14th June 2023
by William Tullett
Created at:
14th June 2023
William Tullett
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Figure 1. A Chinese man with a tea pot and workers harvesting from Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, Traité nouveau de curieux du thé(Lyon, 1693), etching with engraving; picture 12.7 x 7 cm, Wellcome Collection 25251i.

Whilst Jesuit missionaries encountered tea in China in the sixteenth century, the fragrance of tea was still quite new to most seventeenth-century European noses. When it first entered Europe in the 1630s and 1640s the tea was exotic and unfamiliar, but by the late eighteenth century it had claimed a central place in the everyday lives of Europeans – especially the English and the Dutch. Tea could be smelt in seventeenth-century coffee houses, eighteenth-century restaurants, and nineteenth-century cafes. But it also became a smell was deeply connected to domestic life. Ironically, given that tea was imported from far afield, the steam of brewing tea eventually came to symbolise the scent of home for travelling Europeans. The feelings provoked by tea thus changed, from exotic stimulation to cozy comfort and nostalgic longing. By the nineteenth century many ordinary consumers of tea became, like the merchants, druggists, and physicians who had first engaged with the beverage in the seventeenth century, astute sniffers of tea leaves. Knowledgeable sniffing in grocers and dealers shops one was able to ensure the product being purchased was of a high quality. The need for close sniffing was due to the fact that, either unwittingly or by the addition of other ingredients, the consumption of adulterated or altered tea was common. 

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

How did Europeans describe the smell of tea in the past? One of the first European accounts we have of tea comes from the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) who tasted the drink whilst in China. In his diaries, which were posthumously published in 1610, Ricci judged tea to be ‘not unpleasant to the taste, being somewhat bitter’ (Trigault, 1953: 17). 

Figure 1. A Chinese man with a tea pot and workers harvesting from Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, Traité nouveau de curieux du thé(Lyon, 1693), etching with engraving; picture 12.7 x 7 cm, Wellcome Collection 25251i.

However, once tea began to be imported into Europe from China and Japan from the mid seventeenth century onwards, a number of authors began to describe the scent of tea. Many of these descriptions were aimed at informing consumers and dealers how to find the freshest and best quality tea. The Frenchman Philippe Sylvestre Dufour (1622-1687) argued that good quality tea had a ‘sweet and pleasant odour, akin to that of violets’ (Dufour, 1671: 243). The Dutchman Steven Blankaart (1650-1704) offered a slightly different description: he argued that the more pleasant the smell of tea was and the closer it came to the scent of fresh hay, the better the tea (Blankaart, 1686). For Peter Motteux, the wonderful fragrance of tea was a mix of the scent of flowers and the smell of fresh hay:

Think of the rose, that inoffensive sweet,

Of fragrant gums, the brain's luxurious treat;

Or kinder odours which in verdant fields,

When newly cropt the grass harvest yields,

THink ev'ry grateful smell diffus'd in one,

And in imperial tea find all their charms out-done.
(Motteux, 1712).

There is a chemical explanation for these comparisons. Tea, violets, and hay all contain the volatile compound β-Ionone. Ionone comes from the Greek iona, meaning violet. It makes sense that seventeenth-century noses detected this common compound, as it is highly potent and has a low odour threshold. This means that despite being present at low levels in hay, tea, or violets, β-Ionone exerts a strong impact on the overall odour of these substances (Paparella et al., 2021). The similar scent of hay and tea also came, according to mid-nineteenth-century authors, from the techniques that the Chinese used when processing tea. Black teas, according to the Birmingham tea-dealer John Sumner (1807-?), acquired ‘their fragrance by a partial decomposition - a slight heating of the leaves, by allowing them to lie in heaps, which are turned from time to time - (a somewhat analogous process to hay-making)’ (Sumner, 1863: 19).

However, as more tea was imported into Europe, drinkers developed a more discerning appreciation of the different types of tea and their scents. In 1699 John Ovington (1653-1731) distinguished between three primary sorts of tea: bohe, singlo, and bing. Whilst the quality singlo tea leaves could be determined by their 'fragrant smell’, it is clear that consumers preferred the scent of bing. Ovington noted that the fragrance of the latter was ‘very pleasant, which inhances the Price of it here in England’ (Ovington, 1699: 12-13). A good scent gave products greater value. As Europeans acquired more knowledge about tea and began to classify and categorise the teas that were sold, smell played a role in distinguishing one tea from another. In the 1820s it was noted that 

Although different sorts of Tea are produced from the same plant, yet, as from the process they undergo, they differ so materially in appearance, taste, and smell, as to be easily distinguished by attention.

The same author noted the different smells of both black and green teas. Among the black teas bohea tea had ‘a faint smell, not unlike that of dried hay’; the smell of congou tea was ‘in the inferior quality... very trifling, but in the better sorts very fragrant’; souchong possed a ‘very sweet’ smell with a ‘sensation as of an agreeable acid’; and pekoe had a ‘most delicate and pleasant smell... not unlike that of cowslips’. Good ordinary green tea had ‘the smell rather of a chaffy nature’; curled and speckled leaf singlo tea smelt ‘very refreshing’; and hyson tea was ‘very fragrant to the smell’. The best green tea was that which had ‘the liveliest smell’ (The History, 1820: 33-37).

Figure 2. Two men at a shop counter in a tea and coffee retail shop using scales to measure out coffee beans, in G Scott after Bell, Brother John and I. The polite grocers of the Strand. 1805, engraving ; image 14.2 x 10 cm, Wellcome Collection 29754i.



By the nineteenth century, when the Europeans – particularly the British in India – had tea plantations under their direct control, more commentary emerged on the smell of tea plants and flowers. Unlike other colonial monocultures, the smell of tea-production was described in largely fragrant terms. An 1859 article on tea-growing in India contrasted it with other colonial plantation economies: ‘all others, such as indigo manufacture, sugar-baking, farming, &c. have their compounds of ‘villanous smells’ but tea-growing was much more ‘agreeable’ to the nose. The same article noted that plantations in different regions of India had different odours: ‘the smell of the flowers of the tea-plant in the Dhoon was faint compared to that of the tea-plant blossom in Assam’ (‘The Resources’, 1859: 359).

As it was brought from India, China, and Japan to Europe, the scent of brewing tea began to spread outwards into a number of other spaces. Tea merchants and dealers often had tasting rooms in China and India, where teas could be tried before orders were made. One news piece exploring British concerns about tea-adulteration reflected nostalgically on the ‘fine old teas of the East India Company’ which had ‘a fragrance which made itself felt immediately over all the tasting room’ (Review, 1874: 228). In Europe, once tea arrived with dealers ready for sale, tasting rooms might also be located next to the warehouses so that the public could try different varieties before they made a purchase. T. Collison & Sons in Bradford opened their ‘Orient Café’ next door to their warehouse where ‘teas and coffees are tasted by intending customers’ (The Century, 1893: 96)

From the eighteenth century onwards shops in towns and cities might also stock tea among their various wares. The experience of entering these shops could be impressive: the scent of tea accompanying the vast array of jars with the names of different blends that were stacked on the shelves. In the description of a Glasgow ‘Dealer in Fine Teas’ from Amelia E. Barr's 1888 Scottish Sketches, in which the characters ‘passed slowly through the darkened store, with its faint smells of Eastern spices and fragrant teas’ (Barr, 1888). Tea was also one component in the overpowering smell of smaller village shops, which sold a whole range of different products. For example, one nursery story from 1887 described the

curious "everything" smell that one knows so well in a village shop in the country... a smell of tea, and coffee, and bacon, and nuts, and soap, and matting, and brown holland, and spices, and dried herbs, all mixed together, but with a clean feeling about it... (Molesworth, 1887: 138)

One might consume tea in public venues. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries coffee-houses played host to the scent of tea alongside coffee, and chocolate. Consider Theodore Edward Hook's (1788-1841) description of the breakfast atmosphere of an early nineteenth-century coffee house, where tea is one among a plethora of odours: 

…in addition to the ordinary smells of London, a stable-yard, a coach-office, the country farmers and the London lawyers; coffee, rum, hollands and water, tea, toast, brandy and tobacco, all conspired at one and the same moment, with the never failing odour of gas... to give fragrance to the residence... (Hook, 1836: 161)

By the late nineteenth century teahouses and restaurants became a central part of the experience of metropolitan shopping and leisure – especially for women. In Dublin the Lucan Dairy Oriental Tea Room, opened in 1894, included orientalist furnishings on which ladies could lounge while consuming the ‘fragrant tea and rich Lucan cream’ served in the ‘daintiest of porcelain’ (Rains, 2022). A story in the Dutch magazine Our Century in 1918 told of a trip to an ‘exquisite eatery’ where women would come after shopping to drink ‘fragrant tea'. These were ‘nice teahouses’ where ladies would be provided with ‘peaches and cigarettes and delicacies, and fragrant tea in very small cups’ (Loon, 1918: 18).

However, the brewing of tea was, by the nineteenth century, a central part of daily domestic life for many Europeans – especially the Dutch and English. The scent of tea was, for English writers, the smell of home. One 1885 novel described the ‘cheerful home peace and brightness’ conveyed by ‘the crackling wood fire , in the sparkle of the tea-things and the fragrance of the tea’ (Ward, 1885: 262) From an early age, children were also learning to associate the smell of tea with domestic routine. Breakfast in the parlour might, for middle-class households, become a space for the education of the nose. Mary Anne Ross's 1863 collection of ‘object lessons’ for children offered one such example. It instructed children to

go into the parlour at breakfast-time - see the cups arranged on the table - what to be poured into the cups? - tea or coffee. We should know which was coffee and which was tea - even with our eyes shut, know by the smell or odour. Tea and coffee are odorous - the smell makes them pleasanter. (Ross, 1863: 138)


One practice that was essential to the scent of tea was the process of storing and transporting it. Tea was principally imported by merchants from China and Japan to Europe and, in the late nineteenth century, India. Transporting a commodity across the globe whilst maintaining the fragrant scent that Europeans prized was a tough task. In 1687 Nicolas de Blégny (1652-1722) observed that the best tea degenerated into common tea because it had been ‘kept too long or badly preserved’, such that ‘its taste, its smell, and the virtues in it are annihilated, by the dissipation of the subtle and spirituous parts’ (Blégny, 1687: 23-4). 

The natural scent of tea was under threat from several angles. The smell of tea could also be negatively impacted by the way it was stored at European ports. Leaving the chests open to the air in warehouses could cause teas to lose ‘all the freshness and malty smell’ (Money: 1883: 273). The escaping scents made tea-dealer’s warehouses highly odorous spaces. In late-nineteenth-century Glasgow the warehouses of Davidson Junior and Davidson, wholesale tea dealers, were ‘fragrant with the long-imprisoned aroma of the precious leaf brought across the seas’ (Glasgow, 1891: 146).

Tea was stored in tea chests and the materials from which these were made could also affect the scent of their contents. In late nineteenth-century India mango-wood, with its ‘sour and vinegary’ scent, and Indian pine, with its ‘resinous’ odour, were mistakenly used by some tea planations for packing their goods. Even white lead could produce reactions that led tea to loose its normal odour: one consignment of assam tea examined by the late nineteenth-century English chemist G. W. Wigner ‘instead of its proper flavour and smell had a distinctive character of its own, the smell resembling a new and excessively rank kid glove’ (Wigner, 1883: 258). 

Any tea-chest had to be made from a material that was both free from smell and would stop other scents from infecting the tea. In 1868 the Frenchman Géminien Luppi cautioned readers that ‘Tea absorbs all odors with the greatest ease; so it is prudent to store it in wooden boxes lined with lead foil, or in hermetically sealed crystal bottles’ (Luppi, 1868). Odourless materials that would not decompose were frequent choices for storing tea or lining tea chests. Sailors kept tea far away from other odorous products when on board ship. East India Company ships prevented seamen from storing camphor or musk (Webster, 1844: 1040) near chests of tea. This was something that the Chinese were also well aware of. The most expensive teas that were brought to Europe in the nineteenth century were sometimes in porcelain jars with narrow mouths. The Chinese believed that these jars added an additional aroma to the tea and were better adapted to preserving the fragrance of the leaves (Knight, 1843, xxiv: 288).

Figure 3. Pierre Filloeul after a painting by Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin , Tea drinking woman, 1759, etching on paper, 27.6 × 31.1 cm, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-43.398.

Storing the tea was one thing, but brewing it was another. The same principles that applied to containers for storing tea also applied to pots for infusing the leaves. In the late seventeenth century, Dufour told his French readers that a wide variety of covered pots could be used ‘provided that it does not give a bad smell or taste to the infusion’ (Dufour, 1671: 153). The eighteenth-century’s proliferation of commercially produced teapots – made from inodorous porcelain and glazed earthenware – ensured that Dufour’s advice was no longer needed. The water used in brewing was also chosen based on its scent. Blankaart, the tea-drinking Dutchman, noted that the best water to drink tea with was rain-water, as long as it had not become ‘dirty, impure, stinking or poisonous from bins, roofs, or air’. Blankaart was emphatic that it should only be water that was used: he attacked those tea-drinkers who insisted on turning the healthy drink into a form of dissipation by adding wine or brandy ‘that would bite the nose’ to their cup (Blankaart, 1686).

Feelings and Noses

The close connection between domestic life and the scent of tea meant that the latter could conjure up nostalgic, longing, visions of the former. In Anna Buchan's 1926 novel Penny Plain the 19-year-old David leaves Scotland for his first term at the University of Oxford. His family are concerned that he may be home sick. Whilst he never says so, he tells them ‘in one letter that he smelt the tea when he made it, for it was the one thing that reminded him of home’ (Buchan, 1926:). Perhaps the most famous example comes from Marcel Proust, who described the capacity of a tea-soaked madeleine to conjure past experiences through its aroma. Modern psychological studies suggest that childhood is the point at which many of our most powerful odour-related memories are generated (Jellinek, 2004). The nineteenth and early twentieth century was also the moment when nostalgia and homesickness emerged to claim their modern associations with the feeling of temporal and geographical dislocation (Dodman, 2018; Matt, 2014). Nineteenth- and twentieth-century middle- and upper-class children, experiencing the scent of tea daily at home, were encoding a powerful mnemonic resource that they would come to draw on in later life.

Aside from homesickness and nostalgia, the scent of tea also came to be associated with a more general feeling of comfort and cozy-ness. In one story written by author and cigar-maker Justius Maurik (1846-1904), the parlour of a widow’s house was characterised by a ‘cosy warmth and the smell of tea’ brewing (Maurik, 1908). In another Dutch short story from 1904 a domestic scene was characterised by the fragrant tea that ‘spread its cozy scents’ (Eigenhuis, 1904: 654). The cozyness of a cup of tea accentuated a sensory division between the home and the outside world. In one 1880 novel a visitor to prosperous farm-house in the countryside was met with a welcoming cup of tea, with a ‘fragrant scent, warm and grateful after the moist atmosphere of the meadows, smelling of decaying leaves’ (Jefferies, 1880: I, 221). Of course, seeing how tea was consumed in other houses and among other classes might also elicit reactions of mild disgust and disparagement. In his travels to the Sottish islands, the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson noted that the inhabitants ‘pollute the tea-table with large slices of Cheshire cheese, which mingles its less grateful odours with the fragrance of the tea’ (Johnson, 1775: 124). 

The place that tea occupied by the end of the nineteenth century – associated with sleepy, warm, domestic comfort – contrasted with the feelings that seventeenth-century writers had originally associated with its refreshing odour. Dufour had argued that tea’s ‘odoriferous qualities’ rejuvenated the spirits within the body and therefore helped to prevent sleep (Dufour, 1671: 173-4). Initially an exotic good with potential health benefits in the seventeenth century, tea’s fragrance had been domesticated as it spread through European homes and slotted itself into daily rhythms. 

Figure 4. T. Enami, The Preparation of Tea in Japan. Inspecting and tasting tea, 1902, gelatin silver print, 8.9 × 17.8 cm, Rijksmuseum RP-F-F13126.

The production, selling, and consumption of tea has often involved the skilful application of the nose. In the late seventeenth century, Steven Blankaart was already busy admonishing those who ignored their senses by only consuming expensive tea when cheaper options could be found that were ‘good in smell’ (Blankaart: 1686). Blankaart’s comments chime with those made by London tea dealers in the 1830s, who suggested that poorer customers were in fact more attentive to the sensory qualities of tea than those who could throw their money around more freely (Mauger, 2022: 17). Throughout the period from the mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth century, consumers could be picky about their tea and deployed active sniffing to seek out the flavours they wanted. Thomas Anderton (1836-1903), a resident of Birmingham in 1900, could not get the tea he wanted in ordinary grocers shops but eventually located a shop that dealt exclusively in tea. He exclaimed that he now got 'tea full of delicious fragrance and flavour. It breathes such a splendid aroma before it is tasted that it almost seems a sin to drink it' (Anderton, 1900).

One reason for this sensory attentiveness was that the threat of adulteration – by the Chinese or Indian supplier, by merchants and brokers, or by the grocers and dealers – was ever-present and could sometimes be discerned by careful sniffing. In Britain, parliamentary enquiries quizzed chemists, doctors, and dealers on the question of adulteration and how to detect it. In 1856, for example, a select committee quizzed Dr Arthur Hill Hassall (1817-1894) – a chemist and physician whose research on adulteration later led to legislation against the practice. The minutes demonstrate how Hassall had to mobilise his nose as the first stage in a longer examination of a substance:

Mr Moffatt: That is a sample of tea sent to me from the City [of London] this morning (handing a sample of tea to the Witness); will you favour the Committee with your opinion upon that tea?

A.H. Hassall: It is very fragrant; it is rather different in the size of the leaf from what is usual. I could not, however, without microscopical and other examination, give any opinion upon it.

Moffatt: Is it your opinion that it is tea or not? 

Hassall: I do not like to give an opinion off-hand; there may be something with it to give it the smell of tea.
(Commons, 1856: 313).

Attempts to produce tea-substitutes often failed because they could not produce the distinctive fragrance that the public associated with the beverage. Responding to attempts to revive the use of coffee-leaves for tea-making, one writer to the London Journal of the Society of Arts, suggested that it would require ‘special training’ before the public could ‘learn to drink’ coffee-leaf tea. Despite it tasting similar to some teas, the substitute beverage had a smell that was ‘so exactly like the sickly aroma of senna-tea that it would require a strong mind and an indifference to a bad smell… before its use can become general’ (Archer, 1871). Senna tea was, in fact, a purgative often used to encourage bowel movements. This was not a smell tea-drinkers would wish to be reminded of when consuming their morning brew. 

Shortages during the First World War also led German tea-drinkers to investigate the possibilities of ersatz replacements. The blossoms of heather were one option, which were said to produce a ‘pleasantly flowery-scented tea’ (Sächsische Volkszeitung, 04.08.1917: 6). Similar issues around the ‘proper’ smell of tea were faced when the British attempted to shift the source of their caffeine fix. In the late nineteenth century London tea dealers began to sell Indian tea instead of Chinese varieties. But convincing consumers to purchase these new varieties of tea was an olfactory challenge: the consumer had ‘been used to China teas, some of it highly scented’ and the initial response to Indian tea was that it ‘was not tea at all’ (Rappaport, 2017: 157).

Both the major trading companies, such as the East India Company, and the bigger commercial tea dealers employed experienced inspectors to assess the quality of tea. For medical writers considering the role of smell in diagnosis, the tea dealer who could ‘classify his wares, and price them, by their odor’ was proof that the nose could be ‘educated to a very high degree’ (Scudder, 1883: 45). Those who assessed tea developed their own terminologies for describing odour: for example in the 1880s parcels of tea might be termed ‘fresh burnt’, ‘brisk burnt’, or ‘malty burnt’ (Money, 1883: 143). Tea dealers were a community of experts united by their common practical experience of assessment, whose knowledge was not easy to communicate outside of their circles. In 1833 one such inspector noted that the addition of spurious leaves to one type of tea – Ankoi – could be detected by a ‘faint and odd smell’ emitted by the leaves (Jeffries, 1865: 2). It is not clear what this would mean to the average reader. These were relative judgements performed by those with an extensive olfactory knowledge of what was not odd for different varieties of leaf and infusion. 

Figure 5. A man tasting tea with inset picture of kettles boiling, 1890, pen and ink drawing, Wellcome Collection 25282i.

However, sometimes even an expert nose could be fooled. In the 1860s one visitor to a Chinese tea factory witnessed the adulteration of damaged black leaves in order to pass them off as green hyson tea. This involved adding highly poisonous substances such as Prussian blue to the leaves, which then gave the damaged leaves ‘the fine bloom colour of Hyson, with very much the same scent’ (Jeffries, 1865: 2). These concerns about contamination did not end the commercial reliance on skilled noses. By 1905 it was claimed that tea-tasting by dealers and commercial houses rarely involved taste and instead ‘the tea is often tasted now by sight and smell’. Boiled water was poured over the leaves and then, after a few minutes, the tester inhaled the rising steam – a process known as ‘getting the aroma’. The focus on smelling rather than tasting was partly because the constant sipping of teas, many of which were adulterated, lead experts to suffer heart disease, fits, or forms of slow poisoning. Getting the aroma from the tea was far safer than swilling and tasting it (Burbidge, 1905: 37). 

However, it seems that already in the early nineteenth century tea-dealers were used to judging the quality of tea by sight and smell alone – with the taste of the infusion as a last-ditch test when the expert was still uncertain. For example, when dealers came before a British Parliamentary Select Committee in 1834, they explained that ‘the mode of trying was to rub the nose in the tea; the taster then took the tea into his hands, rubbed and smelled it, and afterwards made the infusion’ (Mauger, 2022: 17). The difference between 1834 and 1905 was less in whether smell was used and more in what was being smelled: in 1834 this was the leaves and in 1905 it was more likely to be the aroma produced when boiling water was added. In either case, depending on one’s nose could still lead to health difficulties for tea-dealers who might overwhelm their senses through constant sniffing. A discussion of tea-dealing published in 1772 gave one distressing example:

An eminent Tea broker, after having examined in one day, upwards of one hundred chests of Tea, by smelling at them only, and forcibly, in order to distinguish their respective qualities, was the next day seized with a violent giddiness, head-ach, universal spasms, and loss of speech and memory (Lettsom, 1772: 57).

The assessment of tea still involves the sense of smell. However, a more diverse range of noses are involved in the selection and brokering of tea today than in the past. In the colonial era, the tea trade in India had been controlled by British brokers and auctions occurred in both London and India. However, in the aftermath of India’s independence the brokering and auctioning of India’s tea shifted away from London to India – a process that was not completed until 1998. Now Indian brokers are trained to sniff tea and the shared olfactory and organoleptic evaluations of tea take place in Indian auction houses (Besky, 2020: 158). However, one thing has not changed: as in the past, there is still a great degree of sensorial expertise that goes into a cup of tea.

William Tullett
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