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The Arbor Teas Blog

History of Irish Tea

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Uragh Stone Circle, Republic of IrelandOne of our traditional blends at Arbor Teas is our ever-popular organic Irish Breakfast tea.  With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, I got to wondering about this particular blend.  Where did the flavor profile come from and why is it so popular in Ireland?

One of Ireland’s most famous (and most consumed) brands of tea, Barry’s Tea, claims that on average the Irish consume up to 6 cups of tea per day!  And if that doesn’t convince you that the Irish drink a lot of tea, this statistic will: Ireland is one of the largest tea consumers per capita in the world!  Now in my opinion that is a boat load of tea.  What led Ireland to become such a large tea drinking country?

The history of tea in Ireland is similar to that of England (another well known tea drinking country).  It was initially introduced to the upper class in the early 1800s and later spread to the rural and lower class in the mid 1800s.  The tea that was available to the average Irish citizen was usually of poor quality and brewed strong, therefore it was consumed with plenty of milk.  This tradition of brewing strong tea and adding milk is still prevalent today.  We at Arbor Teas describe our Irish Breakfast blend as “so strong you could stand your spoon up in it,” and that is no joke.

Strong tea is preferred by the Irish – often continuously brewed on the stove all day long.  Tea became so popular in Ireland that on May 8, 1910, The New York Times printed an article titled “Tea is Ireland’s Evil – Ranks before Alcohol as an Enemy of Public Health.”  This now antiquated article (amazing how science has changed our perception of this healthful beverage!) relates that even within the most inaccessible communities in Ireland “The teapot stewing on the hearth all day long is literally on tap; the members of the family, young as well as old, resorting to it at discretion.”

It wasn’t until World War II that Ireland’s history with tea diverged from that of England.  Up until WWII, Ireland received most of its tea from the English auction houses, importing little from countries of origin.  However, during WWII Ireland took a neutral stand and refused to allow Britain to use its western ports.  As a result, Ireland’s tea ration was drastically cut.   With the help of newly adopted post-WWII laws, Ireland began importing its own tea direct from source and to diverge from Britain's traditional tea flavor profile.

Dennis Aylmer (of Ireland’s other popular tea label, Lyons) in a 2002 interview with Reg Butler of the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal describes Ireland’s new flavor profile as: "Originally, Ireland's good quality tea was predominantly Assam orthodox. Then, from about 1960, Sri Lankan flavored teas were introduced into the blends. Later came a major swing towards high quality Kenyan tea produced east of the Rift Valley, and processed in factories established by the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA). Production was concentrated on CTC manufacture.

"We found that this tea liquored particularly well in Irish water, and it was introduced very successfully into our blends. Today, Irish blends are all very heavy on East African teas, which account for at least 60% of the total import, followed by Indian at 20%.

"With a tradition based on loose or packet tea, Irish consumers were generally reluctant to accept teabags until the 1970s. Since then, teabags have boomed to the present level of 93% of the market. Today, with consumer sophistication on the increase, low quality doesn't exist on retailers' shelves. The quality message is 'upwards and onwards forever,' with average quality constantly rising.”

So now with this new found knowledge, sit down and enjoy a strong “cupan tae” (meaning “cup of tea” in Gaelic) complete with milk.  And don’t be surprised if your spoon gets stuck!