that each brand has. I make no judgements regarding these stories, but simply repeat them.
Dilmah claims to be “the only global brand owned by tea growers”, run by its founder for 60 years, and says it shares its profits with workers and the Sri Lankan community.
Lipton has no family history on its box, but says it is a member of the Rainforest Alliance, ‘helping to support tea growers and the environment’. The company was started in 1890 in the UK by Thomas Lipton, and it used to be a supermarket chain in the UK, also. It’s now owned by Unilever.
Bushells started as a tea shop in Queensland, Australia, in 1883. I like the instructions on its boxes: after pouring boiled water on the tea bag, it directs you to “raid the bickie jar” (that’s Australian for “cookie jar”). Then, “wrap both hands around your mug. Fire up a conversation and share the smooth full flavour that generations of Aussies have grown up with”.
Twinings of London, of course, is mostly associated with Englishness, which is ironic, since tea isn’t actually English at all. Every packet, even Australian Afternoon, carries the royal crest and the words, “By appointment to Queen Elizabeth II”. Funnily enough, Twinings actually started as a coffee shop, renamed from the original Tom’s Coffee House when it was bought by Thomas Twining in 1706 in London. Apparently, Twinings of London is the world’s oldest company logo (used since 1787). The original shop is still open at 216 The Strand in London, though the company was bought out by Associated British Foods in 1964.
Now I want to know two things:
1. Why do cafés charge as much as $5 for a cup of tea (most often just a bag with boiling water), when it can be bought for as little as 1.6c a bag, and that’s retail? Add a spot of milk and about 15 second’s worth of labour and…not $5 worth!
2. Why don’t Bushells and Twinings have apostrophes in their names?