Tea and the Death of Civilization

I start my day with two (large) cups of camellia sinensis, which has a fraction of the caffeine that coffee does, and allows me to ease into the day rather than hit the ground running.Tea_Bud

Yes, this is black tea (as opposed to herbal tea, which M. Poirot calls his tisane, or Mma Ramotswe’s bush tea, which is Rooibus.) My first cup has a slight taste of almond in it, to build up my immunity to…um, no, wait, it’s just almond, not cyanide, and I like it because it’s friendly. My day’s second has been, for a long time now, Peet’s Russian Caravan blend, a blend of Chinese black teas with a trace of smoky Lapsang.

Green teas, where the leaves are immediately treated with a quick steam and a fast dry, are the more delicate product of camellia sinensis, refreshing and slightly bitter, particularly in the Japanese form. Here’s what they look like growing around a small settlement in Honshu.tea

Black tea is the same leaf, only fermented—or rather, oxidized, with the freshly picked leaves left to wither for a while, then battered around and left to darken before being dried, then sorted. “Orange Pekoe” (which has nothing to do with oranges) refers to the grade of tea, the fresh tip and bud of new growth. (“Fannings and dust,” on the other hand, are the very lowest grades of tea, being what’s left over when the good stuff is picked off, and those are what go into most tea bags.) And Lapsang Souchong is a Chinese treatment of the lower-quality leaves (ie, not the tip) by smoking them over a fire, which gives you the Laphraoig of the tea world. A cup of pure Lapsang is a bit assertive for most tastes, but often adds a thread of interest to more mellow teas. Such as, yes, Russian Caravan.

To my great sorrow, Peets tea is no more. My last tins of Russian Caravan are slowly disappearing over the horizon, and although I know there are substitutes—I could even blend my own, I suppose—my mornings just won’t be the same.

Now, George Orwell had some firm ideas about the making of tea—“one of the main stays of civilization.”


From the Telegraph.

In 1946, when England was under rationing, he wrote an essay about the art, noting that the manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

His eleven golden rules (the essay is here; do read it) begins with using Indian or Ceylonese tea, and goes on to insist on a warmed teapot and sufficient tea for a strong cup. (“All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.”)

He continues: The tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. Then, the water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. After which one stirs the tea, lets it steep, pours it into a tall, not shallow cup, and adds milk (without the cream) to it.  This is important: tea first, then milk.

Me? I am a sinner, at all levels. I even admit to what my mother’s English aunts would have scorned as “tea in bandages.” Beyond that, I imprison the Russian Caravan (which comes as loose leaves) in what would cause Mr Orwell to rise and declare the death of civilization: a filtering device made out of nylon mesh that drops into my cup.

And, I use an electric kettle that probably fails to keep the water at precisely 212°.DSC00795

Oh, the shame. Well, at least I pour in my milk (non-creamy) afterwards.

I am more of a snob with my coffee, but let’s talk about that another time.

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  1. Elina on October 27, 2015 at 6:10 am

    I am a devoted Peets coffee drinker, but have never seen the tea…do they sell any of it any more?

  2. Merrily Taylor on October 27, 2015 at 6:27 am

    I love both tea and coffee, but only drink tea in the afternoon or evening; I find that it just doesn’t have caffeine to Do It for me in the mornings! A tea-drinking friend of mine used to say that the best tea stays in China, the second-best goes to tea-centric countries like England, and the “sweepings from the factory floor” go to the United States. That was years ago, however; I think you can finally get decent tea here, especially in the many tea shops that abound in larger cities!
    I personally love Constant Comment. I know it’s looked down upon by tea purists, but it’s still my favorite! At least I DO know how to make a good cup of tea, the legacy of having had an English father.

  3. Teresa on October 27, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Delightfully written and informative, Laurie. You’ll probably get showered with gift tea now. 😉

  4. Marcia Diane on October 27, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Laurie…here is Peet’s on line-web site…did you mean that they are no longer carrying your beloved Russian Caravan…or is it that their bricks n’ mortar store is no more…


    also another amazing tea purveyor is:


    Marcia en Mexico

    • Laurie King on October 27, 2015 at 8:33 am

      Their stores no longer carry Peets teas, since they’re changing to another line. And yes, I shall have to search elsewhere…

      • Erin B. on October 27, 2015 at 1:28 pm

        I got the scoop on the change-over from my local Peet’s guy. So what actually happened was Peet’s acquired Mighty Leaf last fall and merged the two lines this year. Mighty Leaf had a much stronger/broader market share in restaurants, etc.

        They (supposedly) kept the most popular teas from the lines, but transitioned everything over to the Mighty Leaf branding for sales. So they still have some of their more popular teas (like Masala Chai and Pride of the Port, for example), but they kicked a bunch too.

        I’m totally in the same boat, though; they got rid of my favorite Black Currant =(

  5. Sharon on October 27, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Harney and Sons Tea (Harney.com) of New York stocks a Russian Country tea in both loose and tea sachet form. This is their version of Russian Caravan. They have an online store.

  6. Bill Edwards on October 27, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Fascinating! I will admit that I start my day with two cups of Community Coffee, Between Roast (native to Louisiana), and during the day have sun tea (1 bag green tea, 2 bags herbal tea in 1/2 gal. water) . I shudder to imagine what Mr. Orwell would say!

  7. Janis Kiehl Harrison on October 27, 2015 at 10:37 am

    Dear Laurie, Have you not visited Victoria, BC, sometimes referred to as “more English than England?” I’m quite sure you can find satisfactory blends at any of their many tea purveyors. I must say that the tins of Russian Caravan are lovely. At one time I began to succumb to the urge to collect tea tins; it’s trait of mostly solitary women “of a certain age,” I think. Anyway, I had to relegate my burgeoning collection of tins to the thrift stores when I relocated to a tiny apartment, and I’m actually the better for de-cluttering myself a bit. Do save a pretty tin or two!

  8. Nora on October 27, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Laurie -Love tea too, but as Merrily admitted, it’s mostly afternoon or evening. Just need that ‘jolt’ of coffee in the morning. Love Constant Comment too – Do like experimenting with different teas, but know an English person would be very upset at my attempts!! Hope your many postings are able to help you find your favorite tea and keep your mornings perfect! You deserve it!

  9. Stephanie Lovett on October 27, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    I have been buying my tea for years from Upton Tea Imports in Massachusetts, whom I commend to your attention. I start my days with their Kenilworth Ceylon–I don’t do milk and sugar, so Ceylon teas are perfect for me. I think the mesh baskets are ideal–they let loose tea spread out and infuse, and then are easy to whisk out before the tannin starts infusing. What really annoys me about tea drinking is that we are made to sound like terrible fusspots talking about it, when all we want is boiling water poured over some non-stale tea, and then the tea removed after five minutes. I would be so thrilled to have that at a restaurant, but instead it’s a cup of hot-ish water and if they’re feeling fancy, a chest of tea bags (mainly herbal) presented with a flourish as the water cools. I know they have the recipe for boiling water in the kitchen–if they’d pour some over a Lipton bag and bring it to me, I’d be happy. Diners, white tablecloth places, and places purporting to specialize in afternoon tea—one is never served anything even as good as boiling water and Lipton bags. Instead, they think we want teapots and infusers and flavored teas, and are just cranks who are impossible to please.

    • Erin B. on October 27, 2015 at 1:40 pm

      Totally agree on Upton! It’s one of my favorite tea merchants. I love that they have such a broad variety of regional teas; it’s been an adventure figuring out what I like best (Assam vs. Ceylon vs. Kenyan, etc).

      And, as it happens, they actually do have a Russian Caravan blend. I’ll have to order some.

      • Elizabeth Ryan on October 28, 2015 at 5:22 am

        Also, Capital Teas in DC, I think still might have a Russian Caravan.

  10. Annette Lessmann on October 27, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Laurie, I am a confirmed tea drinker. My favorite is PG Tips in bags which can be had from the local grocery store on the shelf next to the British digestive biscuits. I feel your pain in having to find a substitute for an important morning routine.

  11. Mari Bonomi on October 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Might I also recommend Mark T. Wendel Teas — available online.

    When I asked them to find and carry a Nilgiri (not unlike Assam) they found one they liked (after asking me if I could recommend particular plantations, which I did). Perhaps they could help you 🙂

  12. Linda Cavanaugh on October 27, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    I feel your pain, Laurie. The only one of my teas that survived the great decimation was Pride of the Port, and even that tea lost its jewel tone red tin in favor of the new lavender and white. I have also noticed that even in the teas that sort of survived, they no longer have the large leaves they once did. I did manage to grab a half-pound bag of the Amber Oolong in my last order, but now I keep it hidden away Sonoma e accidentally uses it. I have been trying to survive on their new Organic Breakfast tea, but it is a pale, bland shadow of the Peet’s Breakfast teas.

    Let us know if you find a new purveyor of tea. I only live an hour up the road from you near Half Moon Bay, so even if it is just a tiny shop, I can still get there.

    Has anyone checked E-Bay?

    • TheMadLibrarian on October 27, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      I have indeed looked at ebay. Peet’s is nowhere to be found among the Russian Caravan offerings, and to my greater dismay, many tea sellers will not ship to Hawaii. I have a friend in NC who is able to send out bulk packages of my favorite robust Lapsang Souchong from her local tea shoppe; maybe next time she feels generous I’ll ask her about Russian Caravan. I wonder if anyone has looked into growing tea here in the Sandwich Isles?

      • TheMadLibrarian on October 29, 2015 at 1:18 pm

        ETA: Yes, tea can be and is grown here in HI, but it’s very much a niche market and IMHO outrageously expensive. I’d do better by planting some herbs in the yard and making my own mint tea.

  13. Denise LeCroy on October 27, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Hi Laurie, Loads of Russian Caravan brands over here in London (I’m an American expat living here) from some quality tea purveyors: Twinings, Fortnum & Mason, Postcard Teas, Whittard, Northern Tea Merchants, to name just a few. Happy to get my hands on some samples for you if you’d like.

  14. Kate Martino on October 27, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    I do love a good cup of coffee. But in recent years tea has been my go-to beverage. It’s relaxing and as you said, I can ease into my day. Earl Grey has always been my brew of choice. Though I’d be adventurous and willing to try Russian Caravan. I understand that I am most likely going to miss out on it since I won’t have Peet’s to try. I enjoyed this article and will most definitely read the essay. I am always interested in the arts of tea making and drinking. It’s definitely the most fascinating thing to read and talk about.

  15. Bea Cashmore on October 27, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Interesting read about your “relationship” with tea. My family of origin was all tea drinkers, with caffeine at first, but gradually moving into the less or non-caffeinated kind. I have always doted on tea with milk until pretty early in my adulthood when I became unable to sleep if I used any caffeine at all. So until the decaf black teas came out I would “Decaf” my own tea, with a simple method. Brew a strong cup of tea for 1-2 minutes, then throw it out and brew a second cup with the same tea leaves, which was then about 95% decaffeinated. My father was a chemist and he knew that. Over the years my husband has switched from coffee to tea, also decaf. Love simple herbal teas also, not so much the mixtures. Grow my own lemon verbena. Did you all know that it was a British doctor who discovered about a century ago that using milk with black tea binds the tannins and prevents it from causing throat cancer?

  16. Celia Leewis on October 27, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    I love to start my morning with a large mug of Lapsang Souchong. Several hours later I have a big mug of strong coffee (a local brand). Then switch to other black teas in the afternoon such as a Keemun or Oolong or maybe an Assam… unless I have just one more cup of coffee. Eventually I switch to an herbal blend/tisane towards the evening..
    I grew up in a home where my mother drank pots of strong coffee daily, and my father drank tea (from a big Brown Betty pot) that was so strong we joked you could stand a spoon up in it. So it seems quite normal to me to drink either or both.
    Hope you find an alternative for your favourite tea brand! These small things…

  17. Lisa on October 28, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Haha, I am here to horrify you all.
    I am a tea drinker, though I stick to green, white, red and herbal teas since I don’t care for kidney stones. And I brew mine in a way that is not particularly traditional.
    I have an old mayonnaise jar. I fill it with water.
    I nuke the water in my microwave.
    A tea bag is then added. I go away and do something else, frequently forgetting the jar. When I was on third shift, I might fall asleep on the sofa, having just come home from work.
    Eventually I return to the jar, remove the tea bag and nuke the tea again if it has gotten cold, then sweeten it with sugar and drink it.
    I think I succeeded in appalling a British friend once with this description of my lovely tea ceremony. 🙂

  18. Bob Patterson on October 28, 2015 at 6:52 am

    Hi Laurie,

    We live on an island off the Washington coast. Only get to Seattle occasionally to visit a Peet’s. Several weeks ago I contacted Peet’s HQ concerning the loss of several of our favorite tea blends. This is their response:

    “Thank you for taking the time to share your concerns. I want to put you at ease and let you know many of the Peet’s teas you know and love will continue to be offered. Going forward they will be packed in Mighty Leaf packaging. Sadly, the English Breakfast tea and Earl Grey are being discontinued in favor of the Mighty Leaf organic options. I am sorry to hear you do not like these two new tea offerings.

    There was miscommunication with the tea transition and I would like this opportunity to clarify the details. We are in the process of transitioning many of our teas over to the Mighty Leaf brand name, but we are not discontinuing these teas. Mighty Leaf sources high quality tea, and is a local company started here in San Francisco in the mid 1990’s. They are known for a more modern tea experience, while Peet’s has been viewed as a classic tea experience. We know that customers love both of these experiences and we are leveraging the strength of both brands to create a widely appealing assortment for our customers. Some of our traditional Peet’s teas will remain the same and just be labeled differently, and others will be permanently discontinued.

    We will continue to sell many of our classic loose leaf teas – Assam Golden Tip, Darjeeling Kalimpong, Pride of the Port, Gunpowder, Masala Chai, Jasmine Fancy, to name just a few. Others, such as Irish Breakfast, Yin Hao Jasmine and Genmai Cha and many others, will be available online only. There are some teas that we are discontinuing permanently, mostly due either to lack of demand or limited availability or menu redundancies. Right now we’re in the process of repackaging our teas with the Mighty Leaf label, but they will be exactly the same loose teas we’ve always offered. You should be able to see the new tins in our stores now. We will also offer these teas online beginning within the next few weeks. Thank you for your patience as we restock our online shop and retail locations.”

    They did email later that Yunnan Fancy would be available in 1lb bulk bags online only beginning in January 2016.

    Love Mary. Love you.

    Bob & Shirley

    • Laurie King on October 28, 2015 at 7:52 am

      Thanks for sending this, Bob, though I see that Russian Caravan is one of those with a lack of demand…

  19. Susan D on October 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

    I’m very fond of Russian Caravan (as the woman who introduced me to it said, “You can smell the leather hear the horses by the campfire when you drink it) but never thought it might come pre-blended. I get it at any half-decent tea shop by requesting 70/30 mix of Keemun and Lapsang Souchong. I stopped going to one shop when they insisted that Earl Grey was a component of it; no one else in the world seems to agree.

    Sadly, like Lisa, I am prone to kidney stones and tea is chock-full of oxalates, so now my tea drinking is reduced to very special occasions or when I’m dead beat.

    • Lisa on October 29, 2015 at 8:18 am

      Just cut black tea, sodas and whole milk from your diet. It helps enormously. I still drink green and white teas regularly without problems. A little Cleaver’s Tea now and then can help break up possible stones too.
      I also like the packets of tea mix found at Asian Groceries. Already with milk and sugar! And the brand I like is DeDe. So I can truthfully say I drink DeDe Tea. 😀

  20. EvelynT on November 1, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Living in one of the Tea Lands (Japan, natch), I’m spoiled for choice! Dizzying arrays of green tea in the little shops around our apartment, the choicest English blends in the department-store basement food halls, rooibos and white tea and herbal tisanes by the dozen in supermarkets and import stores. Too bad my morning cuppa has been supplanted by a morning nap to recover from the effects of waking up multiple times to attend to the Young Master, although now that it’s getting cooler I’ll feel justified in a spot of afternoon tea during his naps.

    My roommate in Berkeley, another lifetime ago, worked at the Peet’s on Fourth Street for a while, and was permitted to bring home a tin of tea or a bag of coffee every week. We tried them all! I did like Russian Caravan (and Yunnan Fancy, and Gunpowder, and Ti Kuan Yin, and…) and I’m sorry to hear that it’s on its way out. For alternate tea providers, I recommend Kusmi, Golden Moon, and TeaLuxe. Kusmi, especially, might have a suitable alternative. Teavana and Samovar might also have something. All online! Happy hunting!

    • Laurie King on November 1, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Hi Evelyn! Glad to hear the young man is keeping you in line, don’t want to permit these parental units too much freedom, now. That Fourth Street Peets was the first one I knew, when I was commuting up to Berkeley for my MA in the late 70s and early 80s. Things change…

  21. Diana B on November 2, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    I feel your pain. I loved Paradise Tropical tea, but had to have the decaf version. First they quit selling all Paradise teas in retail packs, so I had to buy cases of the commercial stuff and measure the tea out instead of just tossing the big tea bag into the iced tea maker. Now they’ve stopped making the decaf altogether, so like you, I had to scramble for a substitute. But that’s all it will ever be: a substitute.

  22. Cindy on November 7, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    Not one mention of rooibos(red bush – we’re very creative at naming stuff…)! It’s pretty much a South African staple.

    Some people say it’s an acquired taste but many of us start drinking it as babies. Delicious and very very good for you. Check it out.

    • Laurie King on November 7, 2015 at 3:28 pm

      Well, in the second paragraph…but no, this post is chiefly about black tea.

      • Cindy on November 7, 2015 at 3:33 pm

        Zero points for me for reading… I’m going to blame it on it be just after midnight here.

        • Laurie King on November 7, 2015 at 3:35 pm

          You’re excused.

    • Lisa on November 7, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      I like red tea. It has a nice, warm, earthy flavor that is comforting in colder weather.

  23. Trombone Tom on January 23, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Alas, Mighty Leaf’s “Pride of the Port” is not the same as Peet’s. It lacks in body on the initial brew and completely fades on subsequent brews.

    As it went with Maytag and Kenmore appliances and with New Balance shoes, they don’t make them like that anymore.

  24. C on March 29, 2016 at 6:54 am

    I miss Black Currant from Petes! I no longer go to Pete’s because I hate Mighty Leaf – may as well grab a Lioton bag at home. I purchased 14 tins of black currant when discontinued – am on my last tin. Have ordered other black currant teas but they are always too fruity. Any near identical replacement suggestions?

    • Laurie King on March 29, 2016 at 6:57 am

      I wish you luck…

    • Kimberly on November 28, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      I am looking for a replacement for Peet’s Black Currant, too. I agree, other brands are too fruity or sweet! The closest I have come is mixing a English breakfast and black currant, with a 1:1 ratio. If you discover a good substitute, please let me know!

      • Laurie King on November 29, 2016 at 9:27 am

        Well, they brought back Russian Caravan, so maybe they’ll do the black currant as well?

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