“Green Tea with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups” by Robert Hellyer

Green with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups, Robert Hellyer (Columbia University Press, October 2021) Green with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups, Robert Hellyer (Columbia University Press, October 2021)

Green Tea with Milk and Sugar is, at least at first, a perplexing title: the green teas I grew up with and came to know from China and Japan were taken hot and without any additives. Then again, I consume a fair amount of matcha latte, and if the menus of the local bubble tea shops are anything to go by, adding milk and sugar is quite commonplace, and not restricted to the black teas of British traditions imagined from novels. Historian and author Robert Hellyer has a personal connection to this history of green tea drinking in the US, as both his grandmothers kept green tea for nicer occasions, and a grandfather was actually involved in importing teas from Japan.

Hellyer outlines the development of tea as a commodity and cash crop in Japan, against the backdrop of civil unrest between the shogunate and imperial supporters in the 19th century. Green tea began to be consumed in the US during the early 1800s; the historian has no explanation for the development of this trend. Tea varieties such as hyson, bohea, and gunpowder were of higher value than black teas of the time. The tea mainly came from China at first, however with the collapse of the shogunate in Japan, tea appeared to be a valuable commodity to farm. To increase the market outside of Japan, Chinese tea experts were brought in to process the Japan tea in ways that the export market was accustomed to, with respect to flavor and color. Hellyer juxtaposes the American Reconstruction period and subsequent growth of anti-Chinese propaganda, with more detailed illustration of the development of Japan after their civil war. Ironically, methods of processing tea for export came from China; however, as anti-Chinese sentiment rose, this background was downplayed, and Japanese tea was touted as superior: less adulterated.


… beginning in the early 1860s most Japanese teas were refined using Chinese practices, which included the addition of coloring agents. If price and distinction from Chinese varieties were not factors, why did US consumers choose Japan Tea over established types of Chinese teas? Prejudice against Chinese teas seems to have been the biggest factor. Writing in the 1880s, Joseph Walsh, a Philadelphia tea merchant, concluded that the rapid increase in demand for Japan Tea emerged because the “first receipts were of the choicest kinds, and [because there was] the strong prejudice then existing against Chinese green teas under the impression that coloring matter was used extensively in the preparation of all green teas.”  … He gave Japanese producers the benefit of the doubt, asserting that their coloring agents were harmless and “only used in the preparation of poor teas, for the purpose of making these inferior sorts salable and pleasing to the eye.” In other words, Japanese producers used coloring agents to meet American preferences, but Chinese sought to hoodwink tea drinkers into purchasing teas of substandard quality.


Contemporary accounts of tea processing sound Dickensian with respect to labor practices. By one estimate, 70% of workers were women.

Writing in 1883, a British merchant described how the volume of refining at Yokohama’s factories overwhelmed one’s senses:


During the season, we have daily experience of the aroma issuing form the open windows of the tea-firing godowns, of the troops of tea-firing men, women and children who clatter past our windows at an unearthly hour in the morning, and who make day hideous with their noise, singing and crying. Probably most of us have also been inside these godowns and seen these women at work, stirring the tea in iron pans with unceasing vigour and song, only interrupted by the occasional shouts of the overlookers or by the motherly attentions required by the children slung on their backs of tugging at their skirts.


Over time, black tea began to be advertised more heavily, and as a result did become more popular in the early twentieth century. Promotion of black teas relied on racist tropes of the time.


Advertisements appearing throughout the United State began to employ the specter of the dirty coolie in an effort to convince Americans to purchase India and Ceylon black teas. In Chicago, an advertisement for the Monsoon brand asserted that Ceylon and India black teas were the result of “civilized labor and intelligence”, which brought “greater perfection.” It boasted that “there can be no question as to the result when civilized man’s intelligence, backed by capital, is placed in competition with the pauper and Coolie labor of China and Japan.” Other advertisements stressed the superior methods of British-run plantations in Ceylon and India, producing teas, such as those sold under the Blue Cross brand, which were “carefully prepared under white supervision–China and Japan teas are not.”


As a result, the Japan Central Tea Association strove to promote the health benefits particularly in sencha, denoting research demonstrating high levels of vitamin C, as well as suggesting that it prevented contagious diseases, including cholera. Although current research does not show high levels of vitamin C in green tea, the current craze for matcha as a health beverage echoes in that earlier marketing scheme. Robert Hellyer is meticulous in describing the relevant history of both the US and Japan of these periods, and most history buffs would enjoy his exploration of the period, through the lens of tea.

Kristen Yee is an American writer of Chinese and Portuguese-Jamaican descent.