What is the difference?
Today, the short answer is that it generally depends on the blend type. All three are black tea blends, and due to England’s control over specific tea-growing regions, they are typically a blend of Ceylon (from Sri Lanka), Assam (from India), and teas from Kenya. Occasionally, though, some blends may feature Chinese black teas.
Where they differ are the typical ratios of these teas, and ultimately the tea distributor will determine the exact difference!
Why Black Tea?
Tea has been around in Asia for a very, very long time, usually in the form of green tea, white tea, or yellow tea, undergoing very minimal handling and processing after plucking. But in Europe and America, when one imagines a cup of tea, one generally pictures black tea.
You likely already know that green and black teas come from the same plant but are processed differently. Black teas are more oxidized than green teas when they are processed.
Chinese exporters, attempting to preserve better the teas they exported across the ocean to the Dutch, experimented with various oxidation processes. As China continued to perfect the black tea oxidation process, the popularity of this black tea spread across Europe and reached England. England attempted to get into direct trade in China and eventually began trading opium, exported from their colonies in India, to China in an attempt to create Chinese dependency on England’s trade. The resulting Opium Wars destabilized China’s economy and ended with heavy concessions from China, but England still wanted more control over tea.
Eventually, England sent a spy into China to steal their tea and their secrets, including how black tea is processed. With the new plants and knowledge, they began propagating tea in India. While many of these bushes failed in India, a few survived in the Darjeeling region, and others were successfully hybridized with some of the native cultivars in the Assam region. From there, England propagated tea in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, and later still in their colonies in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Their preference for the oxidized version of the tea persisted through all these changes. England became a dominant force in the tea world, with black tea as the new tea standard.
Why “Breakfast Tea”?
While English Breakfast Tea is one of the more well-known terms, “Breakfast Tea” as the concept of a black tea blend made to complement early mealtime seems to originate from Scotland! Robert Drysdale in Edinburgh developed a strong black tea blend and marketed it as a breakfast beverage. The story goes that Queen Victoria brought some of this blend from Scotland back to England, so the concept of English Breakfast tea was born. It is also possible that the widespread use of the term “English Breakfast,” as opposed to simply “Breakfast Tea,” was popularized in the US by the salesman Richard Davies when he emigrated to the US and began selling a particular black tea blend under that moniker.
So what about the other breakfast teas?
Today, what is known as Scottish Breakfast Tea typically has the largest proportion of Assam in the blend. Assam tea has the boldest, most pungent flavor and aroma of the typical black tea cultivars. The use of more Assam in this blend has been a development partly to combat the softer water in Scotland, which lends itself to milder flavors than a tea made with harder water.
Irish Breakfast Tea, which is rarely called “breakfast” tea within Ireland, also has more Assam in the blend than the English Breakfast, though not so much as Scottish Breakfast. The Irish culture typically valued stronger, spicier, and more malty flavors than the English, but already had earthier flavor from their slightly harder water than Scotland.
There is also the term Welsh Breakfast tea, which is typically a similar blend of the same types of tea. This term seems to primarily come from tea distributors to distinguish yet another tea blend from the others.
So what do I do when I’m shopping for black tea?
On our website, we list the teas blended into each, so if you know which black teas you love, you can use the blended ingredients as your guide! Otherwise, it is usually a safe bet that out of the three most common “breakfast teas,” English Breakfast will be milder, Irish Breakfast a bit bolder, and Scottish Breakfast bolder still! Whenever and however you like your tea, you are sure to find the right tea blend for you!