Why Capitalism Produces Bitter Tea

How the demand for a 17-second steep job has tainted the purity of tea.

Credit: Flickr / Ross Serven

Blending cheap tea from different plantations is like pouring ten different wines into your glass.

How the demand for a 17-second steep jobs has tainted the purity of tea


If I said that tea was symbolic of our transition away from natural food toward processed junk, you’d probably think I was off my tea trolley.


The reality is, tea, like so many comestibles we enjoy today, has been shifting and changing subtly over the decades. Today’s tea is a complex blend of twigs, flowers, fruits, floor sweepings and, sometimes, tea leaves—often sourced from whomever is the cheapest at the time.


Even if you always buy the same brand, the tea leaves may come from Africa one day and China the next or, more likely, will be a mélange of several different countries. I have even seen packets proclaiming that the tea has been “blended” from 30 different teas specially chosen by a “tea master.” As if that’s a good thing.


Tea bag (left) compared to loose leaf tea (right)

Comparing tea bag tea (left) with loose leaf tea is like comparing cheestring to mature cheddar.


Instant tea

Consumer expectations have become removed from the realities of food production. After the introduction of the instant coffee, tea drinkers became desirous of a sort of instant tea, a tea they wouldn’t have to steep for 5 minutes.


Nowadays, the average steeping time of a tea bag is 17 seconds. It has been engineered to colour the water almost instantly. If left too long, it will develop a bitter, tannic taste.


Bitter tea is cheap tea

When I met with Merrill Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea, he naturally insisted on making me a pot of tea. As the interview progress and the tea leaves remained in the pot I could feel myself cringe at the thought of the bitter cup of tea I would have to ingest. To my delight, I discovered that the tea wasn’t bitter at all.


Merrill informed me that the bitterness I’d anticipated is often a bi-product of a process known as CTC (Cut-Tear-Crush), often used on cheaper teas. Dilmah uses orthodox techniques in which the leaves are rolled and sorted the old fashioned way so that the leaves break along their natural divisions.


Masking the taste of cheap tea

If you buy quality tea—and I don’t mean the $500 a pound variety but large, loose leaves—it is really worth enjoying without the added splashes and spoonfuls.


The British tradition of adding milk, sugar or lemon to tea was seen as a way of masking the taste of cheaper, bitterer teas. Cheap teas are also combined with spices to cover the flavour of the tea; chai is a perfect example of this, as are fruit and scented “teas.”


‘Tea’ versus tea

The term tea is liberally applied to almost any hot beverage that isn’t coffee or hot chocolate. Officially tea must contain leaves from the Camellia Sinensis bush, so technically “herbal teas” like rooibos or chamomile aren’t.


The French term tisane is very handy for making the distinction without getting bogged down in adjectives.


Where to buy the good stuff in Vancouver

Here’s my list of Vancouver-area retailers of consistent, quality teas. (Don’t be shy to add any you think I’ve missed!)