Our Top Ten black tea brands
I probably drink as much tea as the late Tony Benn ever did. After he retired from politics, he went on a speaking tour taking two props with him: a chair and a Thermos® flask. A flask full of tea.
As to what brand of Anthony Wedgwood Benn had in his teapot is open to speculation. Those on the right may assume he drank Co-op’s 99 tea (because of Benn’s political leanings). If Hilary Benn is reading this, I would be grateful if he could tell us how Tony liked his tea.
I like my tea strong, and actually tasting like tea. I’m with the late George Orwell, who said in a London Evening Standard essay entitled A Nice Cup of Tea:
“One can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round”
He favours pouring the tea into your favourite mug prior to adding milk. Sometimes putting in milk first can make your tea taste a little too milky. With the BS of having to sign in to my local pub and booking a table, any money saved from the outlawing of spontaneous pub visits would have to go elsewhere. If all else fails (in a world that is closer to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four than UK plc in 2009), there’s always tea.
Therefore, our latest Not So Perfect Ten looks at black tea. The bog standard stuff that could be (socially distanced) builders’ tea. The Best Drink of the Day as a late 1970s Tea Marketing Board campaign once trilled. Throughout my four decades on this planet, I have supped goodness knows how many mugs of tea, good and bad.
Our Feast of the M60 Not So Perfect Ten Top Ten Tea Hit Parade:
- Bettys and Taylors Yorkshire Tea;
- Rington’s Traditional Tea;
- Co-op’s 99 Tea;
- Fortnum and Mason’s Royal Blend Tea;
- Miles West Country Original Blend;
- Whittard of Chelsea’s Russian Caravan tea;
- Thompson’s Punjana tea;
- ALDI Specially Selected Scottish Breakfast;
- Twinings’ English Breakfast;
- Sainsburys’ Red Label tea.
1. Yorkshire Tea
For our first tea, we shall begin with The Nation’s Favourite brew. Over the last year, Bettys and Taylors’ Yorkshire Tea has taken the top spot as Britain’s bagged (or loose) beverage of choice. The long time holder of this crown was Trafford Park’s very own PG Tips.
Left in a mug or pot for three to five minutes, the standard issue Yorkshire Tea makes for a most satisfying brew. Especially in a soft water area like Tameside and Oldham. After a taste test with a couple of friends in Whitstable, its edge was nullified by the County of Kent’s hard water (fear not: they also do a version for hard water areas). Even so, it made for a good brew.
As an everyday tea, I personally wouldn’t drink anything else. Well, possibly apart from Yorkshire Gold or the Bettys Special Blend that you can get from Bettys Tea Rooms in Harrogate.
2. Rington’s Traditional Tea
Having a similarly strong nature to Bettys and Taylors’ best known brand is Rington’s Traditional Tea. Having had this blend a couple of times at Beamish Open Air Museum, it is a fantastic all rounder. Almost switched at birth from the standard Yorkshire Tea.
3. Co-op 99 Fairtrade Tea
There are sentimental reasons as to why Co-op’s 99 Tea is in our countdown. Firstly, my late great-grandma used to have it. Secondly, it always reminds me of nipping to Oldham Shopping Giant or the Co-op in Mossley (opposite where my late Nana lived). The reason: a big red ’99’ on the packaging. Honest to goodness, unpretentious, and in clearly designed packaging. A classless tea and an object lesson in striking yet clear graphic design.
30 years later, the Co-op has resurrected the clover leaf logo that adorned the packets. This time, 99 is boxed in red and overtly shows its fairtrade credentials. Though not as strong as Yorkshire Tea, it packs a decent punch for its modest price. Especially if you leave the bag in for five minutes.
It is one tea I have chosen for work brews, if I couldn’t get Yorkshire Tea. Especially if you want to maintain your work tea/life tea balance. For another opinion on 99 Fairtrade Tea, you might like Cup’l of Tea’s review.
4. Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend Tea
From one extreme of the price scale to another, Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend Tea would be classed as builders’ tea in the Rees-Mogg household. Fifty tea bags would cost you £8.95, or £15.00 in a tin caddy (delivery from £5.95). Would it make a good builders’ tea? At that price, I would keep that tea in reserve for special guests (or to treat someone in your support bubble).
Served with milk, a mug of Royal Blend made for a slightly chalky taste. With Assam and Ceylon teas, it makes for surprisingly easy drinking. The tea was originally blended in 1902 for King Edward the Seventh. As I found, Whitstable’s hard water was a good match for Buckingham Palace’s finest tap water.
5. Miles West Country Original Blend
Once whilst I was staying in Weston-super-Mare, there was one tea blend that stood out head and shoulders above the rest in Somerset: Miles’ teas. Like my neck of the woods, this corner of England is blessed with soft water (which makes for some good brews).
If you like Yorkshire Tea, though find it a little too strong for your liking, Miles’ West Country Original Blend is a good alternative. As I found in a café in Minehead, it irons out some of the rough edges. One that I would have as an everyday tea if I lived in the West Country.
6. Whittard of Chelsea Russian Caravan
So far in this Not So Perfect Ten, you would have noticed a fair balance between the obscure, the pricy and the more run-of-the-mill everyday tea. At one place I worked for in Manchester, I was close to three of my favourite shops. One was Wings for Chinese food (inexpensive with generous portions), the other was Paperchase (posh pens), and the third was Whittard of Chelsea (posh tea bags).
At the last shop, I tried their Earl Grey bags, which were pretty decent (apart from the indigestion you get from the bergamot flavouring). Out of curiosity I tried their Russian Caravan blend, and that became a firm favourite.
Russian is a smoky tea with a slight rubbery taste. Its smokiness must make it the black tea world’s equivalent to an Islay single malt whisky. It is best enjoyed with the bag or pot being left to brew for five minutes, but its distinctive taste is one for hardcore tea geeks. Then again at £6.00 a throw for 50 bags, one for the connoisseurs.
7. Thompson’s Punjana Tea
As well as my usual strong tea, I sometimes like a more delicate brew. Though Tetley and PG Tips has its fans, I think Typhoo deserves a bit more love. Typhoo also reminds me of the Punjana Tea by Thompson’s in Belfast.
If you have followed my social media updates and blog posts on the Pablo TV series, you could be forgiven for thinking I tried Punjana with my fellow comrades from Paper Owl Films. Well you thought wrong, because the one place where I enjoyed it was… Wetherby Road, the home of Harrogate Town FC. Following The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic, it was one of two highlights in a rather dour game (the curry and chips was the other one).
As for the tea, it makes for a good, fairly milky brew. It is well bodied, thanks to the Assam leaves it uses. Definitely one to turn to if I fancy a change from Harrogate’s most famous brew.
8. Specially Selected Scottish Breakfast
Continuing our quest for a good delicately flavoured tea, we bring you a budget option. One that costs an eleventh of the Fortnum and Mason one for its 50 bags. At 79p compared with £8.95. For a premium brand.
ALDI’s Specially Selected Scottish Breakfast tea is a real bargain. Compared with my experience with a box of Diplomat Red Label (19p for 320 bags, though that was in 1999), it was a more joyous one.
The tea is delicate and not a bad one for starting your day. As an afternoon brew or an everyday one, it might be undemanding for some tea lovers. Then again, at 79p for 50 bags, it is a steal. It is best enjoyed in a soft water area, such as the North West of England and Scotland.
9. Twinings English Breakfast Tea
If you are too sniffy at going to ALDI for your tea (in Alan Partridge-esque raised tones), Twinings’ English Breakfast tea is a dependable choice. Thanks to Morrisons selling taster packs, I spent the part of my paper round money (that didn’t go on C64 games) on posh tea bags. Twinings’ English Breakfast (alongside the Earl Grey) stood out from the rest.
As English Breakfast teas go, its flavour is mellow and full bodied. Years after my first tasting of this tea in 1994, my original observations stood the test of time at a Holiday Inn Express in Gloucestershire. If you are looking for a fairly posh tea that is widely available, go for that one.
10. Sainsburys Red Label
For our final tea, it is another own branded gem: Sainsburys’ Red Label. As ordinary supermarket teas go, it is one that has always impressed. I developed more of a taste for it in 2004, as my workplace was opposite a Sainsburys Local store. For a time, it was the default tea, till I introduced my colleagues to Yorkshire Tea. (Years later, they went for vending machines).
Once again, it is another well bodied tea that is widely available across the UK. Plus it makes for good strong brews as well as weak ones.
Before I put the kettle on…
- The Best Tea for Taking Abroad: Bettys and Taylors’ Yorkshire Tea. One I would take with me, should I do the Trans-Siberian Railway.
- Best All Round Tea: Bettys and Taylors’ Yorkshire Tea and Rington’s Traditional Tea (tie). Both great Northern teas, though the latter is the most elusive of the two brands.
- Best Occasional Posh Tea For Odd Occasions: Twinings’ English Breakfast Tea. Dependable and easy to please any guest.
- Best Budget Brew: ALDI’s Specially Selected Scottish Blend.
- Best First Section Tea Not In Main Prizes: Co-op’s 99 tea.
- Worst Tea (not reviewed though endured by yours truly): Brash Brothers’ King Cup.
What are your favourite teas from our Not So Perfect Ten? Feel free to add to our list or elaborate on our existing selection. Before you comment, put the kettle on yourself and have a biscuit or two.
S.V., 26 June 2020.
All price details correct at the time of press and may be subject to change due to inflation and/or special offers.