Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lipton Tea - Brewing and Attitude Recommendations

This post is inspired by an interesting observation. I was reading Steven Knoerr's 39 Steeps, and in the post Drink Cheap Wine . . . and Tea? (which is a great post, by the way), I noticed something interesting.

The first is a positive remark Steven made about Lipton tea. The second is (gasp!) a positive comment *I* made about Lipton tea. Here is a humble bag of Lipton tea, to get you in the spirit of this post:

Picking on Lipton:

Often, I think Lipton gets a bad rap. Because it's the dominant brand, it is the default tea for connoisseurs to "pick on". Ironically though, picking on it by default may actually help this brand maintain its place as the dominant brand in the market...but that's another issue. I was picked on a lot as a kid, and it's not terribly pleasant or constructive, not something I would ever wish on anyone, so rather than doing the same to Lipton, I'll share my genuine opinion about what I really think about this tea.

What do we expect from Lipton?

I think tea is influenced a lot by how we perceive it, which is one of the key aspects that Steven gets at in his post above. If we order a whole-leaf oolong tea with a steep price tag on it, and it just tastes bad, where does our head go?

  • Maybe I didn't brew it properly.

  • Maybe the tea was not stored properly.

  • Maybe I just don't know how to appreciate this particular tea or style of tea. (especially if the tea is an unfamiliar style that we do not regularly sample)

  • Maybe this particular batch is no good.

But if we have the same experience drinking a cup of Lipton tea, our head usually goes to a different place:

  • This tea is low-quality, mass-produced junk.

Is this justified? Objectively, we can look at Lipton and say: the tea bag contains finely broken leaf, fannings or dust. That means it's low grade. That means it's bad. But this logic does not hold.

Broken-leaf tea is not necessarily bad. For example, I tried a broken-leaf orthodox tea from Tanzania a while back, Upton Tea's TK18: Livingstonia Estate GFBOP, and one of my favorites was their now-discontinued Himalayan BOP Blend. These are not just "decent" or "passable" teas, these are teas I consider truly outstanding, and would gladly drink over any number of whole-leaf selections.

Lipton puts a great amount of care and resources into quality control, selecting teas and blending them to maintain a consistent quality of their tea as conditions change from season to season and year to year. Objectively, there's no reason to expect Lipton to necessarily be bad. And, if we do not enjoy it, it makes sense to at least ask whether or not we stored it properly, and brewed it so as to bring out the best in it.

My recommendations about Lipton:

If you are going to drink Lipton tea, treat it like any other tea:

  • Make sure it's fresh and has been stored properly.

  • Put some care into brewing it: make sure the water is boiling, heat your brewing vessel up so you're actually steeping the tea with boiling water, and carefully watch the steeping time (I recommend only 1 minute for a single cup).

My original comment on 39 Steeps was that I once gave this advice to one of my friends who was complaining about Lipton tea being bad. She told me after following the advice that she was very surprised, and that she really enjoyed the cup of tea. She told me that the resulting cup of tea was both less bitter and more flavorful than what had resulted when she had brewed the same tea haphazardly.

I want to make one final remark. I've tried a lot of teas, and Lipton's plain black tea is a lot better than a lot of teas out there. It's not the lowest of the low, nor is it really anywhere close. I've tried relatively pricey whole-leaf teas that I enjoyed much less, not to mention any number of other mainstream tea bags from the common brands in the supermarket, that I also think don't quite compare. Objectively, I think of Lipton as being somewhere in the middle in terms of quality, which is pretty impressive given its price scale of production.

What do you think?

Do you bash Lipton, or use it as an example of low-quality tea? Or do you enjoy it, and think it's actually pretty decent quality? Have you ever drunk Lipton, or any other mainstream, inexpensive, mass-produced teas, while putting care into properly storing them and preparing them, as you would expensive loose-leaf tea? What were your results?

You can read and share reviews of Lipton's Black Tea on RateTea if you are curious what others think, or want to chime in for yourself.


  1. Alex, first, thank you for your generous impression the blog post. I believe the topic is a ripe one, even though my impressionistic little note was really a gloss on a well-thought-out piece, "Drink Cheap Wine: I Mean, Really Cheap."

    Now, I must say, I'm not above a bit of Lipton's bashing, myself. In my tea biography, I note how the execrable Lipton's I was used to in my house put me off tea until I was at university and had the opportunity to taste real tea for the first time.

    Now, in retrospect, I see that because Lipton's used to (and still does, alas) package their teas as inexpensively as possibly, in paper packaging within a cardboard box, the fannings and dust they use in their teas oxidize much more quickly than my parents could drink it. So by the time they opened the plastic wrapper on the box and had one cup (oversteeped), and then they put the rest in the cupboard, we were all drinking flat, insipid, oversteeped junk.

    On a basic level, fanning and dust can come from very high-level teas, but because the individual granules are so small, they have enormous surface area with which to interact with the oxygen in the atmosphere. Thus, the tea goes bad in probably a day or even less, when left in that condition.

    I believe Lipton's has introduced some "exclusive" tea brands now, and they use vacuum-packed individual foil wrappers or something to help avoid this problem.

    One other point: Being a taster at Lipton's is a very demanding job. Think about it. You are tasked with the job of ensuring that every cup of your brand tastes *exactly* the same, no matter what the growing conditions are that year, no matter where the best growing regions are, and so on. And you need to ensure that the tea tastes the same as it did in 1893, so the flavors need to be remembered by generation after generation of tea tasters. Then they need to combine tea in gigantic proportions from around the world to come up with precisely the same flavor as they always have. Really, an astounding feat. (Buy 2 million pounds from Kenya, 1.4 million from Sri Lanka, &c., &c.) Oh, and keep the price down while you're at it.

    Maybe now that our friend Charles Cain is at Starbucks/Tazo, I'll have to rethink that brand, as well.

    Thank you for your quite thoughtful post!

  2. Oh wow, I just learned about Charles Cain & Starbucks/Tazo through this comment, thanks.

    There are reasons that I don't like you say, a lot of energy and resources are invested into ensuring the consistency and uniformity of the tea, and I'd rather those resources be put elsewhere. I also think that Lipton, being a mainstream brand, is more part of consumerism.

    But the company is diversifying. They're not always doing it in the best possible way (i.e. they introduce pyramid bags, but take a step backwards by going to non-biodegradable nylon bags), but I am hopeful that eventually, the company will move in the right direction.

    Until then, we can prod them to move a little more, both with our choices in buying tea, and what we write about and talk about with others. And, in spite of what I say in this post, about people being too harsh on Lipton, I would never buy Lipton's plain black tea, and in fact, I've never even bought any of their higher-end teas, I've only sampled them when others have given me a tea bag in a trade.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post! It brought back a memory from several years ago when, somehow, I enjoyed a fresh-tasting cup of Lipton’s in a diner somewhere.

    I was about to write a “on the other hand” paragraph belaboring Lipton for packing their tea in the USA in such a way that even the first teabag from the box is likely to be stale, but then I saw Steven Knoerr had done the job for me.

    There’s one point I do want to mention, though. Lipton is not the same product in all countries. I believe the Lipton brand is licensed to entirely separate companies in various countries, but my knowledge on this subject may be, uh, stale. In any case, what comes out of the Lipton’s container in, say, India has no relation to the contents of a box of Lipton’s bought in most places in the USA. (Americans can verify this for themselves in grocery stores in South Asian and Arab neighborhoods that carry overseas Lipton teas.)