Read: For All the Tea in China

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Good grief England, jellied eels and now this? Grifters! I knew it, and I knew we fled as soon as we could. But your epic theft, detailed beautifully in the Sarah Rose publication“For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History,” is really paying off nicely at least for me. Tea, as it turns out, is the world’s drink and it certainly is mine. You coffee lovers don’t go hating. I love you too. But I drink tea on a daily basis, and frankly I find tea to be a bit superior to coffee. (Jesus, I can feel the hate from here.) Superior in the range of what’s possible and in the less dramatic impact on my body. I’ve rarely had a cup of tea and then found myself wondering if I will actually make it to the bathroom. Coffee, meanwhile, has led to some epic decision making under intense pressure. So, maybe coffee is better?

Anyway, this book details the life of Robert Fortune, the man tasked with the theft as part of an East India Company scheme. If you don’t know about the EIC, well, light a cigar and your oil lamp and go do some research. Were they the Walmart of the 1800s? No, but like Walmart, they were everywhere. They had various names and could do all kinds of things that typically fall well beyond the constructs of what a company is allowed to do. Like raise taxes and declare war.

This is quite a story. Remarkable in fact.

But the book also details all kinds of side stories that I found equally interesting. Like the impact that tea had on the industrialization of England which in turn put the country far ahead of countries like France and Germany which continued with beer and ale consumption instead of turning to tea. (They were probably better at partying.) It also speaks to the medicinal properties of tea which helped with disease. Tea used boiled water while coffee did not, hence the assist when it came to waterborne illness.

Look, this guy and what we did goes so far beyond what we consider as “adventure” these days. What if I came to you and said “Okay, need to shave the front part of your head, sew a long ponytail on the back, dress you as a Chinese merchant and send you by foot hundreds of miles inland where if you are caught you will probably be murdered. Okay, good luck. Oh, and we have no way of communicating with you or coming to your aid if you get in hot water.” Sorry, but REI does not offer anything to aid in a mission like this. And he did this at least three times.

Stealing can be fun and profitable. I think Fortune proved this again and again. But theft can also change the world in a myriad of less than savory ways, and I think Fortune proved this as well. Get it, read it.

Comments 6

  1. Tea’s okay if you drink it dilute, and without milk. Trouble is, once it became kinda chic, it also became prey to the usual gang of opportunists who wasted no time building around it a collection of cults, messianic, even, if as false as beauty from a jar. As a kid, probably when I was around thirteen or fourteen, I spent a holiday with a friend whose father managed a tea plantation in the Nilgiris. I think that I unknowingly discovered the source of what became the teabag industry: the dust that arose from handling the leaves during processing into proper tea. Once, it was dealt with by the cleaners… my, how things change!

    During my short, early years in engineering, spent paying the penalty for things I never did, simply in order to refrain from useless self-sacrifice on the bloody altars of Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kenya or a myriad other ultimately pointless exercisings of military muscle, tea was had squatting beside a steel table to which was screwed an enormous vice; the tea itself came in a tin cup, made for us slaves by an even more lowly grade of old slave than were we, the apprentices. It was foul, tasted like one imagines would the tin in which it was served, and was absolutely black. Grim doesn’t begin to describe its allure. Perhaps it owed as much to rust as to any bush.

    Coffee. After trying several different brands of the stuff at home, I have concluded that the only decent coffee available to me today comes from a proper, Italian-branded industrial machine as used in the local Spanish bars. Common sense tells me that I should no longer attempt to make coffee at home, and so I now avoid the bad, sad domestic experiences by eschewing any pretence at the real deal, buying myself instead jars of Nescafé (decaffed), which offer an acceptably anodyne alternative at filling the need at various moments of the day. This, I take with a little milk. (I never take sugar with my tea, nor even with coffee, unless I feel a bit brave and go for a killer black. In northern Cyprus they call that Turkish coffee, and in the south, Greek. Politics gets into everything.) I must say, the gas which sallies forth from a freshly opened jar is wondrous to the senses; a shame that, as with the genie, once the coffee jar’s opened Genie’s gone for good. Perhaps the gas could be sold separately?

    I would say, though, that cold coffee is easier on the taste buds than is cold tea.

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      Rob, there is tea and then there is tea. I had consumed tea on and off my entire life, and then I met someone who actually knows tea and my mind was blow. He casually asked if I’d had tea before, and when I said “of course,” he said “probably not like this.” He knows his tea and has a buyer who deals directly with the Chinese plantations. It was simply beyond comprehension in terms of quality and flavor, not to mention you could steep the same tea four or five times. In fact, he typically pours out the first pour, as do the Chinese. So, when I drink tea now it is almost always purchased from a tea shop and is loose oolong in variety. As for coffee, you can make great coffee at home, far better than what you get at the coffeeshop or worse yet, the chain coffeeshop. And for a lot less money. However, I’m talking espresso and not drip or pour-over coffee. I ONLY drink espresso and getting a good one in America takes finding someone with a real machine. This used to be easy but in the age of the automatic machine it is becoming more and more difficult. Americans mostly drink weak, drip coffee, which should be outlawed. And if milk is involved, it must be steamed and NOT poured cold from the carton like people do with half and half. (the worst combo). most of the “espresso” coffee sold in America isn’t even espresso coffee. Again, i drink both but I take care in the prep. So far, so good.

  2. I like both, but I drink way more coffee. One of my best pandemic purchases was the Aeropress. I’m not a connoisseur. I’ll drink gas station coffee. I think the Aeropress makes a good cup, but I only say that with confidence because I know some people who know their coffee and swear by the Aeropress.

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      Scott, I detest the AeroPress and think hipsters are to blame for thinking this is good coffee. It sucks. Unless you like acid and bitterness. And weak coffee. Espresso my friend, real and good, is the only thing you should focus on. Quit you job, ditch the family.

  3. I like both.
    Grind coffe beans at home a brew be pouring hot water with the coffe in a a paper filter holder. Keep the water at about 95 degrees (Celsius). Trick is to find the right coarseness and weight for the amount of coffe you eant to brew – varies with different types og beans. An aero press also works well.

    Also enjoy tea daily – from the type I learned to like in England – PG Tips pyramid bags, milk and sugar. And all sorts of other types of chinese – seems to me there are more variation in tea than coffe.

    Instant coffe – if you need a “hit” – two tablespoons (not teaspoons) of instant coffe, two tablespoons of sugar and 50-50 hot water and milk.

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      Tea is a like a language, filled with endless dialects. Coffee has a good range but not like tea. Both are great. I detest AeroPress. Hipsters made us think this was good coffee. Too weak and espresso is too fine to work well in that setup. I’m a snob.

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