Adam O'Neill
Tea and Tobacco: A Pairing Guide

If you have a spare moment, go and search "Gungfu ceremony." The leaves being prepared are different, but there's some commonality there too. Much like our everyday ritual of preparing and smoking a pipe, the Gongfu ceremony serves both to aid in proper preparation and to ease the drinker into a proper mindset to enjoy the tea.

As both an avid tea drinker and pipe smoker, I've been known to practice a combination of the two rituals; a practice which must vex my wife horribly, as when you add them together, plus the time it takes to grab some photos, and the time spent enjoying the pipe, my afternoon smoke-and-tea break can take as long as a couple of hours.

While I'm not suggesting you take up this habit yourself (okay, I am), in this article I will quickly outline the different types of tea and tobaccos which I think pair well with them.

A Quick Word On Tea Varieties

Or, more properly, tea cultivars. You see, while all tea is of the species Camellia Sinensis, that is — for those of you who remember their biology — the Sinensis (Chinese) species of the Camellia genus, it is subdivided by cultivars. Very briefly Camellia Sinensis has a propensity to throw a unique variety with every mating between male and female trees. While this works well in terms of evolution and survival, it makes for a terrible product, as every tree would produce different results. To remove this factor, farmers asexually reproduce plants, producing cultivars (cultivated varieties) unique to the geography, geology, and climate, or some combination of these. More properly, this is known as terroir.

These cultivars, or a blend thereof, are what you see when you pick up a box/bag/brick of tea and are often mistakenly referred to as varieties, or even worse (at least for the grammar nerds among you), varietals. Assam, ceylon, kenyan, etc. are all cultivars, but for the sake of ease I'll break these down by how they're processed.

Tea and the Tobaccos that Love Them

Barring a few outliers like pu'erh and rooibos, all teas start out life the same and are processed using five steps: plucking, withering (which allows the leaves to soften), rolling, oxidising, and firing. The most important part of the process is oxidation, which some (incorrectly) refer to as fermenting, and is the process of allowing oxygen to interact with the leaf after the cell walls have been broken down through rolling or natural decomposition.

Most teas use some or all of these five steps, and I've broken them down by which of the steps are used.

Black Tea

Black teas are the more common, staple teas; with cultivars like ceylon, assam and kenyan being the primary ingredients in blends like English and Irish Breakfast, Earl Grey, etc. Black tea uses all five steps, with particular attention paid to oxidation to allow for a stronger flavour. If you're English or Australian (like me) this is best enjoyed with milk and a sugar or two.

Pairing: Sweet, milky tea goes best with English blends while black tea without milk generally goes better with a darker Virginia or Virginia-Perique. Earl Grey is a great tea to pair with Orlik Golden Sliced or anything with a lot of citrus notes.

Green Tea

Although generic "green tea" can be found in most households, this covers a staggering amount of cultivars and blends, from the rice infused genmaicha or 'popcorn tea' to the smokier gunpowder green tea. Basically green tea is processed using all of the steps bar oxidisation and is usually fired in a wok or steamed to stop the oxidisation process.

Pairing: Bright Virginias.

White Tea

This is basically raw, unprocessed tea that's been plucked and withered. They appear pale yellow or green when steeped and have a delicate but clean and sweet flavour.

Pairing: For me, a Navy flake, slowly sipped, is the best pairing here, although a milder Oriental forward blend would more than likely benefit as well.

Oolong

Oolong is a whole leaf tea that uses all five steps, with rolling and oxidising repeated as needed for that cultivar. They usually have a very little astringency and can range from floral or fruity to creamy and even smoky.

Pairing: Dark and musty Virginias, think McClelland Matured Virginia #24.

Pu'erh

A different beast all together, pu'erh uses a process similar to green tea, but it is aged (either loose or in pressed blocks) before drying. Pu'erh is a musty, earthy tea, with some blends displaying a more smoky note. They're also great for digestion, especially with oily foods like pizza.

Pairing: Bright Virginias and aromatics.

Rooibos

Unlike the rest of these teas, rooibos doesn't come from the Camellia Sinensis plant, but rather the Aspalathus Linearis plant of South Africa. It's a red tea with a sweet, clean profile. Caffeine free and high in antioxidants, it can also come as the sweeter honeybush or the more earthy green rooibos.

Pairing: Aromatics.

Further Reading A Brief History of Two Leaves: Tea & Tobacco - E. Roberts

Two Leaves in the Age of Discovery - E. Roberts

Tea Geek Blog

Two Dog Tea Blog

Category:   Resources Tagged in:   Food Pipe Culture Tips Tobacco

Comments

    • Thomas T on June 18, 2015
    • Lapsang Souchong?

    • Mark S on June 18, 2015
    • A helpful summary of a vast subject.

      I'm a fan of quick infusion (2 minutes or less) which I learned about in Germany. More delicate flavor, but easier on the old digestive system.

      Coffee is a favorite hot beverage, but I admit it doesn't pair as well with a pipe. Tea seems to wake up and clear the taste buds. Coffee seems to coat them, but I still love it anyway.

      Dunhill Elizabethan w/ Gunpowder Green
      Luxury Twist Flake w/ Dragon Phoenix Pearls (Jasmine)
      Mac Baren Plumcake w/ Imperial Lapsang Souchong

    • Adam O'Neill on June 19, 2015
    • @Thomas T - Much like the Pu'erh, I'd go with either a bright VA or an aromatic.

    • Adam O'Neill on June 19, 2015
    • @Mark S - Glad you liked it and thanks for the recommendations!

    • Kevin J on June 19, 2015
    • Thoughts on other infusion drinks like herba matte, or cocoa husks?

    • Adam O'Neill on June 19, 2015
    • @Kevin J - You know, I've never tried Mate. I've had opportunities, but have been deliberately obtuse in avoiding it. My loss from what I understand.

      I have however drunk a lot of cocoa husk tisane, and love it. It is quite a delicate flavour though, so I've not had a lot of luck pairing it. I tried Mayor's Chocolate, hoping it might match the cocoa notes, but was overpowered. I'll keep looking though. Have you had any luck?

    • Kevin J on June 19, 2015
    • I have not tried pairing either mate or husk and prefer my caffeine cold. Thinking on it now a sweetened, chilled cocoa husk tisane may pair well with Escudo or a similar VaPer. Something to try this summer. I am a fan of drinking chocolate in cooler months.

    • Gavin S on June 22, 2015
    • The smokiness of lapsang souchong is a natural match for latakia rich blends. I've also found that Wuyi yancha (rock oolong from Fujian province in China) pairs really well with full english mixtures like Nightcap.

      On the lighter side, the floral notes of many Taiwanese oolongs match well with subtle oriental-forward tobaccos like Gawith's Skiff Mixture.

    • Jim Heberlein on June 26, 2015
    • I really enjoy reading your comments. I am a tea lover, one pot a day, at least, for over 50 years. Am impressed that one would write such an article and it is appreciated. Have been told the best way to enjoy my pipe is with an alcoholic beverage - which I have no problem with but tea and coffee are my choices. Tap or bottled water is fine too.
      Thank you very much.
      Jim

    • Campbell on June 30, 2015
    • That was so much better than I thought it would be. Tea to me has always been what you had at smoko with your scones and pikelets and I've never understood the appeal of 'herbal' tea, but you make it sound as appealing as, well, tobacco... in fact I wonder how some tobaccos might go in a pot? I imagine someone has tried? probably foul. Anyway, how about a whisky matching? I imagine that's been done many times already too, is there a post in here?

    • Jim on June 30, 2015
    • I've only been drinking strong teas every day since I was 4 yrs. old -- so that's 55 years and counting. I guess it's probably becoming a habit by now. I've only smoked and collected pipes since 1975, so not nearly as long. Anyway, this is a great article and I thank Adam and everyone who's contributing comments! I'll just add that I heartily agree with Gavin S. and the others who believe that lapsang souchong goes well with latakia blends!

    • Adam O'Neill on June 30, 2015
    • @Gavin S - Thanks for the tips, I'll be sure to try them as soon as it cools down enough for English blends.

    • Adam O'Neill on June 30, 2015
    • @Jim Heberlein - Thank you! And I hear you, while I'm more than partial to a good cocktail with my pipe, my preference has always been a cup of tea.

    • Adam O'Neill on June 30, 2015
    • @Campbell - I've definitely heard of people smoking tea, but never of drinking tobacco. Neither sound particularly appealing though. Thanks for the kind words!

    • Adam O'Neill on June 30, 2015
    • @Jim - Thanks, it's my pleasure!

    • Joshua B. on June 30, 2015
    • @Campbell There is actually a Perique liqueur that's being produced in France, and I believe that a few bartenders across the country have begun experimenting with pipe tobacco-infused spirits of various sorts. If I'm not mistaken, one of these featured on the show Booze Traveler. By most reports, these are potent but interesting cocktails.

    • Adam O'Neill on June 30, 2015
    • @Joshua B - Well I know what I'll be binge watching tonight.

    • Jim on June 30, 2015
    • @Campbell -- In case this ever comes up on Jeopardy or a bar bet or whatever, you can win it -- "drinking tobacco" and "drinking smoke" are how people used to refer to smoking back in the days soon after Columbus introduced smoking to Europe. The practice was so new to the Europeans, and appeared so odd to them, they didn't know how to describe it, and that's one way that didn't catch on for the longer term. As long as we're on the subject, in centuries past early medical practitioners did indeed have their patients drink water or other liquids that had been infused with tobacco leaves. I once saw a very old photo of a poor immigrant laborer who had no money for tobacco but he had some tea so he was pictured putting his tea into his pipe. I was young and foolish, so naturally i tried smoking some tea leaves -- I don't recommend it! It burned extremely hot and fast, and it had a most unpleasant taste and smell.

    • Reginald James on July 30, 2015
    • I literally stumbled across this article and I am very glad I did. Until I read this I was thinking I was the only one who preferred my Pipe with Tea. It just seemed a natural joining, glad to see others enjoying these two tasty relaxing pastimes together.

      Great article, and wonderful comments!

    • Reginald James on July 30, 2015
    • I literally stumbled across this article and I am very glad I did. Until I read this I was thinking I was the only one who preferred my Pipe with Tea. It just seemed a natural joining, glad to see others enjoying these two tasty relaxing pastimes together.

      Great article, and wonderful comments!

    • Flatticus on January 28, 2016
    • Long overdue, and great information. I have no doubt I'll give this a try some day soon, largely because of this post.

    • Adam O'Neill on January 29, 2016
    • @Flatticus Let me know if you're ever in the area, we'll make it happen.

    • Rob Forbes on January 29, 2016
    • Great article. Just what I need another obsession. 😜

    • GMac on January 29, 2016
    • I was just thinking about this article over my last smoke, and how funny it appeared in SP's email the next day!

      I enjoyed a Golden Cavendish blended with a hint of Black Cavendish and made a large pot of Rose Mint tea. The pink rosebuds give the tea an invigorating and hydrating feeling and the mint gives it... ...well a minty refreshing flavor of course! Adding the pipe and a good long couple hours set aside really paired well. Not only flavor wise, but I felt the tea balanced my palate as well with the tobacco and I got to enjoy another side of this blend. I forget where my wife gets the rose tea, but the mint is any mint you can get at the store! Definitely worth trying out!

    • Adam O'Neill on February 2, 2016
    • @Rob Forbes Oops! ;)

    • Adam O'Neill on February 2, 2016
    • @GMac Colour me curious. I'm going to have to try that one out, thanks!

    • Michael Swann on August 19, 2016
    • I'm a big fan of the Latakia/Assam pairing.
      MacBaren's Vintage Syrian is particularly good with a hot strong cup of assam.
      On a tangential note, Dunhill Elizabethan seems to go oddly well with beans on toast.

    • Adam O'Neill on August 22, 2016
    • @Michael Swann Hahaha, I'll have to remember both of these, thanks Michael.

    • Carl J Mannino on December 18, 2016
    • Great, helpful and well done article.

    • Adam O'Neill on December 19, 2016
    • @Carl J Mannino Glad you liked it Carl, thanks for reading!

    • Robert Phillips on July 30, 2017
    • This was wonderful but just scratches the surface of teas and how they may pair with tobaccos. For instance, black teas. English and Irish breakfast and Earl Grey are fine teas, but what about Yunnan black teas? Known for their very rich flavor with a boldness comparable to coffee and a distinct natural cocoa flavor which is brought out with a little sugar.
      A whole book could be written on this topic but what a great and long over due article.

    • Adam O'Neill on July 31, 2017
    • @Robert Phillips You pretty much hit it right on the head there, Robert. There's just SO MUCH to talk about on this subject that we had to draw a line somewhere. Glad you enjoyed it though!

    • Týr Blackthorn on August 22, 2018
    • Adam, just enjoyed my first Russian Caravan Tea with my beloved Brown Irish X...Simply Outstanding (no need to add latakia)

    • Adam O'Neill on August 28, 2018
    • @Týr Blackthorn That'd be the lapsang souchong. Nice and smokey. Glad you found something you like, Týr!


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