The Mysterious World of German Tea

Photo: Erin Porter

I just tried to close my kitchen cabinet – thunk. Tried again – harder. Thunk! Sighing, I opened it to have an armload of tea rain down upon me. It’s just that time of year.

My husband works as an Erzieher and one of the funny little perks of the job are the Christmas presents from the kids. Sometimes he gets chocolates which is terrible for his diabetes but great for his attitude. Sometimes its candles, or homemade cookies or occasionally an art project. Unfortunately, one of the most common gifts is tea (or Tee in German).

As we live in Germany, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Germans are obsessed with tea. If you are sick, or pregnant or feeling gloomy – there is a tea for that!

That said, my husband and I don’t much care for tea. We’re from Seattle, the land of coffee, and feel completely overwhelmed with the whole tea brewing process, varieties and homegrown remedies.  And yet, I have got a cabinet full of tea and a country full of Germans to tell me what to do with them. Let me try to unlock the mysterious world of German tea.

History of Tea in Germany

In the late 1700s coffee houses were becoming a real thang in Europe. This is where the elite met to discuss life and times with coffee and tea. Both drinks were expensive and really only available to the rich. But by the early 19th century prices had dropped so that everyone could enjoy a cuppa.

In Germany, coffee is king but tea was big in Ostfriesland (East Frisia). To put it in perspective, more people drank tea than beer. That is partly because it was cheaper – which worried the Prussian monarchy. They tried to steer people away by making a policy against it in 1778 AD which led to tea smuggling. Think secret tea parties and undercover tea ops. Within two years, they gave up on the ban.

But that wasn’t the last of it fro tea struggles in Germany. World War II meant basics were a luxury, including tea. Only 10 grams (1/2 ounce) were allowed per person, per month. In deference to the rabid tea drinkers of East Frisia, they were afforded an extra Teekarten allowing for increased tea rations. However, this was still not enough and people got inventive with herbs and sugar, crafting their own tea substitutes.

Coffee houses are still popular today and while coffee is the drink of choice (Germans drink 150 liters of coffee per year – more than beer, wine or mineral water), tea consumption was at an all time high in 2016.

Schwarztee (black tea) and Fruchttee (fruit tea) are most popular throughout Germany with Kamillentee (Camomile), Fencheltee (Fennel), Hagebuttentee (Rosehip) and Pfefferminztee (Peppermint) all making an appearance. While we were only familiar with dipping a bag in hot water before, most German tea drinkers prefer loose tea which requires the accoutrement of tea pot, strainer, infuser and all sorts of things I don’t know how to use and now own.

Germans also praise its many medicinal uses. In general, the German health care system and people are much more accepting of homeopathy and Eastern cures than in places like the USA. Tea is often recommended – if not prescribed – by health workers. 

Today tea also appears as a common gift. My husband gets it from the students, it comes as an extra from the Apotheke (pharmacy) and the cupboard of two American non-tea drinkers is full of the stuff.

East Frisian tea with cream

East Frisian Tea

Ostfriesland’s tea-drinking culture continues today. Almost a quarter of all tea drunk in Germany is consumed here.

So, what is Ostfriesentee (East Frisian Tea)? It is black tea, usually a strong blend of Assam, Ceylon and Darjeeling. A Köppke Tee (cup of tea) is commonly served whenever visiting an East Frisian home and involves a certain amount of ceremony. Traditionally it is served in a large porcelain teapot with Kluntje (rock sugar) and cream. The sugar is put in the cup first, then tea is poured over it followed by heavy cream. Stirring is verboten and if done properly, a wulkje (little cloud) forms.  Drink and repeat as it is good manners to enjoy more than one cup.

Like so many German teas, it is said to have vast health benefits. Ostfriesentee can cure headaches, stomach problems and stress. Locals may drink this strong brew up to four times per day with breakfast, morning Pause (break), Kaffee & Kuchen and dinner.

Pregnancy Tea

After being warned off coffee throughout my pregnancy, I was surprised so many Germans were pushing “pregnancy” teas on me. Specifically a Himbeer Blätter Tee (raspberry leaf tea). Amongst all the new German pregnancy jargon I made out that this tea was meant to tone my uterus, prepping it for labor. My husband’s fellow Erzieherin, generally middle-aged German women, were aghast that I didn’t have any as I neared my due date. Apparently you are supposed to start drinking it from week 32 onward as it needs to build up in your system. Our German spirit guide (a life-long Berliner) got me some tea that day and instructed my husband in how to brew it. I successfully gave birth to my little German, so maybe it was the tea.

Once I had my baby, I still wasn’t done with tea. I was now told by the wise women of the KiTa that I must start drinking Stilltee (breastfeeding tee). I didn’t have any issues with breastfeeding and while I would like to credit my incredible body with the task, I am sure Germans would praise the tea.

Ginger Tea

I walked into my husband’s KiTa classroom yesterday and was smacked in the face with the smell of lemon and ginger. It smelled good, but strong. “Is someone cleaning?” I asked. “It’s the tea.” he explained, pointing toward a pot near the window. His team-partner is battling winter sniffles with some fierce ginger tea.

Let my tea in-expertise show in that I don’t know how dropping chunks of raw ginger in boiling water results in “tea”, but Germans certainly believe in it. Fairly unpleasant to drink, the stinging effect when you drink it is supposed to ward off illness and relieve a sore throat.

Other aromatic herbs like peppermint, sage and oregano are also commonly given the hot water treatment. Chamomile infusions are for colds, and fennel tea is to settle a stomach ache. If you can’t just buy it from the market and plunk it in some water, Germany has over 3,500 registered herbal medications and educated pharmacists will be happy to direct you.

Obviously this only touches on tea in Germany. Any other teas I should know about as a neophyte to tea culture?