Little Yellow Teapot Reports: English Breakfast Tea Clarified

A recent tea sample pointed out to this little teapot and my humans how misunderstood English Breakfast Tea seems to be to you tea lovers out there. Considering all the tea vendors naming any black tea under the sun as “English Breakfast” to attract your attention, I thought it was time to clarify the situation.

There seem to be a couple of things going on with English Breakfast tea.

First, some vendors are being nostalgic and going back to what they think is a more “classic” recipe – basically Chinese congou teas (and later they used Keemuns). The Keemuns seem to be a bit pricier, so this move tends to be more motivated by trying to beef up the price. They certainly don’t improve the flavor, at least not as far as my humans are concerned. These teas tend to be a bit smoky, which can get rather cloying if the tea cools even slightly while they are eating.

Second, it’s so popular (and used so much as a search term) that many vendors are using that name on their black teas to attract attention. Otherwise, we see no reason why humans would label a pricier Keemun or a premium Ceylon black tea as an “English Breakfast” tea which tends to have a lower price.

So this little teapot did some digging and found out a few things:

A General Description of English Breakfast

C28NWC Full English breakfast
C28NWC Full English breakfast

Originally, English Breakfast tea, dating back to the 1700s or even a bit earlier, was a strong black tea from China meant to be served with a hearty breakfast.

These were generally called “congou” (or kungfu or gongfu, meaning made with skill), according to Frank Sanchez of Upton Tea Imports. They were robust in flavor and infused a deep red liquid, thus being considered inferior by most Chinese and only suitable for export. In the mid 1870s Keemun black tea was developed in Qimen county in Anhui Province, China; this was in part to meet a growing market demand in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. It quickly became a main tea used in teas labeled “English Breakfast.” In 1876 a machine to cut the leaves into tiny pieces made these teas even more popular, since they would infuse up a strong potful using a lesser amount of the dry tea. The teabag virtually sealed the deal, assuring these teas a place in history.

See more on black, red, and dark teas here.

Sanchez further explains that the Opium Wars caused China to put an embargo on tea (opium was such a big problem in Europe, being imported with the tea, that the government stepped in). The British East India Company started production of tea in Assam, India, ramping things up to meet demand back home in the UK and elsewhere. Blending old teas from China (what remained after the embargo was imposed) with these newer teas from India became common. In the 19th century, Ceylon teas were becoming more available and at lower prices, so they became part of the English Breakfast tea blend. Africa came into the picture, too, especially Kenya while it was still a British colony. They grow tea plants from the assamica varietal family but with less astringency and bitterness due to their terroir.

There are a number of places online that put forth their definitions of English Breakfast tea. While the teas used in them vary, the general idea is a tea that has a stronger flavor. Some think this equates to higher caffeine, but not necessarily although it’s one reason that Assam teas are used. The real value of the stronger flavor is to be able to add milk to the tea without the tea flavor getting lost or distorted in a very negative way. And using teas that can blend together and be robust without anything too distinct and individual is a key, as is a reduction in price.

So the move away from Keemun as the main tea was very understandable, its smoky flavor profile being too distinct and the cost being relatively higher than teas from other countries that had begun growing tea in larger quantities. Black teas from Assam, India, the tea gardens of Sri Lanka, and those in Kenya are the most commonly used these days. They also give the most satisfying flavor, with a smoothness, malty character, and sometimes a touch of bitterness that suit this tea style perfectly.

Keemuns are being added just enough to be detected and to raise the price. And a few vendors have jumped on the “classic” bandwagon by marketing their straight Keemun teas as a classic version of English Breakfast. Personally, we think this leads to confusion for you tea lovers. You get totally different flavor profiles from teas with the same name. Our experience has shown that this is very misleading and puts you, the consumer, in the position of playing a guessing game.

Eddy Chavey, writing as Mr. Breakfast, explains English Breakfast tea this way (our paraphrasing): Around over a century (actually, almost three centuries) ago, a blend of black teas from India, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Kenya and Malawi in Africa, and from China was created. A Scottish tea master named Drysdale is credited with inventing the English Breakfast tea, called that since it became the beverage of choice with one of the two main meals at that time in England (that is, breakfast, of course). The tea is robust, full-bodied, and able to take milk (that is, the tea flavor comes through). Some are a bit floral, others are malty, toasty, or have a honey quality.

Some Popular English Breakfast Teas

Just about every tea vendor, big or small, has a tea they call “English Breakfast.” Which teas are used in it are sometimes not revealed (perhaps they think someone will copy their secret recipe). But the range seems pretty broad, leading to confusion for you lovely tea drinking humans.

“English Breakfast” is more often a blend containing teas from the Assam in India, Kenya and Malawi in Africa, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Taiwan, and of course the occasional Keemun from China thrown into the mix (usually to beef up the price). These teas take milk well which is one of the qualities that makes them perfect for breakfast.

A few versions of teas called “English Breakfast” we have tried, as well as a few we haven’t (click on photos for details):

The name “English Breakfast” seems to be put on just about any black tea these days, rendering the term meaningless. Happening a lot when it comes to tea. Plus, if a vendor wants to go back in time to the first days of this tea style being on the market by using 100% Keemun teas, do customers the favor of calling it “Classic English Breakfast” or some other distinctive name. While there is no set formula for English Breakfast, as there is for other teas such as Earl Grey, it’s best not to get too far afield.

This little teapot advises those tea vendors to label their pure Keemuns as just “100% Keemun Black Tea” so that you human tea drinkers out there have a better idea of what you’re getting. The same goes for those pure Ceylon versions. Calling something like that by the name “English Breakfast” is misleading and tends to muddle things in the world of tea (and there’s enough of that going on already.

“Breakfast Tea” Isn’t Just for Breakfast

In addition to that muddle, we will add another point here. The word “breakfast” in a tea name does not mean you have to have it for breakfast.

“Breakfast blends” are teas that have been blended to “pack a punch” to help you start your day (strong flavor mainly). However, you can enjoy them any time of day.

If you’re the kind who drags a bit in the afternoon, though, these teas will be great choices then, too. For this time of day you may want to enjoy them without the milk and with just a bit of some type of sweetener. You could also steep them a bit lighter so that they won’t be bitter.

Breakfast teas are great whenever you want a flavorful black tea.

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