This is now a four-part tea series instead of three because an update on Simplex tea kettles is long overdue. In my last "Talking Tea" post, I'll tell you about our newest kettle, which we love.
My husband makes almost all of the tea we drink while I research and choose all of our household equipment. This means that he is stuck using the kettle I choose. This isn't right if it makes him suffer, and it took us both until last month to figure that out.
From the late 1990s to 2010, we used a Bodum steel kettle with gold-plated trim, a wood handle, and a pretty blue ball on the lid:
Our scary-but-pretty Bodum kettle, left, and the Simplex Heritage chrome kettle, right.
My husband thought this kettle was fine. I hated it. I'd heat water in the microwave or drink something cold rather than use it. The handle had swingy golden hinges so the kettle would sway and try to burn my hand as I poured it. The lid liked to pop off and burn me as I poured, too, no matter how firmly I'd pushed it down and prayed for it to stay put. And it didn't whistle, so we sometimes forgot it was on the stove. In fact, that's how we'd destroyed our first Bodum kettle, an expensive copper one, within days of receiving it. (I think it had been a wedding present; I do remember that the day we ruined it was a sad one.)
By late 2010, I was tired of being afraid of my kettle. I did my research and wrote about it here. I settled on a Simplex Beehive, made in England. Simplex kettles, in copper or chrome, had been made by the same British factory since 1903. They earned almost uniformly rave reviews everywhere I looked, and their happy owners promised they'd last a lifetime. Naturally, as soon as I decided we had to have one, I discovered that the company had unexpectedly locked its doors one night the previous summer and ceased production. Retailers were selling out of them and couldn't restock. I'm a relentless hunter-shopper, but Simplex Beehive kettles were no longer available anywhere.
I decided I'd settle for their other model, the Heritage. I got on the phone and tracked one down in the stockroom of a Sur la Table in Michigan. The kettle (dated 2007 on a slip of paper inside it) arrived just before Christmas 2010. At $150, it was much more expensive than most kettles (except maybe those cutesy Alessis), but I believed it was worth it, since we'd never need to replace it.
It turns out that Simplexes don't always last a lifetime . . . if you turn your stove up a little too high, or if you scrub at what you think is gunk on the interior but is actually the fragile, discolored, and essential tin plating over the kettle's copper core. You must handle a Simplex with care; my husband didn't. Alas.
In 2011 and 2012, I kept tabs on future of the Simplex company and reported here. They pledged to reopen under new management; eventually they did. In the meantime, this blog got lots of hits from people trying to track down a new kettle. Used ones were selling for a small fortune on eBay. In England, my blog was said to appear at the top of Google search results for "Simplex."
In the years after the factory reopened, American companies, including Amazon, Williams-Sonoma, and Sur la Table restocked the kettles, but customer reviews were generally negative, if not horrible. Issues with rust, the tin lining flaking, dead whistles, defective lids, etc. were widespread. And these bad kettles now cost twice what I'd paid, about $300. Soon they all stopped selling Simplexes again — but by choice this time.
In December 2015, I was evaluating all of our shabby, old cookware with an eye to replacing it. I bravely peeked into our kettle and thought I saw copper instead of tin. The interior was reddish and blackish, streaky and evil-looking. Boiling water in copper is not considered safe. There are differing opinions on just how unsafe it is, but it's probably never a good idea. Our kettle had probably been that way for years. I mentioned this during a visit to the liver specialist I'd been seeing, and she eagerly offered to subject me to a battery of tests for copper poisoning. I said no, and pulled our Bodum kettle out of storage. I also took photos of the Simplex kettle's interior and emailed them to their customer service, with links to relevant old blog posts of mine.
They sent me a replacement kettle for free. It arrived in time for Christmas, packed in a fancy carton and wrapped in a soft fabric bag. At first I was delighted and planned to writing a glowing update here. Upon further inspection, the kettle's tin lining was already mottled black and gray. It looked almost as unwholesome as my old kettle. I suspected they'd sent me a reject or a refurb. When we used it, it had a sickly, half-hearted whistle we could barely hear.
Simplex still wasn't making decent kettles, it seemed. I felt awkward complaining about a freebie or asking if they'd sent me a reject. I decided not to blog about it; bad reviews were already speaking for themselves all over the intertubes. (You can still find some on Amazon.)
In January, I talked to a guy named Jim in Rhode Island who does copper re-tinning. I sent him both kettles. He re-tinned the interior of our old one and shipped it a few back months later, and sold the new one on consignment.
Re-tinning is expensive. I exhorted my husband not to overheat the kettle in future; he obeyed. But its dull, rough, gray interior soon was covered in a black bloom that looked like mold, or tiny lichens. I told Jim, who said this was normal tin discoloration; as long as copper wasn't showing through we would be okay.
Okay. But making tea in a blackened kettle seemed far from pleasant. My husband wasn't happy about it, especially as it continued to look worse as time passed. He claimed it was probably poisoning us (while offering no evidence). He also complained that he'd always had trouble filling the kettle* and that it took forever for it to boil, now that he had to use less heat. He said hated the kettle.
And here he was, using it as often as three or four times day.
I finally realized this was not nice at all. So last month I went kettle shopping again.
In closing, I need to report that the Simplex Kettle Company has changed hands, or something, once again. There's a company calling themselves the Richmond Kettle Company and they sell four "Richmond kettles" that look identical to Simplex Heritage kettles —for around $300, in copper or chrome, and for gas or regular stoves, just like before. (They also make a silver-plated Jubilee edition for $350 to honor HRH QE2. )I discovered this just last month. They are on Facebook.
It remains to be seen whether the Richmond kettle is as good as the old Simplex kettles were/are. Let's hope that they aren't as bad as newer Simplex kettles. I'll be checking reviews when American shops start carrying them. And if anyone in England wants to send me one, I'll be happy to put it to the test.
Update: May 2017: there are now TWO companies in England making "Simplex"-style kettles. One is Newey and Bloomer, who seem to have reopened the old Simplex factory in Birmingham. On their website they state that a company with that name, formed in 1850, manufactured the original Simplex kettles for more than a century. They claim that they are just re-establishing the Simplex line now, in 2017. However, SOMEONE was making and selling Simplex tea kettles using their name in the meantime. And those kettles got some terrible reviews. However, there is now another maker, the Richmond Kettle Company, in Norfolk, making kettles that look exactly like the original Simplexes, and claim that they have the same superior qualities. (Note that don't refer to their kettles as "Simplex" but as "Richmond." Given the disastrous kettles we've seen from "Simplex" in recent years, this is a good thing.) I've just received one to test, and I can tell you it's gorgeous. I will post more here soon about how it performs and how the interior etc., holds up.
It's a gorgeous kettle. It's the Mrs. Patmore (Downton Abbey) of kettles. It's the Mrs. Bridges (Upstairs-Downstairs) of kettles, too. There's no kettle I've ever admired more.
But we've had to move on.
* I have never, EVER spilled drop of water filling that kettle. The opening is wide; the handle is NOT in the way. I observed my husband in action and spotted his problem. He filled kettle with water from our Brita filtration pitcher — right after he'd overfilled the pitcher. He always adds more water than will fit in its reservoir, so there's extra water on top, which overflows from under the lid instead of the spout when we pour. He refuses to stop overfilling it. So, when he pours it, he gets a waterfall. I pointed out that his problem was with the pitcher and not the kettle. He didn't care.