I often see statements that the tea thrown overboard in Boston Harbor was from India because the tea belonged to the East India Company. But the tea aboard the three British ships docked there on the evening of December 16, 1773 was produced in China, not India. Tea would not be cultivated in India or Sri Lanka until the 19th Century. And it was all loose tea because the colonists had no taste for tea bricks, and tea bags were still 140 years in the future.
Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party says the three tea ships contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas). It may surprise you to know that green tea accounted for about 22% of the shipment’s total volume and 30% of the value.
One-third of the tea exported from China in the 18th Century was green tea, with spring-picked Hyson being one of the favorites. The first tea plucked in the spring is always the finest, which the Chinese designated yu-tsien or before-the-rains tea. The English traders who bought the tea in China thought the Chinese name of this tea sounded like the name of a wealthy East India Company director in London named Phillip Hyson, and forevermore the young spring tea took on Mr. Hyson’s more pronounceable moniker.
Singlo green tea was picked later in the season and the leaves were a bit larger. It tended to spoil sooner than other teas and was not widely known in the colonies. It was only included in the ill-fated shipment because the East India Company had quite a bit of stock that needed to be liquidated before it became undrinkable.
The bulk of the tea that westerners consumed was common black tea, known as Bohea (boo-hee), a corruption of the name for the Wuyi mountains south of Shanghai. The ungraded tea was so popular that the word “Bohea” became the slang term for tea.
One London publication described Bohea as infusing a dark and dull brownish red color which, on standing, deposits a black sediment. The liquor is sometimes faint, frequently smoky, but always unpleasant. The superior form of Bohea is known as Congou.
Seventy percent of the tea imported by the East India Company was Congou (kung-foo). It brewed a transparent red liquor with a strong and pleasant bitter flavor. The addition of milk surely added to the enjoyment of this beverage.
Souchong black tea was similar to Congou, but the leaves were generally larger and gave off the aroma of smoke, similar to Lapsang Souchong teas today.
Certainly, all the teas tossed overboard would disappoint a modern tea drinker because they were way past their prime. The Boston teas were plucked in 1770 and 1771, transported by ship to London warehouses where they sat for a couple of years, and finally placed aboard ships bound for the colonies in October 1773.
Forget taxation! The colonists should have been more offended by the slight regard King George showed toward their good tastes!
Bruce Richardson is the Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, opening June 24 in Boston Harbor.