Okay, I admit it: I don’t write about tea nearly enough. Travel, yes, definitely. Nature and history, yep, they’re here. But tea? I can’t remember when I last wrote about it, other than to share the occasional photo of a cuppa over on Instagram. I’ve included it up there in my tagline because it seemed to go with that whole “British adventures” thing, and it certainly powers my writing process.
This post tries to rectify that omission in one fell swoop with nothing but tea.
I’ve made the joke before that I am teetotal, or totally about tea, and I converted to loose-leaf teas in refillable caddies a few years ago in a bid to reduce my plastic and packaging waste (did you know that many brands of teabags have plastic in them?). I haven’t looked back since: I find the taste of loose leaf far superior. I don’t want to say that I am a tea snob, but I have been known to bring tea with me when visiting the US because I can no longer drink a basic Lipton’s teabag.*
Recently I had the opportunity to meet up with friends at Comins Tea in Bath for what was not my first, nor is it likely to be my last, tea-tasting experience. Comins is owned and operated by Rob and Michelle Comins, whose passion for tea knows no bounds. Not only do they run two tea shops (one down in Dorset’s Sturminster Newton), but they also recently published a book, Tales of the Tea Trade, that shares a behind-the-scenes perspective of those in the tea industry. Their tea-tasting courses are a great way to enjoy time with friends or family while experiencing an everyday beverage in a very new way.
First, the definition of tea: tea is produced by the plant Camellia sinensis. Anything else, such as rooibos or herbal “teas”, are not teas but infusions. Comins stocks only single-estate teas, meaning they come from individual growers in countries such as China, India, Nepal, Japan, and Sri Lanka, and the leaves are not blended together to form a new mix.
This is because tea, much like vineyards and their resulting wine, is also considered to have terroir based on where it’s grown: altitude, the amount of wind/rain/sun, and even insect activity in the area can affect its taste. Indeed, it’s the insect activity that is responsible for one of tea’s best qualities. Plants developed caffeine as a way of repelling insects, an evolutionary arms race for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, this also means that the caffeine levels in tea vary more based on where its grown rather than any particular type.
The tea tasting at Comins takes drinkers through five of the six types of tea: white, green, oolong, black, and pu’er (the sixth, yellow tea, is difficult and expensive to get outside of China). All of these are still Camellia sinensis, but the difference comes down to the amount of oxidation and processing the leaf experiences. In white tea, for example, the leaves are picked and dried in the sun while, at the other end of the spectrum, pu’er tea is left to ferment for anything ranging from a few years to several decades.
One of the pleasures of tea at Comins—whether as part of the course or if you’ve just popped in for a drink—is that the teas are prepared at the right temperature, and brewed for the right amount of time (encouraged by the liberal use of timers that can be heard going off around the teahouse). The temperature is important because if it’s too hot, the structure of the leaves breaks down and releases the tannins—that’s what can give tea a bitter taste and why it’s important to remove tea leaves (or the teabag) from the water when it’s done brewing.
As well as proper temperatures and times, Comins also provides tea in the traditional vessels. For green tea, that’s the gaiwan, and oolong is served from tiny cups to promote sipping and appreciation of the flavour. Indeed, I found it incredible how the taste seemed to change with each swallow. This is one of the other benefits to loose-leaf teas, especially white, green, oolong, and pu’er: the leaves can be infused several times, and the taste changes with each infusion.
However, taste is subjective, and that is half the fun of doing a tea tasting with a large group. You never quite know how it is going to be interpreted by the person next to you. For example, one friend blurted out, “It tastes like old museums smell!” She wasn’t wrong. As someone with a fondness for old museums, I found the taste quite comforting.
I also discovered that my palate had completely changed since I first did a tea tasting in Bristol over a decade ago. During that time I gave up taking milk and sugar in my tea, and I could now taste what had been hiding. White tea, which I once derided as nothing more than lightly flavoured water, was bright and refreshing. Japanese green tea that I previously would have found too astringent grew on me, and I could imagine it as the perfect pick-me-up. Pu’er remains a favourite of mine, although its Marmite-like reputation continues: you either like it or you don’t (MrElaineous most fervently does not).
Comins also provides delicious meals inspired by the countries that grow the teas. There’s gyoza dumplings, hokkaido milk bread with cinnamon butter, Sri Lankan egg hoppers, and, one of my personal favourites, cookies made with matcha tea. At first glance, their bright green colour looks like something that Dr Seuss might have dreamed up, but they have a lovely flavour and are well worth checking out.
I realise that I’ve just waxed lyrical for nearly a thousand words about Comins Tea and I am on the verge of tipping into unpaid advertisement territory, which is not my intention. Instead, a visit to Comins is a great example of how following your passion—in this case for fine tea—can help spark it in others. Rob and Michelle’s efforts have certainly helped me learn to appreciate the history and hard work that go into producing a beverage I drink several times a day.
To this there is also an argument to be made for the value in always being open to learning, whether it be about new ideas, taking in new information, or simply preparing the perfect cup of tea. With the right attitude and mindset, they all go down smoothly. I don’t know about you, but I’ll drink to that!
I once read that companies sell the lowest quality tea for use in American teabags because the US doesn’t have a tea culture. After 15 years in the UK, I think there may be some truth to the rumour.
Please note: Any mistakes in these facts about tea are my own and are not a reflection of the tea-tasting course.