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Not Merely the Vicar’s Wife’s Teapot

May 27, 2009

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brown_bettyIn addition to my writing here, I am also a contributing writer for The Taste of English Tea Blog, which is connected to the English Tea Store. This has led me to pursue avenues of tea and tea research of a more English flavor. One recent example was that I started finding out more about the classic Brown Betty teapot, the quintessential tea accessory in so many working class English homes. I had never given these teapots much attention, dismissing them as boring, unattractive devices used for haphazardly brewing tea with little regard to quality since Englishmen obliterate the taste of their cuppa’ with milk and sugar. (I’m not going to defend this clearly ignorant and unfair assumption.)

One benefit of obtaining better information is dismantling my biases, and this was no exception. I discovered that this particular piece of tea ware is more distinctive in its materials and design than I had thought, plus it has an interesting history that I had known nothing about. I also discovered that it brews an excellent pot of tea. I now have a 6-cup Brown Betty that I enjoy using for the same types of tea that are typical of English tea consumption: Ceylon, Darjeeling, Assam, Earl Grey, etc. The teapot is also a more solid and attractive object than I had thought it was, never having handled or used one until recently.

One thing that I spent a little time puzzling over was that brewing in the Brown Betty is optimal with the loose tea leaf directly in the pot, but this presents a quandary of how to halt the steeping process when the tea is ready. Of course one would not want to allow the leaves to over-steep as the tea is consumed, and generally the entire contents would not be distributed into cups right off, so the logical solution would be to decant the tea into a different pot for serving. I haven’t been able to determine whether this is accurate, but I suspect that perhaps in English homes where there are formal tea sets, like those made by Wedgwood or Limoges, the fine china teapots would be used for serving, but not for brewing. The proletarian Brown Betty would be used to steep the tea but would be left back in the kitchen after the tea was poured into a fancier teapot.

However, in spite of its plainer appearance the Brown Betty is also very good at keeping tea nicely warm after steeping and it pours exceptionally well, so there are practical advantages to using it for serving the tea. In an attempt to resolve this, I performed one experiment where I strained the tea into an alternate container and then back into the Brown Betty after the leaves were rinsed out, but the method was very awkward and impractical and had a high risk of burnt fingers. The best solution I could come up with was to use two same-sized Brown Betty teapots. After steeping, the tea can be strained into the second pre-warmed pot which can then be used for serving the tea. I am sure that this is unconventional, but it seems to be an ideal solution, particularly since the cost of a second Brown Betty is not prohibitive.

This is just the beginning of my post on The English Tea Blog (which has little or no overlap of content with this one):

“Despite its humble appearance and role as default teapot in so many English cupboards, the Brown Betty is a much more interesting piece of tea ware than one might assume. The ancestral forms of the Brown Betty came into production and use in England near the close of the seventeenth century, when craftsmen began using the unique red clay found in the Bradell Woods area of Stoke-on-Trent to fashion into teapots.”

Read the rest on The Taste of English Tea Blog.

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