How do I love tea? Let me count the ways… actually let’s not do that or we’ll be here all day. Let’s just say there’s a reason Mrs. Doyle is my favourite Fr. Ted character and leave it at that. I’ll just also leave this picture of an actual grocery shop of mine here as supplementary evidence. I love the stuff. I have extremely exacting standards in the tea department, with weak tea being top of my beverage taboos. Just… why? As every good Irish person knows, there is no situation so great or grave that it cannot be improved by a nice cup of tea. Bad day at work? Tea. Bad back? Tea. Bad news? Tea. Just given birth? Tea. Exciting news? Well sure just sit down here with a nice cup of tea and tell me all about it… It’s simply a fundamental part of life. It could also well be the reason for our next civil war, with familial and geographic factions of Lyons or Barry’s drinkers fiercely loyal to their brew of choice.
Prior to World War II, Ireland was the third highest tea-consuming country in the world per capita, with our brew imported via the tea market in London – until tighter export controls in the UK during the war meant that we lost 75% of our supply. Knowing full well that the notoriously ‘roll over and take it’ attitude of the Irish public wouldn’t hold up if they were denied tea, the government quickly set up a new importing agency and a massive warehouse in the Dublin docklands that could hold a full two years supply of tea leaves for the nation. Tea Importers Ltd (props for naming originality!) dealt directly with tea producers in the countries of origin and quickly discovered that darker teas than we had been getting via England were more popular here. Now Irish people drink some of the highest grades of tea in the world, with gold label black tea dominating the domestic market. None of the weak and thin Indian teas, nor the bergamot laden Earl Grey so popular ‘across the water’ in the UK cut it for us. Our high grade tea leaves guarantee that the less heavily marketed ‘black stuff’ of Ireland is crazy delicious, and that I can’t go on holiday without a stash of teabags somewhere on my person.
It’s Day 18 of Veganuary, meaning I am more than halfway through, and I knew going in that if there was one potential trauma for me in the month it would be not being able to have a decent cuppa. I drink a wide range of herbal teas too, but I knew they weren’t going to cut it. The morning mug of ‘real’ tea is the only reason I have managed to get to work for about ten years, and I am a twitchy edgy mess if I don’t get to unwind with another cuppa in the evening. I need my ‘real’ tea.
All ‘real’ tea – green, black, white and oolong – comes from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. In China, black tea is known as red tea, which is still ‘real’ tea. Anything else, basically anything we call herbal tea, is an infusion from a different plant and technically isn’t tea at all (although ‘random stuff I steep in hot water which tastes nice’ isn’t going to catch on!). The health benefits of real tea are impressive*, and also make wonderful justification of my addiction so I’m going to rattle some of them off here again:
- Tea has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The antioxidants in tea are good for your immune system generally and are thought to help protect against a shedload of cancers including breast, colon, prostrate and oral cancers.
- Black tea reduces stress and helps to stabilise blood pressure.
- Perhaps explaining the fondness my notoriously pasty brethren have for the stuff, tea is thought to increase our protection from ultraviolet rays.
- Tea helps fight free radicals, which is a good thing. I have never fully understood what a free radical is, not to mind why fighting them is good, but what harm! They’ve a cool name, free radicals. Any excuse to mention them really.
- Tea drinking is linked with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.
- The polyphenols in tea responsible for many of the above may protect your bones, with studies showing that regular tea drinkers have higher bone density than non-tea drinkers.
- Green tea improves endothelial function (short version of the science bit, it’s good for your heart!)
- White tea boosts your production of elastin and collagen (basically keeps you looking young by holding wrinkles at bay)
- Tea is also the only natural source of a powerful amino acid called L-theanine which boosts alpha wave brain activity (bringing about a state of relaxed concentration). In many ways L-theanine is the nemesis of caffeine, which gives false energy in the form of ‘jitteriness’.
- Tea is tummy-warming happiness disguised as a beverage. Let these hot men enjoying lovely tea help you tap into your appreciation.
And sooooo, back to tea drinking in Veganuary. Is it possible to have a decent cuppa when you aren’t drinking cow’s milk, but you don’t like pure black tea? Possibly the only thing more awkward than being a vegetarian who can’t eat goats cheese or onions, is being a vegan who hates soy milk. I loathe the stuff. I don’t mind soy itself in any of its other forms but soy milk tastes of dreams that have died and old socks. So skipping past soy milk, I tried rice milk first. The taste was ok-ish, not quite like my proper tea but only slightly off. About six years ago I stopped drinking full-fat milk and started drinking skimmed milk only, and the change was akin to that – it wasn’t ‘right’ but it wasn’t totally alien either. However two sips in and little bits of white grainy crud started rising to the top of the mug *shudder*. It looked exactly like dairy milk ‘on the turn’ and my stomach heaved looking at it. I flung the offending swill down the drain and tried again – this time the ‘curdling’ happened instantly and as globs of white goo rose to the top of the mug I abandoned all hope of rice milk working for me.
On to oat milk. I’d had the most recommendations for this from Irish vegans (who I trusted more with what real tea should taste like than anyone else, sorry other nations). The taste of the tea was actually fine. It tasted like a more milky tea than I would usually make but otherwise was a very ‘authentic’ cuppa. I thought I was on to a winner, but for some weird reason my lips and mouth started to tingle and my tongue started to swell. This has happened to me before when I had a bath with the beautiful Ceridwen’s Cauldron from Lush, so somehow my skin is sensitive to oat milk even though I eat oats very regularly with no bother at all. Whatever the reason for it, oat milk was completely out from the get-go… I’d definitely recommend it to anyone trying milk alternatives though!
Next I tried coconut milk, which is dangerously delicious in drinking chocolate and crazy yum in muesli too so, despite its distinctly coconut flavour, seemed like it had the capacity to replace milk all scenarios. There are no words to describe how wrong I was about this. Never, ever, attempt to drink black tea with coconut milk – all the wrongness. I had said before I signed up for Veganuary that there was no way I would use almond milk (which is crazy bad for the environment) as a substitute but I was getting desperate. It didn’t work out. See coconut milk above. Sorrow.
Things looked very bleak for my capacity to take on Veganuary at this juncture, but I didn’t want my tea addiction to be the reason I caved in when everything else was going great, so I decided to give rice milk another try. There had been a rice-like quality to the horror that had risen in the cup before, and after a bit of googling it appears that boiling rice milk will do this. I like my tea strong as an ox, and so usually pour in boiling water, bash the teabag senseless to get even more tea out, pour in milk and leave it to become even stronger. I tried again with rice milk but this time let the tea and water steep together, and added the rice milk to the slightly cooler brew after. Voila! Perfect, no rising-gank tea. I also felt like a numbskull I didn’t do the googling first but I was so crazed with longing for a good cup of tea it appears I lost all capacity for rational thought for 36hrs or so. It still took a bit of getting used to, but by day 7 I genuinely didn’t even notice the difference anymore.
Tastebuds are adaptable little guys, and presumably mine want me to keep on fighting free radicals because they are now totally on board with my vegan tea of choice. Every change of diet or lifestyle requires the loss of something delicious you love. I distinctly remember teenage me bidding a wistful farewell to Fox’s Party Rings (yep, I’m sophisticated!) when I first became a vegetarian. However the reason for the lifestyle change made that small sacrifice worthwhile, and things changed, progressed and evolved. Now Fox’s Party Rings are not only suitable for vegetarians but for vegans too, and now I’ve tested myself fully to see if I was willing to sacrifice one of my biggest joys in life for my beliefs. I think I was ultimately willing to make the sacrifice, but I am so very glad I don’t have to. Thanks tastebuds. You’re the best.
*Be warned however, that most/all of these health benefits are cancelled out with the addition of milk and/or sugar.