By Sarah Besky, author of Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea, posted in honor of International Tea Day.
Pandemic reporting is peppered with human interest stories of toilet paper hoarding and increased consumption of processed “comfort” foods, from Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Doritos to Campbell’s soup. The CEO of Nestlé USA recently told USA Today that the company’s baking lines, Nestlé Toll House and Carnation, are performing well in the pandemic, “as consumers embrace familiar, comforting treats that they know and love.”
Reliability, convenience, and affordability, seemingly now more than ever, shape consumption choices, at least among the relatively affluent, but these are not new concerns for the makers of mass-market products. Take a bag of black tea, which may be sitting in your cupboard now next to that box of mac and cheese.
Tetley. Lipton. PG Tips. Yorkshire Gold. The off-brand teabag in your hotel room. There’s nothing fancy here. No single-origin stories, no pricey packaging. The attraction of the black tea bag is its reliability, its sameness. A “nice cup of tea” is comforting because, like a favorite chair or memorable song, it calls the consumer back into the realm of the familiar and the routine.
It is not only its taste, but also the rhythm of making a cup of tea that is so familiar: filling the kettle, reaching for your favorite mug, ripping open the tea bag, waiting for the kettle to let out its hiss or ding, pouring the hot water into your mug (being careful to not submerge that paper flag), then dunking the bag up and down a few times. As you dunk, the color dissipates in wisps and swirls into the water. As the deep reddish-brown hues slowly bleed out, you resume your day.
When tea drinkers reach for a bag of black tea, they are reaching for something dependable and standardized, not something unique and distinguished. My new book, Tasting Qualities, tells the story behind that dependability and standardization: the “nice” in that “nice cup of tea.” The sameness and reliability by which tea drinkers judge a good cup of tea is the result of a hidden, complex process that traverses the history of European colonialism, postcolonial economic debates, and the development of modern industrial food science.
What counts as quality tea is not just a matter of consumer preference, or even of environmental and labor conditions at the point of production. Though what goes on at kitchen tables and on tea plantations is certainly important to the story of quality, this book also attends to the spaces in between: those of brokerage, blending, auctioning, and food chemistry. Even the cheapest, most ordinary-looking tea arrives in its cup in that reliable form thanks to a set of linguistic, technological, and aesthetic techniques not just for judging quality—as if quality were always just waiting there to be perceived—but for producing quality.
Over the history of the modern tea industry, these techniques have been debated, distributed, and refined by professional tea tasters, auctioneers, blenders, and scientists, intermediary figures in the system that circulates tea from farm to cup. The work of these figures helps make the black tea bag arrive to consumers in the form they come to expect, time after time.
Mass market black teas are blends of many different tastes, origins, and grades of tea, selected to match to distinct flavor profiles. A bag of Tetley, PG Tips, or most any tea consumers might encounter around the world is often a blend of 20 to 30 different kinds of tea. Large and small companies alike buy invoices from different tea growing regions to make their blends. Reach for another box of the same brand a week or a month later, and it will likely be composed of a completely different set of 30-something teas and a totally different combination of regions, grades, ages, and flavors. The teas inside will be different, but the taste will be familiar. In fact, your preferred tea bag tastes the same because the teas inside are totally different. Tea seems to be infinitely reproducible, despite the fact that what tea is is highly variable. So while we might think of the ordinary black tea bag as a static, simple thing, getting the brand of tea bag you drink today to taste the same as the tea bag you drank last month—and getting the tea in that bag to react in the same way to everything from the hardness of water to the fat content of milk to consumer preferences in places as different as London, Louisville, and Lucknow is actually a complex and fraught undertaking.
As I show in Tasting Qualities, the plantation and the auction are just two nodes in a much larger array of sites that also includes laboratories, agricultural experimental stations, bureaucratic offices, and spaces of consumption. While the plantation shapes the quality of black tea in the sense that colonial imagery of plantation landscapes and workers still dominates advertising and packaging, the reverse is also the case. Black tea—its sensory qualities, its “niceness,” and the images and memories it conjures—also works to keep the plantation viable. Efforts to standardize and objectify quality were central to the British colonial project that gave birth to the mass-market black tea that tea drinkers across the world know and consume. The resulting linguistic and technoscientific conventions for describing tea’s qualities help maintain the colonially derived plantation form. Following the lead of feminist scholars of science and technology, I suggest that such conventions help to materialize abstract notions about gender, culture, and ethnicity, fixing them in place.
In the book, I ask both what quality is and where it is, geographically and historically, but I also ask what quality does—what claims about it are made, by whom, and with what consequences. Quality is not an end in itself—a final destination for economic, colonial, or post-colonial projects—but an opening for those projects.