Afternoon tea is a quaint little social ritual involving pretty china, little pastries, and determinedly chipper conversation with an older female relative. Is that last just me? Possibly not, considering the history. Like any dated social ritual, tugging on the loose thread that is afternoon tea leads you to a thick fabric of historical events. In this case, the events are the Industrial Revolution and the social shifts that English society made to accommodate it.

High Tea

Before the Industrial Revolution Britain was largely populated by farmers. They had a different pattern of meals than we do today; they grabbed a bite on the way out the door to the fields, had a large dinner at midday, and a smaller meal in the evening. When they became factory workers this had to change.

Even now,with our rosters of worker’s rights, it can be tricky to get your employer to give you enough time for lunch; eighteenth and nineteenth century factory workers were often required to eat while still working. The main meal was now taken immediately after work. Tea was a mainstay of the new factory worker’s diet, replacing beer; tea was newly plentiful, and caffeine was better for helping factory workers keep all their fingers than alcohol. The new after-work meal was named for the new part of their diet: high tea.

Afternoon Tea

The working class was not the only one transformed by the Industrial Revolution. The middle class exploded in size, and with industrial production many things that were a mark of wealth came within the reach of less wealthy people. One of these was idle family members. Middle class women did not work, or even go out unescorted. The options for filling their spare time being rather limited, the ladies invented new ones. Since there was nothing scandalous about them visiting each other they took to spending their long afternoons at each other’s houses at a rotating series of dances and conversation parties, at which refined refreshments were served.

Tea, fine china, and white sugar were now affordable to a broad segment of the population, but they retained a sense of sophistication from when they could only be bought by the rich. The tea, elegant settings, and pastries of afternoon tea were props for the new middle class to help solidify their place in the upper echelons of society. The origin story of afternoon tea makes it clear; the story goes that the seventh duchess of Bradford took to having it by herself because she became hungry before the late dinners favored by the aristocracy After all, they did nothing to work up an appetite earlier! When the duchess was discovered by her friends she was afraid they would tease her, but they loved the idea, and it became a social event. What better story for a fashionable new habit of the middle class than that it had been invented by nobility?

Modern Remnants

As society adjusted to the changes made by the Industrial Revolution meals settled into their modern form, and the teas fell out of fashion. High tea now exists in a few corners of Britain, an Australian habit of referring to dinner that way, and confused Americans who have merged high and afternoon teas in their minds. Afternoon tea is less popular too now that everyone is expected to work, but most of us do get weekends and retirement off, so the tradition continues in a reduced fashion, and we have somewhere to take our grandmothers when we’d like to take them out for some conversation.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

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Joe Blondo, a longtime customer here at Teahouse Kuan Yin, is getting his latest book published. Congratulations, Joe! Caught between Cultures is the story of Milton Wan, a Vietnamese immigrant in America, including his tumultuous family life and his being drafted into the American army to fight in the Vietnam War.

Joe and Milton are having a book opening party this Wednesday at Tai Tung, the restaurant where author and subject first met. Both Caught between Cultures and Joe’s previous book, The Greyer Elements, will be on sale.

Assam Black Tea - Cream of AssamTea does not grow in England, or anywhere near it. In fact, it grows so far away that when tea first became popular there it took a year to get the tea from it’s source, China, to the teacups of European enthusiasts. The early imports were mostly green tea, too–not well known for it’s ability to travel and resist staleness–since that was what was popular in China. The British Empire never felt compelled to do things the easy way, though.

Tea’s popularity in the west started in mainland Europe, as one of the many curiosities Dutch merchants brought back from abroad. It came to Britain when Charles II married a Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662. She loved tea and continued to drink it after her marriage, and this particular royal fashion slowly spread through the country. It started showing up everywhere, mostly in coffeehouses, another recent fashion from the east, if not so far east, which had gotten a quicker start off the blocks. The tea fashion moved more slowly, but it did move. By 1686 tea was widely sold in Britain.

Various shifts in trade around the 1720s made tea a more appealing import for the shipping companies, and tea established itself in British tea and society. No, wait, I’m losing the fight against this pun. Steeped itself in British society. Ouch, ouch, only throw soft fruit! OK, while we were messing around with lowbrow humor Britain’s gone wild for tea, buying it legally, illegally, cut with sawdust, anything to get their daily cup of tea.  But after a century of this things come to an abrupt halt.

Tensions between China and Britain went seriously south, and China shut off all trade in the early 1830s. The government started up the Opium Wars, the populace flailed about, getting tea from wherever it could, and businessmen took trips to the colonies. India was firmly in British possession, and had a lovely warm climate, a population that the British felt no qualms about exploiting, and tea plants growing wild. The East India Company threw its weight behind growing tea on British land. It was a brilliant idea even without the difficulties with Chinese trade. The industrial revolution was in full swing, creating a middle class and filling their houses with things that had once been luxuries for the rich, fine china and crystal wine glasses and exotic foreign imports, like tea.

By the time the tea plantations were up and running Britain had w0n the war (or round one, at least), and imports were coming from China again. But the new plantations were designed for large scale industrial production and export,  and when Indian tea hit British markets, in the 1850s, it was cheap and plentiful and tea’s popularity went wild. Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, added its supply in the 1880s, and cheap, strong, black tea became one of Britain’s most popular drinks. This is when afternoon tea came into existence; legend says it was invented by the Duchess of Bedford, who needed a snack to tide her over between lunch and a fashionably late dinner. Tea shops also sprung up at this time, two hundred years after the coffeehouse craze hit the streets. Tea culture in Britain had finally taken on its modern form

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

The industrial revolution was in full swing, creating a middle class and filling their houses with things that had once been luxuries for the rich, fine china and crystal wine glasses and exotic foreign imports, like tea.

Zetamari MirrorThe Wallingford Art Walk is coming up! It’s an event held on the first Wednesday of every month, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm, here in Wallingford. Since almost all the businesses in the neighborhood have some local artist’s work on display in their shops, we have one day a month where the artists all come in to the stores to hang out and chat with anyone who wants to ask them about their art. It’s a great way to learn more about the neighborhood and the people in it, and look at some of the lovely art people around here make.

Angie Heinrich, who made the lovely mirrors currently adorning the walls of our shop, will be here to talk to everyone about her art. Come by to look at them and ask her how she makes them so pretty!

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

China Trip The sun’s coming out in cheering, treacherous bursts that drop a cloudburst on your head when you’re in the middle of enjoying the non-winter weather, and the Easter candy just got marked way down: it’s definitely spring. But there’s more to spring  than cheap jellybeans and alarming weather. There’s new tea. There are people picking fresh leaves off tea bushes as you read this, sending them on their way to become new drinks for us.

In India, especially down south, the jungle climate is so good on plants that there are tea harvests all the time, literally constantly in some places. That pace isn’t possible farther north, though. In China and Japan and even Darjeeling, still inside the Indian borders, they have temperate climates with winters and springs, and spring is when the harvest starts.

Tea, especially high quality tea, is the newest, youngest leaves on the bushes, often picked after only a few weeks of existence. In white teas, and the occasional green, you can often still sea the downy covering on buds that never grew into full leaves. These downy teas, like Silver Needle and Snow Bud and Bi Lo Chun, are the first ones picked, often even before the Qing Ming festival in early April which is the official Chinese start of spring, which was just this week.

After Qing Ming harvesting goes into full swing. High grade and delicate teas are both often considered best when made with very young, tender leaves. In China people spend shocking amounts of money on the earliest Dragonwells. Japanese tea enthusiasts wait all year for shincha–literally “new tea”–season, when the fresh new senchas are sent out, powerful, aggressively flavored teas that I highly, highly recommend you don’t steep for more than a minute and a half. Darjeeling, still maintaining some of the year-round Indian tea schedule, makes rounded and mature summer or ‘second flush’ teas, but their bright, astringent, almost green first flushes are still a favorite for a lot of people.

Spring teas are strong and fresh, waking you up like the nearly-forgotten sun first thing in spring; sweet and delicate, like the first moments that the air gets warm enough to go out without a jacket, and just as fleeting. That kind of freshness can’t last for long, and the value of it can be drowned out as all the other plants we spend all winter waiting for start to be harvested. The year’s first cup of new tea is as important as the morning’s first cup of any tea that has some freaking caffeine in it; pay attention.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

I’ve made a new Facebook page for the teahouse, the business kind that you can be a fan of. So fan us! You love us, right? *bats eyelashes*

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Angie Heinrich MirrorWe always have some art for sale in the tea shop, and we just put up a new show that is really lovely. It’s mirrors with mosaic frames made by Angie Heinrich. Check her out at www.zetamari.com, or come by the shop to see the mirrors. They’re really beautiful pieces, impressively worked while still tasteful. And also mirrors, so they’re functional, for all your hair fixing and vampire identifying needs. We’ll only have them for two months, so be sure to come in and see them!

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff