Thursday, October 11, 2018

Teaware History: The Brown Betty: The People's Teapot

The other day I was clearing out the top shelf of my kitchen cabinet and uncovered a Brown Betty teapot I was gifted a few years ago. I love the teapot but it doesn't get used much since it's so big. As I sat staring at it, I started to wonder about its history. I knew it was a very old style but that's about all I could remember. I had a very 'Jerry Seinfeld' moment, thinking 'what's the deal?' Well, I did a bit of digging and found a few interesting tidbits. Turns out it's a very big deal indeed. Read on for a bit of teapot history and design, and how to find a Brown Betty of your very own.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

British Tea History: From Tea Bowl To Teacup

I was recently reading a bit of history on 18th century England and noticed a passage where the author mentions an aristocratic woman drinking a 'dish' of tea.  It made me think of the post I wrote back in March about the value of 18th century teaware. I started researching tea bowls a little deeper, and somehow ended up down an ebay rabbit hole. A few days later I was the proud owner of a British tea bowl and saucer. I know, I shouldn't be allowed to have internet access; teaware just magically shows up at my door! The new teaware inspired me to learn more about British tea bowls, how they were constructed, and when the handle was added. 

Early European tea drinking gained popularity in the 1700s. England wasn't the first European country to sip tea, but it's where the beverage really took off, so I'm focusing on British teaware for this post. At first England imported its teaware from China because it was difficult to locally replicate the fine porcelain used in Chinese teaware. There were many pottery producers in England at the time, but they were unable to recreate the delicate Chinese porcelain. The recipe for Chinese porcelain was a well guarded secret.

A Family of Three at Tea by Richard Collins (1727). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hard vs. Soft
During my online auction search for early British tea bowls, I noticed a few vendors mentioned the cup was made of 'softpaste'. At the time I had no idea what it meant, but it seemed like it indicated an earlier tea bowl. True porcelain is referred to as 'hardpaste'.  Until about 1760 European manufacturers were using softpaste porcelain using materials such as steatite or soapstone to get a porcelain-like material. During my research I found the helpful book British Tea And Coffee Cups by Steven Goss that discusses the materials, and early British teaware:
Softpaste porcelain began in about 1745 at Chelsea and within just a few years there were also factories at nearby Bow, Vauxhall and Limehouse...tea wares were amongst the first items to be produced and many of the pieces were decorated with oriental scenes, often copied straight from Chinese imports...Softpaste porcelains needed to be glazed as the body would otherwise be porous. 
To decorate softpaste, bowls were either left uncolored with molded flowers (this technique was called blanc-de-Chine) or painted blue and white. The blue decorations were commonly used because oxide of cobalt (the blue paint) was able to withstand the high firing temperatures. Other colors would be hand-painted or transferred onto the bowls and saucers after the first firing, and then fired again at a lower temperature.  These colorful decorations were mixed with a lead base. The use of so much lead in the glazes led to many instances of lead poisoning for the potters working with the materials.

The formula for hardpaste porcelain was finally discovered in Germany, but to be feasibly manufactured in Britain the materials had to be sourced locally. Once again from the book British Tea And Coffee Cups:
Although the formula was eventually discovered at Meissen in Germany in the early eithteenth century, it did not reach Britain until about 1760, when an apothecary called William Cookworth found china clay (kaolin) and china stone (petuntse) in Cornwall and subsequently set up his factory in Plymouth...These two raw materials are essential to the production of hardpaste porcelain as made by the Chinese.

Can You Handle It?
Many sources say a handle was added to tea bowls because the high-temperature black tea the British enjoyed made the cups too hot to hold comfortably. I also read with the invention of hardpaste porcelain it was easier to produce a handle that wouldn't break during the firing process. But I found an article from NPR that says something a bit different:
Christina Prescott-Walker, a European ceramics expert and the director of the Chinese ceramics department at Sotheby's, believes the invention of the handle may have been a fashion statement more than a utilitarian choice. "In England, tea bowls were still being made as late as 1800," she tells The Salt. Faulkner writes in his book that the original bowls were perceived as more "authentically oriental" than their handled cousins.
The tea bowl and saucer that I purchased online (pictured above and below) seems to be from the early 19th century, which certainly helps to prove this point. Cups became more ornamental in the late 18th century, and this could be when the addition of the handle really kicked in. 

What About The Saucer?
The use of a saucer appears to be function over form. It may have been used to hold the bowl while drinking, and keep cups stable while serving tea to others. I also read articles where it's assumed the early saucers were more bowl-shaped (see my saucer in the picture above) because hot tea was poured into the saucer to cool, and then sipped. I had a difficult time finding proof of this, but it is mentioned in several articles.

A closer look at my saucer

Tips For Collecting
If you are interested in collecting antique British tea bowls, there are a few things to keep in mind. The earlier pieces usually did not have a maker's mark on them, so it can be difficult to pinpoint the factory it came from. The absence of a mark doesn't mean it's a fake piece. But even when you do see a mark, it's difficult to know where the bowl came from as many factories copied the marks and decorations of other well known companies. As I mentioned, sometimes sellers will mention if the piece is 'soft paste'. This is a good indication of the age of the piece (if accurate) as it's difficult to determine otherwise. Since it's difficult to truly know the age of a tea bowl unless you're really serious with your teaware collecting, just go with what appeals to you.

In terms of style, there are many different ways the bowls would have been decorated: sets were either molded with flowers and left white (blanc-de-Chine), or  could be fired with cobalt and then hand painted. Patterns were also transferred onto the pottery. This was done by etching or engraving the design to a copper plate, then inking the plate. A special paper was then applied to the plate until it absorbed the ink and was then transferred to the pottery. This is referred to as transferware, and it was used on my bowl and saucer seen above. In many instances you can see a very subtle seam on the design, where the ends of the paper meet. Transferware techniques are still used today, so it's not the best indication of the age of a piece.

As you can see, I certainly learned quite a bit about British tea bowls! It has certainly given new fuel to my teaware collecting endeavors. For more on British tea history check out some of my older posts here and here. Is there a bit of tea history that you're eager to learn more about? Let me know what it is in the comments, and I will write a post all about it!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review: The Little Red Cup Tea Da Hong Pao

If you enjoy Chinese oolongs, chances are you've had a few versions of Da Hong Pao. A tea that should be high-quality, it can actually vary greatly in quality and flavor depending on the source. I've had everything from the insipid to the truly inspiring.

Today's review is a Da Hong Pao from the little red cup tea co. This tea is mountain grown in Enshi Prefecture, in southwestern Hubei Province. I usually think of Da Hong Pao coming from Fujian, and I'm curious to learn more about the location of these tea trees. I didn't have time to gather more information before this review, so I will either update this post or create a new one once I find out more. But let's discuss the leaves at hand...

This Da Hong Pao is very aromatic. The dry leaves are sweet, fruity, and quite tempting. This tea brews up a deep dark amber color. Lovely to look at, and feels very appropriate for the fall weather that's lurking just around the corner.

The brewed tea echos the fruitiness of the dry leaves, with the addition of strong mineral notes. It brings to mind an autumn hike near a waterfall. There is a lingering hint of spice that helps nurture those fall weather feelings. There is a touch of astringency to the tea, reminding me of plum skin. The hint of astringency doesn't actually lead to a bitter brew, which is quite nice. It's very smooth. I was heavy handed with the leaf and steep time, and everything was still quite well balanced.

This tea is nice and hearty, a good choice for the late morning or early afternoon. The mineral notes mellow out the brew just a touch, so I wouldn't have it first thing since I like a punchy morning tea. I prepared this tea in a gaiwan, one that is quite thick to retain the water's heat. This would also work well in a small teapot. It would be lovely to cozy up with a few steeps of this tea on a chilly day.

According to the little red cup website, finding this tea was quite a challenge which makes me even more curious to learn about the source:
It has taken us nearly ten years since we began our search for a great Da Hong Pao that is both organic and Fair Trade to get to the point where we can add this special oolong to our offerings.

I did an interview with the little red cup founder Martin Connelly back in 2015, be sure to check out our conversation to learn more about the company. Thank you to the little red cup tea co. for this sample! To learn more about this tea, you can visit the little red cup website.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Interview: Jason McDonald, Co-Founder of The Great Mississippi Tea Company

Photo courtesy of Jason McDonald

I'm so pleased to present my interview with Jason McDonald, Founder of The Great Mississippi Tea Company. I've come to know Jason through attending his seminars at World Tea Expo, and he's a brilliant tea farmer and all-around super nice guy. He runs The Great Mississippi Tea Company with his partner, Co-founder Timmy Gipson. They have created a successful tea garden with incredibly innovative practices. Learn all about what they are doing in our interview below.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Teaware Review: Teaglass

I love collecting teaware, and always look out for unique pieces. I recently started seeing a company called Teaglass posting pictures of a strange looking drinking vessel on Instagram. The vessel was originally created for yerba mate, to mimic drinking from a mate gourd and bombilla (straw) but the creators realized you can use the vessel with loose leaf tea as well. They reached out to see if I'd like to review one of the vessels, and I was curious to give it a try. Here are my findings...

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Review: Good Morning tea by Tea Plays

When I need a bit of a mood boost, tea always comes to the rescue. The experience of preparing a favorite tea and tasting it truly cheers the soul. This is the concept behind Tea Plays, a small tea company trying to bring a bit whimsy to our tea ritual. The Tea Plays teas are designed to be chosen based on your current mood and situation.The blends are aptly named Brainstorming, Sweet Home, Good Morning, and After Lunch.

The teas are referred to as 'bonbons' and they are compressed into a ball and packaged in colorful wrappers. The teas are in a translucent box, so you can see all of the cheerful bonbons inside. I decided to focus this review on the Good Morning tea, as I was sleepy when I opened the package. Tea Plays describes the Good Morning tea as, 'First fragrance of calendula, accompanied by honey-aromatic Dianhong black tea from Yunnan, China'. The full ingredient list is dianhong, calendula, and mint.

The dry compressed leaves smell like chocolate, with a sweet floral/herbacious aroma which I'm guessing is the calendula (I don't think I've ever had calendula before). The steeped tea has smooth honey and chocolate notes from the dianhong, but there is also the mint, which masks the full flavor of the black tea for me. Mint always seems to dominate my palate, no matter what else is in the ingredients (although it does blend well with chocolate). The calendula mellows the flavors out, making it a bit more balanced. It's pleasant, but the calendula makes this blend feel a bit soothing, which isn't what I prefer first thing in the morning. The addition of the mint may be for refreshment, but it's not a flavor I look for in my tea, especially in the morning.

Tea Plays tea ball in the filter

The bonbons are supposed to be prepared using disposable tea filters included in the package. I normally wouldn't use these, but I did so to make sure I tasted the tea the way the vendor intended. Per the instructions I put the tea in the filter, popped it in a cup, poured hot water in and let it sit for a few minutes (directions said to let it sit for 'roughly one minute', which barely produced any flavor).  I nudged the teabag around quite a bit during the steeping process and the tea ball unfurled a tiny bit. The tea was a bit weak, so I decided another bonbon in a small teapot with a large infuser basket. The teapot allowed the compressed tea ball to unfurl on the very first steep. The tea in the teapot was much more flavorful, and I based my tasting notes on this steep.

Tea ball hasn't really unfurled in the filter

A note on the filters: they appear to be made out of plastic, but I couldn't verify this. I sent a question to the Tea Plays team and will update this post once I find out. Whatever the materials are, I wouldn't recommend using the filters for this tea as they constrict the leaves too much.

The bonbons are very cute and playful, keeping with the company name. The colorful wrappers are enticing. I'd say keep these out of the line of sight for little ones, as both of my kids immediately thought they were candy!  The Good Morning bonbon wasn't for me, but if you enjoy mint and calendula with your tea, this is definitely one to try. Just make sure you give the tea room to expand. Try it with a small glass teapot or mug, as it's fun to watch the leaves unfurl.

Thank you to Tea Plays for providing this sample for review! To learn more about the tea you can visit their website, and to purchase you can find them on Amazon.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Interview: Brandon Friedman of Rakkasan Tea Company

Brandon Friedman (photo courtesy of Rakkasan Tea Company)

I'm pleased to present an interview with Brandon Friedman, co-founder of Rakkasan Tea Company, a vendor trying to make a difference in the industry. Rakkasan works with small farmers in post-conflict tea-growing areas such as Vietnam, Laos, and Rwanda to help the economy of the area and bring their teas to US customers. Learn more about their mission, why this goal is so important to the founders, the challenges they face as a new tea company, and more, below.