Basically, I started by drinking PG Tips -- for "PG Tips" read any generic supermarket black tea, blended and sold in bags -- and I've come back full circle to drinking PG Tips again. Now, coming full circle either means I've repudiated the quest for novelty, refinement and exoticism which has marked most of my last thirty years of tea-drinking, or it means that I'm somehow drinking an old tea in a new way, and that I've come back to monopoly in a self-consciously "post-diversity" way. I wonder if anyone else has done the same thing -- ridden the diversity ride and come back to where they started?
Basically, when I was about 20 (ie in 1980) I discovered my first "exotic" tea, Twinings Earl Grey. It was a time when Twinings were expanding their range, and a time when British supermarkets were diversifying their stock. People now would probably be appalled at the British supermarkets of 1980 -- at how little there actually was on the shelves, how industrially toxic the stock was, and how British they were. (Morrissey would pretend to love it, but escape at the first opportunity to a deli.)
Earl Grey became my staple tea, and in my mind at the time (this was, after all, the dawn of New Romanticism) it made a statement about me: that my "standard" was slightly more perfumed (with bergamot, as it happened) than yours. That there was no "normal" in my world, mate. No PG Tips monkeys for me, thank you, but, instead, aristocrats and discrimination. I may have been a euro-communist, but I drank an imperial and aristocratic tea with a little text on the box about Earl Grey, a British prime minister of the 1830s said to have been gifted the perfumed blend by a grateful Chinese mandarin whose drowning son had been saved by British soldiers.
While others experimented with drugs, my next-door neighbour Simon Artley and I experimented in halls of residence with the Twinings range. Simon would call me out of my tiny room into the communal kitchen with "Cup of tea, Nick? Earl Grey? Darjeeling? Lapsang?"
For quite a while I stuck to Earl Grey, with occasional cups of smokey Lapsang Souchong. But in the early 90s -- about 1993 -- I remember noticing that Earl Grey had become a standard tea in Britain. A posh computer consultant came round to my flat in Covent Garden that year and specifically asked for Earl Grey tea. You'd go to an estate agent's office and they'd bring you Earl Grey without even being asked. It seemed that the fruity taste of Earl Grey appealed to the British sweet tooth. I began to see it as part of the sweetening and over-flavouring of everything, and I suppose I began to tire of it.
In 1994 I was married, and living in Paris with Shazna. One day we were walking up the Rue Sainte-Anne, the Japanese street near Opera, and we went into Voyageurs du Monde, a cross between a cultural centre and a travel agency, a place specialising in high-end cultural tours of exotic Asian lands. Voyageurs du Monde was -- in a very French way -- unapologetically orientalist, exaggerating Asia's otherness and selling it to bourgeois tourists. The day we visited there was a rickshaw exhibition and cups of Yunnan tea were being handed out in little earthenware cups.
The Yunnan tea was subtle and dark and mature and authentic. You drank it without milk, and I'd long ago stopped taking sugar in my tea. From then on Yunnan became my ideal tea, though it was hard to find; you had to scour through Chinese groceries, trying to decipher packs with Chinese-only lettering.
This was also the time of my first trips to Japan, indelibly marked by the taste of hot and cold Japanese green tea. At first green tea tasted sort of wishy-washy to me, but, back in Europe, I began to crave it. In Japanese shops I bought boxes of green tea in bags. I remember being shocked, at Toog's house in Pigalle, to find that he and Flo made it quite differently, with raw green tea leaves just dropped into a pot of boiling water. It tasted miles better made that way, so I too began to buy loose sencha leaves rather than the industrial bags.
The other revelation of the 90s came from that notoriously tea-unfriendly power, the United States. I began visiting the US annually from 1996, and the cool drink in Lower East Side cafes like Lotus Club (and alternamalls across the nation) was chai. Iced or hot, dairy or soy, American chai was a sort of sweet, industrial drink (the concentrate slopped out of a pail) with a malty flavour under the sugar. When I got back to Britain I started buying a rather different drink that bore the same name, the chai sold in Bangladeshi supermarkets on Brick Lane. This I drank hot and unsweetened. It was different from the American syrup, more authentic than "sweet white hipster chai".
But the most authentic chai I ever had was in a shabby hole-in-the-wall cafe in Camden Town market. Here the tea was infused in hot milk with cardamon, cinnamon and cloves, in the real Indian style.
Twinings -- the bastards! -- were never far behind me; they added Yunnan and Chai to their range (the specialty teas were by now ghetto-ized under the category heading "Aromatics"), and for a while I drank Twinings Chai, which had a dry, subtle, nutty flavour; it wasn't too Christmassy, and didn't go over the top with the spice, as some of the Bangla-brands did.
Soon I noticed that most Indian groceries didn't stock chai per se, they stocked the constituent parts, which made it much cheaper. So I started buying masala chai powder, which I'd sprinkle into ordinary black tea (the Indian and Thai grocery stores I frequented mostly stocked PG Tips in catering-size boxes), sometimes adding a real cinnamon stick for good measure. And somehow the chai powder got less and less each time, until it disappeared completely, and there was only the PG Tips.
That's too neat -- I also drink Japanese green tea (maybe two cups a day, with loose leaves and sushi-restaurant-style powder blended) and Chinese Pu-Erh tea, which gives me a strong caffeine buzz. My whole day is just endless tapping away on a computer, and endless cups of tea. In fact, I aspire to the Asian style of having constantly-hot water available, either in an iron pot over an open fire (the ancient, lyrical way) or in an electric denki poto. I brought a denki poto back from Hokkaido in 2005, but it felt wasteful to have it on all day (my electricity bills are already ridiculous), with a hot step-down adaptor converting the current. So that's still an aspiration.
I've gone through two cups of Pu-Erh writing this, loose Yunnan Pu-Erh shaken into an open-topped coffee filter bag, and I'm feeling quite buzzy now. We need to stock up on PG Tips -- I must buy a big €8 box next time I'm at the Thai grocery on Alexanderplatz.