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Tea Culture


Women’s History Month: 3 Women Who Shaped the Tea Industry

March 18, 2018

March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate, we’ve profiled three women who made a big impact on the history of tea. So sit back and give thanks for these three ladies while sipping your afternoon cuppa:

1) Catherine of Braganza 

Catherine of Braganza | Public Domain

Today, we almost instantly associate tea with England. But it took one woman, Catherine of Braganza, to introduce the beverage to England before it could become so ubiquitous. Catherine, a Portuguese princess, married King Charles II of Great Britain in 1662. Per the BBC, When packing for her new life as Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Catherine made sure to include loose-leaf tea. Tea was popular in Portugal among the upper class, and Catherine enjoyed sipping it daily. However, tea was not so prevalent in England yet, and was used more as a medicinal herb than a social drink. That changed when Catherine arrived. As the public yearned to emulate their new queen, Catherine’s social tea drinking habit became more popular, and we can certainly give her some credit for England’s major tea habit today.

2) Penelope Barker

Penelope Barker | Public Domain

The Sons of Liberty get all the attention in the history books when it comes to tea and the American Revolution, but Penelope Barker deserves some recognition too. Barker organized the first ever recorded women’s political demonstration in America when she got 50 women in Edenton, North Carolina together to protest the 1773 Tea Act. The women signed a resolution to boycott British tea, using their buying power to protest Great Britain’s unfair taxation and the British East India Tea Company’s monopoly on the tea trade. In their resolution they stated, “We, the aforesaid Ladys will not promote ye wear of any manufacturer from England until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed.” The event was called the Edenton Tea Party, and was widely mocked in London where a political cartoon depicted the participants as bad mothers and loose women:

A 1775 political cartoon from a London newspaper depicts a less than respectful version of a women’s political gathering, featuring lots of flirtation between men and women, and an unattractive woman at the helm. | Public Domain

3) Ruth Campbell Bigelow

Constant Comment creator Ruth Campbell Bigelow with her husband David. She developed the formula in the kitchen of her New York brownstone. | Bigelow Tea

A woman founded Bigelow Tea, one of the most recognizable tea brands in the country. Ruth Campbell Bigelow developed her version of the perfect cuppa in 1945. She blended black tea with orange rind and spices in her kitchen. It sparked “constant comment” among her friends, and when it became the first product of the Bigelow Tea Company, that was its name. The brew is one of many varieties that is still available today. The company operates out of its Fairfax, Connecticut headquarters, generating about $150 million in sales per year. Three generations after Ruth founded Bigelow, it continues to be a family-run business, with Cindi Bigelow in charge as President and CEO.


10 Tea-Inspired Tattoos

December 31, 2017

If your love of tea is so devout that you want to have tea permanently etched on your body, it’s time to invest in a tea tattoo.  Copy one of the following tea-inspired tattoos, or use them as inspiration for an original design:


This large ribcage tattoo honors the connection between the tea plant, camellia sinensis, and your cuppa, creating a chain linking the plant, a tea bag, and a tea cup.  Ink this large design down your side, on your leg, or down your arm if you never want to be without your favorite brew.


This tattoo cleverly imitates the ring your teacup may leave on a table.  Coupled with the phrase “so it goes,” this design reminds you and an observer that nothing in life goes according to plan, that even alongside the most delicious beverage, there may be a stain.  But that’s life.  Ink this tattoo if you need a daily reminder not to sweat the small stuff.


This cute couple tattoo celebrates you, your significant other, and your mutual love of earl grey, rooibos, or matcha.  If your relationship has deepened by comparing childhood stories, sharing dreams, and building trust over countless cups of tea, this is the perfect two-part tattoo for you and your love.


This tattoo is perfect for the bookworm and tea lover known to “dive” into a world of mermaids and make-believe while nursing a hot cup of tea.  This tattoo will remind you to take time to escape into a beautiful world of fiction now and then.  Doing so may even help you understand the “real” world better.


This tattoo conjures the history of the tea industry, when the East India Company drove the global trade of tea in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This tattoo interestingly merges a European teacup design with a Japanese-inspired wave made famous in Japanese woodblock paintings, artistically communicating the mashing of cultures that accompanied the global tea trade.  It also refers to the idiom “tempest in a teacup,” used when someone’s exaggerating or “making a mountain out of a molehill.”  If you need a reminder not to make a big deal out of small things, this tattoo’s for you.


This knuckle tattoo is probably the least aggressive knuckle tat you’ll ever find.  Written in classic tattoo lettering, this tattoo will remind you that it’s always a good time for tea.


This Alice in Wonderland-inspired tattoo is perfect for tea-loving fans of the famous novel. The design features Alice falling into a teacup, perfect for the literary nonsense genre to which the book belongs. Depending on who’s looking at this design and from which angle, either Alice or the teacup will appear upside down, encapsulating the idea that perspective dictates truth.


This watercolor teacup tattoo follows the watercolor trend currently having a moment. Great if you want a pop of color with you always.


This tiny tattoo is the perfect choice for a pinky.  It’ll remind you to raise your pinky if you want to look super classy whilst drinking your afternoon cuppa, and will keep any minimalist happy.


And lastly, this Star Wars-inspired teapot and teacup design is the perfect tattoo for Star Wars geeks who think tea is a jedi-approved drink.  Choose this tattoo, and the force will be strong with you.

Tea Recipes History

Apple Cider Teas for Thanksgiving

December 12, 2017

If you want to be historically accurate this Thanksgiving, serve cider. If you want your spread to be historically accurate and unique, serve tea-infused apple cider.

The Golden Age of Cider 

The first Thanksgiving, held in 1621, happened during a time when cider enjoyed great popularity, an era spanning the 16th and 17th centuries that beverage historians call The Golden Age of Cider. Recall that during this time, safe drinking water was not readily available, so cider joined beer and other spirits as common everyday drinks. And as Great Britain expanded its global trade industry in the 15 and 1600s, cider emerged as an ideal export since it didn’t spoil over long journeys. According to the Daily Beast, the Pilgrims definitely brought beer over to America on the Mayflower, and probably brought cider, too.

Historian Elizabeth Pearce told WGNO, “What the pilgrims drank was fermented apple juice, or what we call hard cider. And that’s because it was something they were used to drinking back in England. Cider was very, very popular in Europe and they were lucky – several varieties of apples are native to America.”

New England’s native apple species included: garland, sweet crab, prairie crab, and southern crab.

Cider’s Modern Surge in Popularity

Cider continued to be popular in America throughout the 18th century. The Daily Beast even reports that in 1767, the average colonist drank 35 gallons of cider a year, and one in 10 New England farmers worked a cider mill.

But cider’s popularity declined as the nation changed.

Serious Eats explains that the large influx of early 20th century German and Eastern European immigrants didn’t have the same appetite for cider as Western Europeans, and beer production enjoyed improvements in quality thanks to refrigeration technology, boosting its status over cider. But the biggest impediment to the cider industry was Prohibition. Even after Prohibition ended, Americans didn’t significantly revive their taste for cider.

Until now.

Cider production has been on a meteoric rise as of late. Apples are cheap to import, making orchard maintenance optional for cider producers. Millennials are flocking to cider as a “new” culinary experience, and cider producers are making the product even more attractive to their adventurous palates with unique flavor infusions. Plus, it’s gluten-free, making it an on-trend choice for today’s gluten-phobic consumers.

NPR reports that cider sales rose 65% from 2011 to 2012.

Per the Cider Journal, the industry has continued to grow, but has not maintained that 2012 boom in growth:


One of the ways that cider is staying on-trend is with flavor innovations. Which brings us to tea:

Sweet apple cider pairs perfectly with bitter tea, evening out the drink’s flavor profile. A tea infusion drives interest and can offer an alcohol-free spin on cider, perfect for G-rated family functions.

Apple Cider Tea Recommendations for Your Thanksgiving Table

This year, bring history and culinary trends to the Thanksgiving table with these tea-infused apple ciders.


1) Earl Grey Apple Cider Cocktail


This recipe from Healthy Delicious blends earl grey tea and hard apple cider for a tea twist on the alcoholic treat. Lemon and vanilla provide extra flavor, and lemon twists provide a fun finish.

2) Smoked Apple Cider


This recipe from Fresh Cup Magazine is simple to make and delicious to taste—the ultimate combo. Black tea and apple cider are the stars of the show, sharing the stage with cinnamon sticks and cloves.

3) Apple Cider Rooibos Hot Toddy

This recipe from The Minimalist Baker uses apple juice and rooibos tea as its base, adding lemon, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and pepper for extra flavor. Optional add-ons include a coconut sugar or maple syrup sweetener, cayenne, or bourbon.


1) Ruby Spice Cider Tea Blend from Teavana


This tea blends Spiced Apple Cider Rooibos tea and Mulled Pomegranate Herbal tea for a deliciously sweet concoction. 

2) Maple Apple Cider Herbal Tea from Stash Tea


This caffeine-free option gets its sweetness from maple and caramel flavors and fruity goodness from a mix of hibiscus and rooibos tea. Cinnamon and apple flavors complete the profile.

3) Apple Cider Herbal Tea from Bigelow


Go classic with this apple cider tea from Bigelow. Apple, hibiscus, and cinnamon headline, with featured performances by orange peel, rose hip, licorice root, and clove.

Tea Culture

What is Monkey-Picked Tea?

September 19, 2017

Tea leaves picked by monkeys? Sounds great! But not too fast… Most tea experts and sellers agree that monkey-picked tea is just a legend. Let’s unpack the history behind this cool idea that’s likely too good to be true…

According to a Chinese legend about ten centuries old, a monkey saw his master pick tea leaves, and then did so himself. How helpful.

Another origin story says that monks trained monkeys to pick tea leaves in the Wuyi Mountains to then be presented as a tribute to Emperor Qian Long.

Did this really happen?

Probably not.

Back in the 17 and 1800s, when Chinese tea first became of interest to Westerners, monkey-picked tea may have been but a sly marketing ploy. Tea picked by monkeys? How exotic! And more likely to drive up the price! After all, wouldn’t you pay more for tea leaves plucked by our animal friends?

According to James Norwood Pratt, author of Tea Dictionary and Ultimate Tea Lover’s Treasury, English explorer Aeneas Anderson bought the myth that monkeys picked tea on his trip to China in 1793, and is responsible for spreading the story all over Europe.

In truth, monkey-picked tea was more of a hyperbolic way to state that the tea hails from a place that’s hard to reach. So out of reach that it would take money-like skills to pluck it.

As put by the Tea Trekker’s New York Times-dubbed “Professors of Tea” May Lou Heiss and Bob Heiss, the designation of monkey-picked is given to teas that meet the following criteria:

“1) That this particular batch of tea came from a tea garden located at a very high elevation (the higher the elevation, the finer the leaf and the finer the tea)

 2) That the tea was plucked from tea bushes growing in difficult to reach places; ie. nearly inaccessible places that require the tea pluckers be ’as agile as a monkey.’”

The monkey-picked tea on the market today is almost certainly not picked by real monkeys, although one seller claims to have monkeys working to pluck the leaves that end up in your cup:

Firebox’s says its monkey-picked tea comes from “well cared for monkeys” that are “specially trained by their owners to pick rare, wild tea plants in inaccessible places, such as cliff faces.”

If you believe them, try it out:

Otherwise, know that monkey-picked teas simply come from largely inaccessible places.

Teavana, for instance, features a Monkey-Picked Oolong Tea, and makes no claim the tea is picked by real monkeys, describing the myth responsible for the name, and then clarifying:

“The legend lives on, now with the deft hand-plucking of the broken, evenly sized leaves that unfurl to create a light, orchid aroma, and the highest grade of oolong in the world.”

Try monkey tea to experience the flavors of difficult-to-pick tea, but beware fake news, which has been plaguing this product for three centuries!


Tea Culture

Political Turmoil Jeopardizes Second Flush Tea in Darjeeling

July 20, 2017

Tea is and has always been a political commodity. From the days of the East India Tea Company’s trade monopoly and the Boston Tea Party to today, tea continuously finds its way to the center of political discourse.

Darjeeling District

By Darjeelingmap (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This summer, that’s unfortunately the case in West Bengal, India. In this region—home to Darjeeling’s many tea plantations—there is a majority ethnic Nepalese population known as the Gorkhas. For centuries, Gorkhas have campaigned for their own state within India called Gorkhaland. This summer, the government announced it would introduce the Bengali language to West Bengal schools, which currently teach Nepali, Hindi, and English. Some Gorkhas interpreted the addition of Bengali as an affront to their status as the ethnic majority in the region, and began staging protests that grew violent.

As a result, production on Darjeeling “second flush” tea has been suspended since June 9. Second flush teas—also known as muscatel tea, which we wrote about a while back—are beloved and priced high for their special flavor.

This unique flavor actually comes from insects. In May, June, and July, cold winds bring thrips and jassids to Darjeeling. They eat tea plants, leaving behind a substance called terpene, which gives the tea a very specific flavor that many say you simply know when you taste.

Second flush tea is a casualty of the Gorkha conflict, and an expensive one at that.

The India Times says that second flush teas account for about a quarter of the total tea produced in Darjeeling, and account for a much greater percentage of total tea revenue in the region.

The Darjeeling Tea Association reports that tea producers in Darjeeling have lost about $40 million in potential revenues due to the shut down so far.

“This is 20 percent in terms of volume and 40 percent in terms of revenue,” A.N. Singh, managing director of Darjeeling tea producer Goodricke Group, told Reuters. “This is a complete disaster for the industry.”

Expect price hikes on muscatel tea in the near future, as producers have to charge more to make ends meet while production’s on hold, or brands spike their prices to contend with the fact that no second flush tea is coming this season.

Tea consultant Angela Pryce told Reuters that she expects brands to sell off their 2016 season second flush teas for now, but that even that supply will dry up by this September.

The ethnic conflict at the root of this tea shortage has a long history:

Back in 18th century, the Gorkhas actually controlled Darjeeling, but then surrendered the region to the British in 1816.

And in the 1980s, violent Gorkha protests for statehood claimed 1,000 lives.

Gorkhaland riots

Protestors voice their support for the establishment of Gorkhaland in 2013 | Creative Commons 1.0

India has a long history of different ethnic groups demanding—and receiving—states of their own. It happened as recently as 2013, when the state Telangana was formed out of Andhra Pradesh, and in 2000, when the states Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Uttarakhand were all carved out of already existing states in response to violent protests.

Let’s hope that for the citizens of this region—and tea lovers around the globe—this turmoil comes to a peaceful resolution soon.


History 101: The Boston Tea Party

June 20, 2017

As you celebrate the 4th of July, take a few moments to think about how tea is responsible for the freedom you enjoy every day. We’re talking of course about The Boston Tea Party, an event that moved the American colonies one giant step toward revolution.

The year was 1773. Tea was extremely popular with American colonists. But what wasn’t so popular? Taxation without representation. Both the Stamp Act and the Townshend Act forced Americans to pay taxes to the British government on items such as paper, paint, glass, and tea without any voice in their own government.

In 1773, British Parliament passed the Tea Act, which granted the East India Company a monopoly on tea imports to America and reinforced the pre-existing tax on tea.

In December 1773, three boats containing East India Company tea docked in Boston’s Griffin Wharf. Angry Bostonians met to discuss the situation. Taxes on the tea were due within 20 days of the ships’ arrival. Paying the tax was out of the question for these fed-up colonists. Led by Sons of Liberty front man Samuel Adams, the riled up colonists at first attempted to peacefully and legally resolve the situation by getting the governor’s permission to send the ships back to Britain without paying for the tea. When that didn’t work, and with less than a day before the tax was due, it was time for a party:

On December 16, 1773, hundreds of colonists dressed in disguise as Mohawk Native Americans and descended on the three ships—the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor. Dressing as Native Americans had significance beyond disguise: it signaled to the British that they now identified as Americans, not as Brits.

In three hours, the protesters dumped 342 chests of tea into the water. Collectively, the chests contained about 90,000 pounds of tea—enough to fill 18.5 million tea bags— and their destruction amounted to a loss of about $1 million in today’s currency.

Boston Tea Party Painting

W.D. Cooper. “Boston Tea Party.”, The History of North America. London: E. Newbury, 1789

The Sons of Liberty instructed protestors not to destroy anything but the tea. Careful attention must be paid not to damage the ships themselves or to steal any of the tea—that would be off message.

When the British government got wind of the demonstration, they were incensed. So incensed that they punished Massachusetts with a series of acts known as The Intolerable Acts in 1774.

These acts instituted the following policies:

1) Boston’s port would remain closed until the East India Company was reimbursed for their losses in the Boston Tea Party.

2) The British government beefed up its control over Massachusetts’ governing bodies, replacing elected officials with royally appointed ones and taking away citizens’ right to assemble without the royal governor’s approval

3) British officials could no longer be tried in Massachusetts criminal courts

4) If asked, colonists would now have to house British troops in their homes

Massachusetts residents reacted to the Intolerable Acts with outrage.  But they’re weren’t alone: Other colonies expressed their fury, knowing that they could be next. Widespread concern over British control prompted representatives from the colonies to convene the first Continental Congress in early September of 1774. This congress would discuss ways to counter British tyranny, and ultimately declare American independence on July 4, 1776.

And over two centuries later, we can trace it all back to tea!

First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress | John Trumbull [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tea Culture

How to Read Tea Leaves

June 14, 2017

You may be able to predict the future just by looking in your teacup.

That’s the idea being tea leaf reading, also known as tasseography or tasseomancy. Those fancy words come from the French word for cup—tasse—and the Greek suffixes graph and mancy, which mean writing and divination, respectively. According to tasseography, the tealeaves left over at the bottom of a teacup aren’t random. Rather, their shapes can be interpreted to predict one’s good or bad fortune.

People have been looking for ways to see into the future for centuries, with reports of fortune telling dating as far back as 4000 BCE.  Humans have attempted to predict the future by studying the stars, reading tarot cards, and peering into crystal balls.  The earliest book written in English on reading tea leaves hails from an 18th century Highland Seer, but tealeaf reading really took off in Victorian Great Britain (1837-1901). During this period of British world dominance, self-reflection became very trendy, in part thanks to the introspective work of psychologist Sigmund Freud, creating an environment in which reading tea leaves would be most appealing. As tea became popular with the British masses in the 19th century, they not only drank it enthusiastically, but also embraced reading tea leaves as an alternative method of divination to more painful and messy methods like haruspicy, carromancy, and molybdomancy, which used animal intestines, hot wax, and molten metal to predict the future, respectively.

During this period, an invitation to a tea party could mean not only a delicious brew of tea, but also a tea leaf reading, perhaps conducted by one of many gypsies (or Roma) who practiced the trade door-to-door in homes and tea parlors.

But just how did they do it?

Here’s the skinny, per the Tea Association of the USA, Inc.

Start with a cup of loose-leaf tea. After drinking the liquid, twirl your teacup in a clockwise circle very quickly three times. If there’s any liquid left over, turn the teacup upside down on a saucer and wait for all the liquid to drain away. The tea leaves should cling to the cup.

Next, you’ll analyze the tealeaves in your cup for any obvious symbols, keeping in mind that the rim of the cup indicates the present, the sides of the cup represent the near future, and the bottom of the cup represents the distant future.

What symbols should you look for?

Anchors, hearts, palm trees, and birds are just a few.

Check out this key from the Tea Association of the USA to see what these common symbols mean for your future:

tea leaf reading symbolism

Tea Association of the USA, Inc.

Be on the lookout for letters in your teacup, too, which may indicate the first letter of the name of an important figure in your life.  Depending on how close the letter is to a particular symbol, this person may be a friend or a foe. For example, an “L” next to an owl might indicate that your new boss Larry will prove your financial downfall.  Or the letter “B” next to a heart may suggest that your boyfriend Barry is “the one.”  And remember, the closer to the rim the symbol, the sooner you’ll experience its meaning.

On a scale from Picasso to Annie Liebovitz, just how clear should these symbols be?

Here’s an example, also from the Tea Association of the USA:

tea leaf reading diagram

Tea Association of the USA, Inc.

Armed with this information, you’re set to host a tea reading for one, host your very own tea party with an added element of the occult, or seek out a professional tea leaf reader in your city.

Happy reading!

Tea Culture

The Rise of Tea Plants in the United States

April 25, 2017

For a long time, the Charleston Tea Plantation was the only commercial tea producer in the United States. But as Americans drink more tea, leaning into foreign flavors like matcha and trends like nitro tea, American farmers want to get in on the movement. And they’re doing so, according to NPR, who reports that the United States now has 60 producers growing tea in 15 states.

Minto Island Tea Company Farm

Tea grows at the Minto Island Tea Company’s farm in Salem, Oregon. | LINK

With many Americans wanting to “Buy American” and support their local economies, growing tea here in the United States made sense to farmers.

Tea grower Elizabeth Miller told NPR, “It’s the energy and enthusiasm from consumers that’s propelling us forward. People are really excited to have tea that is U.S. grown.”

As the number of tea growers increased, there was enough demand to from The United States League of Tea Growers, which strives to connect US tea growers and promote the industry by sharing knowledge and launching initiatives like tea-based agri-tourism.

And tea plants aren’t just growing in the south, like you might expect, where a mild climate with sufficient rain makes growing camellia sinensis most auspicious. Rather, farmers in northern states like Michigan and Oregon are starting tea farms as well.

Here is a list of American tea farms to consider supporting:

Minto Island Growers | Salem, Oregon | www.mintoislandtea.com

The Minto Island Growers have been planting camellia sinensis since 1988. Their teas are certified organic, handpicked, and harvested in small-batches. The farmers grow green, oolong, and black teas.

The Great Mississippi Tea Company | Brookhaven, Mississippi | www.greatmsteacompany.com

The Great Mississippi Tea Company strives to be an example of fair labor and environmental practices. The company began by planting 30,000 tea plants on 5 acres of land in 2014.

Table Rock Tea Company | Pickens, South Carolina | http://www.tablerocktea.com

This South Carolina tea grower got things started with just 400 tea plants in 2009, but has much bigger plans: The company planted 7,000 tea plants last year, and plans to add 17,500 plants per year for the next few years. The company’s products include Jacked Black Original Black Tea and Hillbilly Yaupon. Table Rock was a 2016 finalist for the “Best Tea Brand” award at the World Tea Awards. 10% of all sales go to charity.

Piedmont Tea Company | Athens, Georgia | www.piedmonttea.com

This new, organic tea company launched in 2014 under Tygh Walters, who also serves as the President of the US League of Tea Growers

Sakuma Brothers Premium Teas | Skagit Valley, Washington | http://sakumamarketstand.com

Brothers Richard and Steve Sakuma decided to add tea plants to their berry farm in Washington in 2007. They planted tea over five acres, and have had their fair share of struggles planting tea in the cold Washington weather. Teas from the brothers have included green and oolong.


Since tea plants take three years to mature to the point that they can be harvested, we have not yet seen the fruits of many new producers’ labor. But as farmers get on the tea train, we’re sure to see more and more American-made tea products on the market in the coming years.



Tea Smugglers: 18th Century Bad Boys

January 31, 2017

It’s very easy to get a cup of tea in England. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1700s, tea was so expensive that only aristocrats could afford it. Prices ran so steep thanks to an exorbitant government tax on the import and the East India Company’s monopoly on the good. The EIC could charge high prices, the government could stick a giant tax on top, and people who wanted tea were forced to shell out top dollar, making the import a luxury item that only elite citizens could afford. But the lower classes needed their fix, too. To their rescue came a band of heroes: tea smugglers.

These smugglers transported non-EIC tea across the seas but didn’t pass through customs, avoiding the tax. At first, tea smugglers sold reduced-price tea to personal contacts near the coasts. But soon, tea smuggling became a sophisticated operation with large, armed ships dropping anchor before tea would be transported farther and farther inland.

Tea smugglers enjoyed popular support in Great Britain for a number of reasons. First, the covert industry supplied jobs. Second, people loved to drink tea. And third, the British were fed up with taxes. As the 1790 cartoon below illustrates, British citizens felt heavily burdened by taxes, and circumventing the sky-high tea tax was one way to stick it to the man.

William Dent's 18th Century Britain Cartoon

A 1790 cartoon by William Dent illustrated the public sentiment about taxes: there were too many! | The British Museuem via CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

But when a prominent group of smugglers known as the Hawkhurt Gang got violent, the public began to turn against them:

In 1747, the government seized one of the Hawkhurt Gang’s illegal shipments. The gang responded by raiding the customs house in Poole where their goods were being stored, as depicted below:

Hawkhurt Gang smugglers break open King's Custom House

Hawkhurt Gang smugglers break open the King’s Custom House at Poole in October 1747 to retake their confiscated goods (Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain)

The government learned that one of the locals who witnessed the ordeal, shoemaker Daniel Chater, had worked on a farm alongside Hawkhurt gangster Joe Diamond in the past. When the government arrested Diamond in Chichester months later, they needed someone to confirm Diamond’s identity, and summoned Chater. Chater and a customs officer started their journey to Chicester, but never made it. Along the way, tea smugglers barbarically tortured and killed them.

The brutal murders of Chater and the customs officer incited public outcry and a swift government response. The government issued rewards for gang members and many faced arrest or execution.

Still, tea smuggling continued for another forty years, thanks to the nation’s insatiable thirst for tea.

In 1783, the government conducted a study that found 13 million pounds of tea were consumed in England each year, but that only 6 million had been imported by the East India Company—the only company that could legally bring tea into the country. That meant that most of the tea in England was coming from smugglers. Something had to be done.

And so, the very next year, Parliament introduced the Commutation Act of 1784.

The Act reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%. Smugglers could no longer offer a better price for the same good, so they became obsolete.

And so ended a century of covert tea operations, and the beginning of accessible, enthusiastic tea drinking that continues today.



How Taking Tea Sans Sugar Meant Opposing Slavery

January 26, 2017

Today, sprinkling a spoonful of sugar into your tea doesn’t say much about your views on human trafficking. But in the late 18th century in England, it did.

In 1791, about 400,000 Brits boycotted slave-made sugar from the West Indies as a protest against slavery and Great Britain’s failure to pass a bill abolishing the slave trade. Drinking tea was a hugely important social custom in England, and with the sugar boycott, it became a political one. As NPR put it, the sweet condiment “came to epitomize the evils of slavery.”

Great Britain benefitted economically from slavery, with slaves on plantations in the West Indies pumping out valuable trading goods like sugar, which also drove consumerism in England. The Empire also profited from the slave trade, trafficking more than 3 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean between 1700 and 1810.

To abolitionists, this was morally abhorrent and had to end.  The sugar boycott provided the average British citizen with one way to not only advocate for the end of slavery, but to put a dent in the economic influence that slavery had on their Empire.

18th century sugar boycott political cartoon

A political cartoon by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 23 April 1791, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Printer William Fox started the boycott by publishing a pamphlet titled An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum.

William Fox's pamphlet to the public

A copy of the pamphlet from the Boston Public Library digitized HERE

That long titled boiled down to one main takeaway: every time you add sugar to your tea, you’re supporting slave labor. For those against slavery, opting out of sugar was a simple way to communicate a political and moral position on the hotly debated issue. Fox’s pamphlet surpassed Thomas Paine’s American Revolution-inspiring Common Sense as the most distributed pamphlet of the century.

According to the BBC, the boycott certainly made an impact: sugar sales plummeted by a third to a half, and hundreds of thousands signed petitions calling on the British Empire to outlaw the slave trade. As BBC put it, the boycott “is one of the earliest examples of consumers using their purchasing power to reject the trade in goods which have not been ethically produced.”

To meet tea-drinkers’ sugar fix, grocers started stocking sugar from the East Indies, where sugar production didn’t rely on slave labor.

At home, people made sure to let their tea party guests know where their sugar came from. Sugar bowls like the one below added the label “not made by slave labor” to assuage guests’ concerns about a host’s ethical or political stance.

sugar bowl

Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Fair Trade, non-GMO Project, or Organic labels aim to both help consumers make informed choices and communicate those choices to others.

Some British citizens responded to the sugar boycott by switching to green tea, a beverage that didn’t call for sugar the same way black tea might to some palettes.

The sugar boycott lost its mojo as time went on—particularly as Brits saw the violence endured by French citizens for resisted the monarchy—but Great Britain did eventually abolish the trade of slaves in the British Empire in 1807. To incentivize Brits to follow the new law, the government threatened to fine ship owners a steep £100 for every slave found on British ships. Although the slave trade was now illegal, slavery itself remained legal 1833, when the British Empire abolished the practice in all its territories.

Be aware of what you put in your tea cup.  As history has proven, it may have a large impact.