Working at Murchie’s has been fun both on a tea-blending side, but also in that it allows me to scratch my Tea History itch.
For those not well-acquainted with Murchie’s, it’s been around a good century and in that time has developed quite a number of blends. To keep them organized, there is a Murchie’s blending book—a big black book of quick-reference recipes done to the pound of tea (and sometimes coffee) passed down through the generations. Most are family blends, dedicated to Reverend Oldfield (an actual blend—I learned about it through a friend, a descendent of said Oldfield; he dislikes it because it has jasmine), or some place (a hotel, etcetera). It’s all done in short-hand notation, and half the fun is trying to figure out that shorthand’s legend.
There are a lot of historical teas that aren’t in common circulation anymore, or have been renamed under new standardized pinyin and lost their original ‘connection’. Young Hyson, Singlo. Congou is now more commonly tagged Keemun Congou. Bohea has receded for Wuyi (I could go off on another article just about Old Teas, specifically the tea thrown into the Boston Harbour—because by gosh I still have my angry rant at the people spreading misinformation about it being compressed tea floating around somewhere on tumblr). Murchie’s changed with the times, and a lot of the blends have evolved to reflect the change in taste and availability. Young Hyson is used in some teas in the book, but none of those blends are made today. ‘SOP’ is another, and that one made me squint. It was listed separately from scented Jasmine teas (designated Jas), and often blends contained both.
I remember thinking ‘Souchong… Orange.. Pekoe?’ that made no sense. I asked, and learned it stood for ‘Scented Orange Pekoe’, a tea Murchie’s no longer carried; looking into it further, I found that it wasn’t something wholesalers carried at all. When asked what it was scented with, I was told likely ‘ylang ylang’. Eventually, I ended up delving into this on my own time.
Law’s Grocer’s Manual1 accessed from archive.org describes SOP as such:
Scented or Orange Pekoe is usually prepared from the poorer qualities of ordinary Pekoe, and is distinguishable by its colour, a deep black mixed with yellow-orange. It only owes its delicious perfume and flavour to its being scented with the blossoms of an olive (Olea fragrans), or Chinese orange blossoms, the Cape jasmine, etc. Soluble matter only about 34 per cent.
The flowers described here are osmonthus blossoms (oleaceae osmanthus fragrans, sweet olive). Osmanthus tea (guìhuāchá) is pretty common. The manual does also detail other things used to scent various green, black and oolong teas.
Scented Teas.— (See also Pekoes,
Caper, etc.) — Great Britain is the only country using them, and they used to be very popular, but now very little inquired for. Only some five million pounds a year are imported, and the demand for them seems steadily declining. Scented Capers were formerly taken by a number of the retailers in various parts of the country, but they are now used chiefly by the large blending firms with low-priced Indian and Ceylon teas. They are poor stuff as a rule, with nothing to recommend them except, like the dude, their perfume. The importation of Scented Orange Pekoes is now practically nil.
Scented teas are sometimes used very unwisely. For ordinary purposes one part in twelve, or even one in sixteen, is quite sufficient to give the blend a distinctive flavour. Fine Cyelon [sic], or Formosa oolong, or Foochow pekoe are the most desirable kinds for the purpose.
The next book I ended up coming across was Österreichische botanische Zeitschrift; or the Austrian Botanical Journal.2 This was mostly just run through google translate on my end (with a few problems).
Scented Orange Pekoe grows northeast of Foochow. It dries for only five minutes over the fire, is bagged and transported to Foochow. Here it is mixed with Chulan flowers (Chloranfcus inconspicuus Swarlz), slowly dried on lofts over oil-wood, and then the Chulan flowers are removed. This I’ro / edur is renewed. Lastly, they set the bliss of Jasminuin Sambar Ait. (Mot-lee) at, so roasted nachiier but again eutferut. The pure tea is then heated again on pans and packaged warm. It serves as an addition to other types of theses. He will export to England and a small amount to Australia.
Chulan flowers apparently float around in a few sources as used to scent tea, although I’ve never seen them before. Our very own Robert Fortune disputes this in A Residence Among the Chinese, citing Aglaia as the flower of choice, in this case.3 He credits the mix-up to the similarities of the Chinese names for the two flowers (chulan, yuchulan).3 Fortune also lists the flowers most used for scenting (in order of most to least popular; those denoted with an asterisk are almost exclusively made for export)3:
1. Rose, scented (Tsing moi-qui-hwa).
1 or 2. Plum, double (Moi-liwa).
2*. Jasminum Sambac (Mo-le-hwa).
2 or 3*. Jasminum paniculatum (Sieu-hing-hwa).
4*. Aglaia odorata (Lan-hwa, or Yu-chu-lan).
5. Olea fragrans (Kwei-lnva).
6*. Orange (Chang-hwa).
7*. Gardenia florida (Pak-sema-hwa).
Both Law and Fortune talk of Glazy or Glazed Ouchain teas as well, but that’s another mystery.
Ukers’ All About Tea details the different kinds of SOB (as does Law’s to some extent). Fuzhou SOB, a yellowish, more delicate, higher-quality and small-leafed scented tea that wasn’t strong enough to blend and rarely imported. Guangzhou SOB is dark green-black, with a larger leaf (‘Long Leaf SOB’ or ‘Spider Leg SOB’), and is similar to oolong.4, 5 It’s commonly exported for foreign markets, a claim backed up by Fortune and others.3, 4, 5
Nowhere along the line did I find any evidence of tea being scented with ylang ylang. Not even a whole lot about magnolia-scented oolongs, except champaca (the magnolia reportedly used for that).
The only real information I’ve been able to conclude is that it’s a black tea (straight leafed, versus ‘caper’ which sports a curled leaf not unlike gunpowder), normally produced around Guangzhou for export, most commonly scented with osmanthus but that can be otherwise scented with a variety of different flowers (even at the same time!). It is not commonly drunk alone, and was almost always blended with other teas at the time (only requiring on a small amount to do so).1, 4, 5
It had also already been falling out of favour for a while. At least by the mid-late 1800s; but according to my work it managed to limp all the way to some time in the 1990s before wholesalers stopped carrying it.6
It’s a shame I probably won’t know what Murchie’s SOP was originally like. I’ll probably keep looking–the company is proud of its history and keeps extensive documentation of old works, ads, information… I could sit and just flip through old books (if only).
Can it be replaced? Maybe. I would love to play around with reblending up some old teas. I think SOB could be replaced with magnolia oolong, perhaps. Otherwise osmanthus black scented teas still exist… Jasmine is always a substitute, although for blends that call for both, doubling the jasmine is just… boring.
It’s interesting to note (and really the reason I’m writing about this at all) that all of these works refer to Scented Orange Pekoe as its own unique classification of tea, much like green tea and oolong tea (many of the ‘size’ grades used today were similarly classified as such, such as souchong and flowery pekoe). And that, I suppose, there wasn’t much distinction held between the different scents used.
- Law’s Grocer’s Manual, by Law, James Thomas
- Österreichische botanische Zeitschrift (Austrian Botanical Journal), individual work by Antoine, Franz
- A Residence Among the Chinese, by Fortune, Robert
- All About Tea, by Ukers, William
- The Cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia, Vol 3
- Captain Pidding’s Chinese Olio, and Tea Talk, Issue 1