June 15, 2022

What is English Breakfast Tea?

English breakfast tea and mugs

There's no single set recipe to make an English Breakfast tea blend. Breakfast tea is more of a feeling: a bold, brisk black tea designed to start your day right. Breakfast teas are strong so as to stand up to milk and sugar and a morning's worth of nuisances. English Breakfast tea doesn't necessarily contain more caffeine than other types of tea, but naturally occurring tannins and phenols in the leaves contribute a welcome astringent bite to the brew—potable vim and vigor for even the sleepiest of drinkers.

Sources vary on where the tradition of a blended breakfast tea first originated, but the preponderance of tea traders in 17th and 18th century England make that its likely starting point. Importers brought several tea varieties over from China, including pouchong (bao chong oolong), orange pekoe, and congou (according to some, a grade of black tea now more commonly referred to as gongfu). From this selection of leaves, tea sellers could formulate house blends to distinguish their offerings from their competitors. After British colonization established tea industries in India and Sri Lanka in the mid 1800s, and later in Kenya, teas from those countries were added to blenders' repertoires. Proprietary blended or scented black teas such as Earl Grey made for excellent marketing. 

It would take a newly minted American tea company, though, to coin the term English Breakfast. Richard Davies, an English immigrant who settled in New York City, is credited with popularizing the term when he started a tea company on our shores in 1843. Other historians point to Scottish tea seller Robert Drysdale, who carried a blend of Sri Lankan, Chinese, and Indian tea called English Breakfast in 1892.

Earl Grey teabag with milk

Over time, the recognizable brand of English Breakfast has become synonymous with the concept of blended breakfast black teas, even as the available components have evolved and expanded. Some companies also market Irish and Scottish Breakfast as distinct blends, with even more unclear origins.

Traditionally, English Breakfast consists of an aromatic Chinese black tea such as Keemun, which would be blended with Ceylon from Sri Lanka and Assam for a deeper, more brisk bite. Irish Breakfast blends tend to contain a greater portion of Assam leaves, leading to a darker, more brash and astringent flavor. Stronger still is Scottish Breakfast, which is particularly woodsy with an almost smoky edge.

In Pursuit of Tea offers a number of unblended, single origin teas that we think make for remarkable breakfast tea. Unlike a 17th century London tea trader, our direct sourcing gives us access to small lots of high quality teas, each with their own character. That includes three selections from Assam, a reserve grade of Ceylon Orange Pekoe from Sri Lanka, and an earthy and aromatic Mao Feng from China. While blending can be a fine skill that transforms commodity ingredients into something greater than the sum of their parts, we prefer to celebrate these distinctive teas individually.

Of course, the beauty of a blend is in the eye of the beholder, and should you want to try your hand at blending your own personal English Breakfast we encourage you to do so. Your blend could become the hottest new thing since Scottish Breakfast!