Teas of Yore: Bohea, Hyson and Congou


"About an age ago, as all agree,
Beauteous Belinda, brewing best Bohea
Carelessly chattered, controverting clean,
Dublin's derisive, disputations dean ..."
Attributed to Alaric A. Watts (1820)

A reader wrote recently to say she was stumped to figure out a five-letter word for tea. She had come up with B_H_A but wasn't sure how to complete the word. Had she been an 18th century poetry lover, she would have surely known the answer: BOHEA, a black tea from China that at the time enchanted both Europe and its colonies across the pond.

Botanically, the Bohea is from a strain or varietal known as Thea Bohea L., (L for Carl Linneas the prominent Swedish botanist of the 17th century who categorized thousands of plants, flowers, and tea.) Bohea is also the archaic name for a particular leaf of the tea plant, leaves that are flatter, smaller, and darker green than the pekoe or souchong leaves, and with serratures on the edge that are smaller.

The word is pronounced bu-ee or wu-ee for the Wu-yi Mountains along the border of Jiangxi and Fujian provinces. The Bohea Hills, where this tea was discovered, are mist-covered, peculiarly-shaped mountain ranges redolent with myth and mystique. The River of Nine Bends winds its way through these thirty-six exotic looking peaks where, it is said, the fabled prince Tseen-Kang once lived with his two sons, Woo and E whose names meshed to become the name Woo-E-Shan ( Wu-yi Mountains).. People still struggle to climb these peaks in search of the mansions Tseen-Kang allegedly built, and to absorb the magnificent vistas.

Originally, all teas from China were processed as green teas, but demand from Europe required that something be done to preserve the quality of teas for the months-long voyages from Canton to London, and drying the teas of their moisture was the clever method the Chinese tea makers developed. The resulting leaves were black, the leaves full of flavor and fragrance, enough to cause many a poet to write about it.

A good neighbour, even in this,
Is fatal sometimes, cuts your morning up
To mince-meat of the very smallest talk,
Then helps to sugar her Bohea at night
With your reputation.
"Aurora Leigh," Book 4, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1857

Hyson (hi-tshun) refers to the Chinese green tea processed as twisted leaves that are long and thin that unfurl slowly to offer its fragrant astringent green taste. Hyson tea has been defined as warm, sunny and spring-like, reflecting both the color and the season in which Hyson is harvested. The better quality "young Hyson" is harvested "before the rains" and has a pungent, full-bodied taste that produces a golden liquor with an edge of sweet character in the cup. Not all Hysons are good grades, and many tea vendors give the name of Hyson to those green teas which are light and inferior leaves that remain after the better quality leaves are sifted out (usually by machine.)

By fate, not option, frugal Nature gave
One scent to Hyson and to wall-flower,
One sound to pine-groves and to waterfalls,
One aspect to the desert and the lake.
"Xenophanes," first stanza, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1847]

During the Revolutionary War, citizens were urged to give up their precious Bohea and Hyson in favor of an infusion made from the redroot tree or red clover. As part of the campaign to avoid the heavily-taxed tea, poems were published everywhere in newspapers, in broadsides posted on street posts, and as pamphlets passed out to the masses. Among the most popular of the ditties was this anonymous one aimed at "the ladies."

Throw aside your Bohea and your Green Hyson Tea,
And all things with a new fashioned duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there'll soon be enough here to suit ye;
There do without fear, and to all you'll appear
Fair, charming, true, lovely and clever;
Though the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish,
And love you much stronger than ever.]

In the following poem, whose author is also not known, Hyson and Bohea are mentioned, as is Congou, spelled here as congo. It was, and is, a finer quality black Chinese tea, and is a large leaf, usually fifth down the line of the tea bush, with the tea bud first, the flowery and orange pekoes next, followed by two souchong leaves. It is most commonly sold today with the scent of petals from the tiny Chinese pink roses.

The original Chinese word was kung-fu, which means doing something artfully or, in the case of tea processing, "well-worked" without dust, fannings, or twigs. Congou was originally the basis for English Breakfast teas which today may contain black teas from China, India or/Ceylon for its signature full bodied taste and fragrance.

The chest in the following poem refers to the beautiful wooden tea chests that had been elevated to fine furnishings and accessories to hold the precious teas — -and very expensive sugars — -to which the pre-Revolutionary War residents here had fast become accustomed to enjoying.

"A Lady's Adieu to Her Tea-Table"

FAREWELL the Tea-board with your gaudy attire,
Ye cups and ye sauces that I did admire,
To my cream pot and tongs I now bid adieu,
That pleasure's all fled that I once found in you.
Farewell pretty chest that so lately did shine.
With Hyson and congo and best double fine;
Many a sweet moment by you I have sat,
Hearing girls and old maids to tattle and chat...
No more shall my teapot so generous be
In filling the cups with this pernicious tea,
For I'll fill it with water and drink out the same,
Before I'll lose LIBERTY that dearest name,
Because I am taught (and believe it is fact)
That our ruin is aimed at in the late act,
Of imposing a duty on all foreign Teas...

"Tattle and chat" or chatter appear with marked frequency in poems about tea, including #408 by Emily Dickinson...."No chatter — -here — -no tea — -So Babbler, and Bohea — -stay there — -But Gravity — -and Expectation — -and Fear — -A tremor just, that All's not sure.

In Benjamin Franklin's "Autobiography," he "chattered" for reams to supporters in York, Lancaster and Cumberland requesting horses, wagons, and money to support the troops battling the British . His son helped him draft a list of provisions that included such predictable staples as butter, cheese, and hams, and the unexpected chocolate, dried tongues, raisins, wines and spirits. Coffee was listed but once, and teas twice, and with the specificity of "good" Bohea and green tea.

Bohea and Hyson appear in poems from the Rev. Sydney Smith to Henry J. Livginston and even in the fourth canto of Alexander Pope's "Rape of the Lock" in lines 155-156: Where the gilt chariot never marks the way, Where none learn ombre, none e'er taste Bohea!

Today, we can enjoy tea without taxation, and choose from a plethora of choices that would have dazzled our foremothers and fathers. Perhaps your grocery list includes a scented black Earl Grey, an exquisite Jade Spring green or a white Silver Needle. However, if you search enough, you may still find a young Hyson, rich Bohea, or scented Congou, historical choices to ward off the chill of autumn while you read poetry of yore.