Ireland and tea go together like … uh, well … Ireland and tea! The Irish people drink the most tea per capita of any country in the world, with 3 million tea drinkers averaging 4 to 6 cups of tea per day each. Most of that tea is the Lyons brand (founded in 1902 by the J. Lyons family in Dublin, Ireland, and purchased by international food company Unilever in 1996). However, coming up a close second is Barry’s. Both are black teas and consumed on a daily basis, spurring the Irish Tea Debate: which is better?
A key development that made Lyons the top brand in Ireland was the introduction of a bagged version of their tea in the 1970s. It was a round bag and caused the tea’s popularity to soar. In 2004, they switched to a pyramid-shaped bag that is supposed to act as a mini teapot, allowing the tea dust pieces to float more freely and interact with the hot water. Batches of Lyons Original are re-tasted and re-blended daily so that variations from one tea crop to the next are balanced out. The tea is bagged at a factory in Dublin, making it truly an Irish product.
Only two types of Lyons tea are available in the U.S., and your best bet is to order it online:
- Original Blend Lyons Tea — This tea is also known in Ireland as Green Label for obvious reasons and is the most popular variety of their tea. It steeps up a golden colored liquid that takes milk and sweetener well.
- Lyons Gold Tea — A premium tea with a richer and more full-bodied flavor. It also steeps up a golden colored liquid and also is great with milk and sweetener.
Barry’s has a variety of blends — each with its own taste — of African (Kenya and Rwanda) and Indian (Assam) teas. The African teas are said to steep up particularly well in the water in Ireland, which tends to be “soft” (that is, not too many minerals in it). Authentic Barry’s is still blended and produced in Cork, Ireland, so this tea, too, is truly an Irish product.
Here’s where a key difference comes in: Lyons is blended one way for the Irish market and another way for elsewhere, which spurs those Irish who tend to travel outside the country to take some of the Irish-blend teabags with them. Whether they taste right or not is another matter, since they are blended to work with the fairly soft Irish water, just as Barry’s is.
Keys to maximizing your taste experience:
- If you use milk in the tea, be sure it is fresh, whole milk, since dairy fats carry flavors.
- Pour the milk into the cup first — many tea drinkers in Ireland swear that it does make a difference in how the tea tastes.
- Use soft water, since the extra minerals in hard water distort the tea taste.
- Many tea drinkers swear that you should use freshly boiled water, claiming that it has a higher oxygen content that helps to bring out tea flavors. Not sure why that would be, but you can give it a try.
- Forego dainty manners and slurp your tea to get more flavor-enhancing oxygen in with each mouthful.
I wanted to do my own taste test, but my order of Lyons didn’t arrive in time (I always have plenty of Barry’s Gold Blend on hand). However, I found a side-by-side taste comparison, posted by “Kate.” She steeps in the bags (ugh!) and compares the results, straight and with the traditional milk and sugar. (Psst! Barry’s wins!) I’m not convinced that her thoughts about PG Tips and Lyons being virtually the same since both are in pyramid-shaped bags are correct. There seems to be a bit too much suspicion sometimes of big companies like Unilever, which owns both brands. I like to stay positive and think that the folks at Unilever know their market. The Irish would hardly stand still for anyone messing with their tea!
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