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Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee (London)

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Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee / 40 Southwark Street / Bankside / London / SE1 1UN / Tel/fax: 020 7403 5650.

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      01.03.2001 01:44
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      Tea Museum

      All tourists who do the grand sightseeing tour in London get very close to the Bramah Tea&Coffee Museum.

      Indeed? And where's that?

      After visiting the Tower, we cross the Tower Bridge, turn left into Butlers Wharf and there it is, just beside the Design Museum (which is also worth seeing, but not today!).

      I don't know how often I've been to London, 12 or 13 times perhaps, I've seen all the 'must sees', now I re-visit my favourite sights, like good friends, and allow myself the luxury of discovering real treats, off the trodden path and far from the madding crowd.

      First I had to work through a collection of about 300 of the most bizarre teapots, each worth a close scrutiny. Besides Chinese and Indian samples made of fine porcelain ('Indian china' does sound funny!) there are Victorian teapots, which must make the heart of any antique collector swell. And then there are teapots in all conceivable shapes: buildings, plants, animals, vehicles, heads of famous people - name it, they've got it! Up to that day I didn't know out of what kind of openings tea can be poured: out of a cat's paw, an elephant's trunk, Margaret Thatcher's nose - you might not find this odd, in fact, rather logical - where else should it come out? But what if the teapot is a sewing machine? Ha, I won't tell you, go and look for yourselves!

      Then I studied the posters, photos, maps, diagrams and engravings which inform about the tea and coffee growing countries, the production and the traditional trading routes. All very interesting, to be sure, but as I'm a convinced tea drinker, I decided not to waste my time on the subject of coffee, but inform myself thoroughly about tea. So I went to see a video about tea and sucked (soaked?) up the ultimate information about my favourite drink.

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      The origins of tea-drinking are lost in preh
      istory. Chinese mythology associates its discovery with the emperor Sin Nong, who lived in the third millenium B.C. He used to drink hot water as a refreshment, and when one day a dry leaf fell off a tree and landed in his cup, he decided that the new found taste was an improvement. Tea-drinking spread from China to Japan by the fifth century A.D.

      Dutch merchants were the first to carry tea back to Europe for sale in 1610, and teapots were among the articles of porcelain that were imported into Europe from China in ever increasing quantities during the 17th century. Tea-drinking became fashionable first in Holland and thereafter in England.

      After the great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, Londoners took every opportunity to take the air in the pleasure gardens that sprang up in the suburbs. There tea was served, and appreciated not least because the water in it had been boiled!

      By the 18th century tea and tea china were a feature of every aristocratic and middle-class English home.

      What would America be like today without the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773?!

      During the Industrial Revolution tea was recognized as an invaluable drink for the workforces. It was cheap and non-alcoholic and, mixed with milk and sugar, it provided the needed sustenance for the people working in factories for up to twelve hours a day.

      In the 19th century the East India Company began to pay for its tea with opium grown in India and smuggled to China. After the Opium Wars between Britain and China, the British initiated the growing of tea in India (and from 1867 in Ceylon/Sri Lanka). Indian tea could be harvested over a longer season than the Chinese and Japanese variety, and by and by the British palate became adapted to the richer, more malty Indian tea. Tea was also grown in Africa from the late 19th century.

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      What does a tea plantation look like? Let's travel far up into the Himalaya
      s to the town Darjeeling and watch the harvest. The tea pickers, who carry big baskets on their backs, held by straps on their foreheads, pick in a different part of the fields every day, so that the tea bushes keep developing young shoots.

      They only pick the blossom and the two uppermost leaves, this part of the bush is called 'flush', all the other leaves are too hard for good tea (they're left for the poor Indians who can't afford the export quality). The first harvest of the year is at the end of March, the 'first flush', light and fresh, at the end of summer they pick the 'second flush', stronger and darker in the cup, and in autumn the 'autumnal', which is of a lower quality.

      The leaves are taken to a factory where they are turned into what we know as 'black tea' in five steps. The leaves are spread out to wither, when they have become soft, they're crushed and torn. During that process the third step begins, i.e. oxidization, the leaves have now a dark red/ brown colour. After that they are dried in hot air and become black. In the final step the leaves are sorted our according to their size.

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      After so much information about tea I had become thirsty and went to the Café where I ordered a cup of Ceylon tea and a piece of coffee cake. I was in an ecumenical mood, after all I was in the Tea AND Coffee Museum. The exotic combination was very tasty.

      I was the only visitor at that time and so I made contact with an elderly gentleman who was pottering about there and thus got to know the greatest asset of the museum: Mr Bramah himself!

      If a casting agency had to look for a character representing the English gentleman of the fallen Empire, their number 1 choice would be Mr Bramah! At the beginning of his career he was a tea planter in Malawi, then worked as a tea taster before he entered a coffee brokerage firm in
      Kenya and Tanzania. He then worked with the China National Tea Corporation to restore China's tea trade with Britain. In 1966 he founded a company to market a new filter design for coffee machines which he had invented and patented.

      It was about this time that he began collecting the materials which now compose the Bramah Museum which was opened in 1992. He wrote some books on his subjects and now travels round the world as a lecturer if he doesn't conduct seminars at his museum.

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      Mr Bramah should be the happiest man on earth. For decades he had jobs which were a vocation for him at the same time (This sentence sounds very good in German, as the words for job/profession (Beruf) and vocation (Berufung) are of the same origin). Now, after his active years in business, he could sit in his own museum (how many people you know have got one?) surrounded by all his treasures and people who share his love for coffee and tea and ENJOY himself!

      But no, he's unhappy, he suffers. He is indeed a sad knight, he fights and will go on fighting to the last gasp, although he knows - not that he's going to lose - but that he already lost the battle a long time ago. What does he fight against?

      He fights against teabags!

      The world thinks of Britain when it thinks tea and of tea when it thinks Britain, the terms are synonyms, more or less. (I wrote most of the text before attention switched over to mad cows and sick pigs!) But what kind of tea do the Brits drink? In fact the Irish drink one cup more a day, they are subsumed here, no offence meant, please, this is not political pamphlet!

      At least 90% use teabags, which were introduced during the 1960s because tea manufacturers were desperate to meet the challenge of instant coffee. Teabags are not actually made from the dust swept off the floor, the tea that goes into them has been specially grown and prepared. The withering is lig
      ht and rolling is harsh, so that oxidization occurs quickly and the dark red/brown colour appears more or less at once. If you want to test the quality of teabag tea, empty the contents of the bag into a teapot and infuse for two to five minutes in the traditional way. If you don't taste the difference, you're a hopeless case.

      Now, isn't it odd/absurd/weird even that people willingly, without being forced, prefer bad stuff to good stuff? Don't tell me that you can't wait for five minutes, you can wait for toast being toasted, why not for real tea leaves to infuse? You don't have to perform the whole ceremony Mr Bramah suggests in his seminars, but you can at least use REAL LEAF TEA! Do try it, do me the favour, I'm sure you'll be converted in no time, you won't believe that once you were able to swallow the bag stuff. Let's bet on it!

      You might argue that the disposal of the used tea leaves is too messy, but that argument can easily be shot down with the remark that there are innumerable kinds of strainers on the market, certainly one for you, too. And then, the wet teabags must be disposed of as well, mustn't they?

      By chance I knew that only 60% of the German tea drinkers use teabags, hurrah! But no, that was only cold comfort for Mr Bramah, he knows Germany well, he knows that it is a coffee country, only 10% of the Germans tea drink tea, number declining. Moreover, one half of the amount of tea drunk here, is drunk in East Frisia and the surrounding territories, i.e. mainly in Northern Lower Saxony (along the coast of the North Sea). This is were I got into contact with tea, I was born among the 'coffee Saxons', and then moved to tea country, now I'm among coffee drinkers again, but have remained faithful to my beloved tea. The ethnic East Frisians and their sympathizers amount to about 1 million people, leaving the other half of the tea drunk in Germa
      ny to the remaining 79 million Germans, which means: 200 g per capita et annum. I last a week with that amount!

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      Goodness gracious, now I've been ranting along, I see you hanging in the ropes (a German expression), tired and weary. It's high time I went to the kitchen to prepare a good cup of tea. Today it'll be a tea from Nepal, very dark and strong, with a slight smoky flavour. Or should I take my special mixture, Darjeeling with some Earl Grey? When you think about it, we should celebrate that we're here together and could do this with a very fine first flush. To switch over to a completely different field: the second flush can be compared to rich, full red wine, and the first flush to sparkling champagne, to stay in the picture. Do you want to get active, then I'll let it infuse 2-3 minutes, or do you prefer a more tranquil state of mind at the moment? Then 4-5 minutes are advisable. Shall I also bring some sesame biscuits? They are my favourites at the moment.

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      I used the text of Mr Bramah's homepage for the history and the preparation of tea, but you don't have to tell on me, I'll do it myself by sending him an email and inviting him to read my opinion. I'm sure he'll be pleased.

      Same as you?

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