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Mad About Tea

It doesn’t matter what day it is, Father, there’s always time for a nice cup of tea!

...so says the iconic Mrs Doyle, of Father Ted fame

...so says the iconic Mrs Doyle, of Father Ted fame
ready to foist tea upon all and sundry at any hour of the day or night
image from www.channel4.com

At heart, we Irish are still a nation of tea-drinkers. Notwithstanding the number of coffee shops that now proliferate, we still punch well above our weight in the worldwide tea-drinking stakes and we go mad for the stuff betimes. In fact, a headline from the New York Times, dated June 29th, 1894, reads thus:

"TEA DRINKING IN IRELAND.; Report Discussed in House of Commons that It Has Caused Insanity."

In truth, however, we are more likely to be maddened by the absence of good tea that maddened by the drinking of it, and will carry supplies of precious Irish teabags with us to the furthest corners of the earth.

It comes as no particular surprise, then, that our local purveyors of tea take considerable care in blending for the Irish palate. During the Taste of Dublin festival a few weeks back, I was invited to a tea-tasting session with the exceedingly charming and knowledgeable Nick Bunston, a master tea blender with Lyons and a real tea industry veteran, having been in the business since 1964.

Nick Bunston, Lyons tea master at work

Nick Bunston, tea master at work

Accompanied by Darragh Doyle (no relation to the Mrs. Doyle), we watched as Nick did some precision brewing of a selection of the teas that Lyons use in their blends. Peter and Jean, the Cheap Eats people, stopped by too, though I think they were there just to verify that Taste of Dublin was anything but cheap!

Let me just say that I never imagined that tea-tasting was such an involved process.

The army of trained tasters employed by Unilever, parent company to Lyons, taste around 10,000 teas a week. Yep, I think I heard that right. Regional and seasonal differences in the tea crop mean that batches of Lyons original are re-tasted and re-blended daily. And what’s blended for the Irish market is different to elsewhere, which just goes to prove that we are right to pack our teabags when we travel. And if you’ve gone to the trouble of stashing those teabags in your suitcase then you will, of course, want to get the most out of them. So…

  • Do use fresh, full cream milk. Those dairy fats are really rather good at carrying flavours, tea included. Interestingly, Nick says that we Irish are far more likely to use whole milk in our tea than the also-fond-of-tea Brits.
  • That full-o’-fat milk should be poured into the cup first, it does make a difference to how the tea tastes.
  • Hard water does your average cuppa no favours, so if your local water supply is soft, which it mostly is in Ireland, your cup of tea will taste better.
  • You should use freshly boiled water, as the higher oxygen content helps to bring out the tea flavours.
  • Though it may appear rude, you should slurp your tea to get some more of that flavour-enhancing oxygen in while you drink.

Of course, if you are an alien living in an oxygen-starved atmosphere, then these last two points are moot. And no, I don’t actually know any tea-drinking aliens. Perhaps it’s just a mild case of tea-induced insanity after all.

After a feast of factoids, we finished with a straight comparison of the giants of Irish tea, tasting some Lyons and Barry’s gold blend teabags, alongside a Tesco’s supermarket own-brand offering. I was actually mildly shocked to find that I preferred the Lyons version to Barry’s, boxes of which I always carried with me to the States when I lived there. Both teas are very good, though, and, it has to be said, either would beat the socks off anything on offer teabag-wise Stateside or maybe anywhere.


  1. OysterCulture

    Fun read – I’ll be on the look out for Lyons to bring back. You can find Irish tea here but heaven only knows how old it is and it probably costs 4X the amount it does in Ireland.

    What fun with a tea tasting, the slurping seems to be vital with the tasting – I learned the appropriate way to taste olive oil, and a lot of slurping was involved there as well.

    Got the first hotel taken care of in Ireland – so much to do.

  2. Jenni

    Wowie! I’m a huge tea fan, and the family has been known to engage in MIF or TIF debates over dinner before! I’m a whole milk girl for tea/half-n-half for coffee person as well. We have a Whole Lotta different kinds of dairy in our house! How cool you got to experience a tea tasting through the eyes of an expert. And perhaps on the next full moon, I’ll leave a cuppa out for any aliens that happen by:)

  3. jenn

    Nice. I love tea. I tend to prefer it over coffee. There’s some Irish teas here, but I agree with Oyster Culture, it depends on how old it is. Looks like a fun time!!

  4. The Diva on a Diet

    What a wonderful experience, Spud! I should love to have joined you for it and I’m ever so delighted you’ve shared it with us here. Even though I’m Irish-American, I a tea drinker through and through … and I’m fussy about it too! I had to laugh about carrying Irish tea to the ends of the earth because I’m famous for doing just that. I won’t leave home without a stash of Barry’s. Period.


  5. SippitySup

    I don’t drink coffee. I start my days with tea. But I prefer it with out milk. I don’t know where I developed this preference there are those who consider it freakish even. Oh well… GREG

  6. Daily Spud

    OysterCulture: good luck with the rest of your Ireland trip planning – I definitely recommend picking up some tea when you’re here

    Jenni: milk-in-first/tea-in-first was always a great source of debate in our house growing up – it was brilliant to get an experts opinion on it; as for the aliens, I have no doubt that they will appreciate a cuppa being left out for them :)

    jenn: I guess it’s like any foreign imports – can be hard to know what the quality is like and generally lots more expensive to boot

    Diva: ah, then you know exactly what I’m talking about!

    SippitySup: each to their own – while I do know people who don’t take milk with their tea, drinking black tea here without milk is also seen as the stuff of penitents and pilgrims! Mind you, our black tea is often made too strong to be palatable without milk whereas black tea that you get elsewhere is often not as strong, which makes it easier to forego the milk.

  7. Malachi

    Daily Spud, you don’t make debate tea bags vs tea leaves. And MIF assumes you are using a pot? These are the burning issues!

  8. gastroanthropologist

    At the office I work at someone shouts, “anyone for tea?” at least twice an hour! I knew the Brits and Irish drank tea, but I had no idea it was so popular until I moved here. I drink a bit of green tea, and black tea occasionally, but never with milk. I’m coffee all the way, but I do love the tea culture and tea time. Though I’ve heard people refer to an afternoon snack as tea (even if there’s no tea being served) which confused me a bit…

  9. Daily Spud

    Malachi: ah – the teabag vs. tea leaves thing. The larger leaves in loose tea should, as I understand from Nick, leave more of the flavour elements in tact, though it takes a longer brew to bring those flavours out. Though I rarely take the time to make tea using tea leaves these days, I’d be the first to admit that there is a definite difference when you use loose leaves. Nick said that about 96% of tea consumption here is accounted for by teabags and tea leaves are very much a niche market now, with most of the blending/tasting effort going into tea for teabags. In fact, tea growers are now tending to grow tea with smaller leaves, more suited to teabag use. As for MIF, yes, that does assume that you’re making the tea in a pot – if you’re making the tea in a mug, then you just gotta go with TIF!

    gastroanthropologist: ah yes, tea-time – to me that means maybe somewhere around 6pm and, on those days where dinner has happened early in the day, you have your “tea” around then – which means a lighter evening meal, more like lunch, and usually involving a pot of tea…

  10. zerrin

    Enjoyed reading every lines of this post. We as Turkish people are big fans of tea. We love tea a lot more than coffee. But I think Irish tea and Turkish tea are totally different. We never add milk or cream in our tea and we have black tea. Also, our brewing style may be different from yours. We have two teapots, one big, the other smaller. We first boil water in big one and then we put tea leaves in the smaller one and pour some of the boiled water init. Then we add some cold water to the big one, we put the smaller one including the brewed tea and let them boil more over low heat. We wait it for about 10 minutes and then the brewing is done. Most people add sugar into their cups, but I love it sugar free.

  11. Tangled Noodle

    I can honestly say that our trip to Ireland a couple of years back was transformative, in terms of my tea-drinking! First, I fell in love with electric tea kettles – bought one as soon as the plane landed back at home. Next, I was hooked on Barry’s; I found it at a local store here and although I didn’t drink so much in Eire that I developed a discerning palate, it tastes pretty good to me! Mr. Noodle learned to take milk in his tea although that preference passed me by.

    I’d love to try Lyons next but what do you think of Bewley’s (is that right? I’ve seen the ‘brand’ in some stores here)? Hmmmm . . . it’s 10:30pm – fine time for a nice cup of tea!

  12. History of Greek Food

    It’s interesting that full-fat milk helps to bring out the flavors of tea. Though in Greece there is not tea culture (Greeks are coffee drinkers) we drink our hot tea without milk or lemon.

  13. Daily Spud

    zerrin: so interesting to learn about Turkish tea – it does sound quite different and I’d love to try it sometime!

    Tangled Noodle: Barry’s is not a bad thing to be hooked on :) Interesting that you can get Bewleys tea – Bewleys have been in the business of selling coffee & tea here for quite a long time. They’re probably not bad as teabags go though, to be honest, I would always either buy Lyons or Barrys, so I can’t say that I’ve had Bewleys teabags recently.

    History of Greek Food: I guess every culture is different when it comes to food & drink; we have no long-standing coffee culture to speak of, only the one that has arisen in the past few years with American-style coffee houses popping up around the place; tea, on the other hand, we’ve been drinking for centuries!

  14. Sophie

    What lovelt tips! thanks! That must have been very interesting!

  15. Coxy

    I will be carrying a large stash of Barry’s Gold Blend with me to Canada!! I’ve already checked the customs restrictions!! I will also be expecting my friends and family to be reSUPplying me regularly via care packages!!! :)

  16. Daily Spud

    Sophie: yep – it was fascinating!

    Coxy: ticket? check; passport? check; visa? check; teabags? check; alright Ma’am, you’re good to go!

  17. RoTEAn

    I just moved to Japan and although I didnt have enough room in my suitcase for about 4 pairs of shoes or my winter coat I still managed to squeeze in a good 40 bags of Barrys tea. Would have prefered the Lyons but the oul pyramid teabags were somewhat unwieldy for flat packing. It is reserved for (very) special occassions only!

  18. Daily Spud

    Hey RoTEAn (is that your new Japanese name? :) ) – sounds like you’ll be having your own, very special Japanese tea ceremonies when you break out the Barry’s! And you make an excellent point re: the not-so-flat-packability of Lyon’s pyramid teabags. Could that be why Barry’s have the edge in the ex-pat tea stakes I wonder? :D

  19. Janet

    Russians love their tea, too. The best cup I had was actually in a glass in a holder on the train to St Petersburg, with sugar and lemon.

  20. Daily Spud

    Hi there Janet – of course you’re right to point out that we Irish don’t have the monopoly on loving tea (and also that Russians enjoy drinks other than vodka :) )

  21. anthony

    i don’t agree with putting milk into the cup before the tea. traditionally it was only done to stop the cups from staining. If you brew the tea in the cup (rather than using a teapot) it wouldn’t be possible either.

  22. Daily Spud

    Each to their own Anthony, I reckon. I think Nick was pointing out that in his (admittedly vast) experience, pouring milk in first does make a difference taste-wise. Of course it’s not possible to do that if you brew in the cup – and I know many people who, through habit or tradition, will have a very definite preference one way or the other, regardless of what any tea master says.

  23. nellie

    Punjana is an overlooked but quite flavoursome black tea.

  24. Daily Spud

    Well Nellie, I can’t say that I’m too familiar with Punjana, so I might just have to give it a whirl sometime.

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