How To Brew A Proper Cup Of Tea,
or A Glimpse Into English Life.
by Mr. Eric S. Messelt, Esq.; A.A., B.S., J.D.
Tea is hip in the United States. It "is becoming the coffee of the 90's." This newfound appreciation for fine tea has sprouted new industries, including a newsletter, an increase in the demand for teapots (especially in bridal registries), an overall increase in tea sales of 7.7 percent, and new marketing strategies. Drinking tea reflects a quieter, calmer attitude in the stress-filled 90's. Tea has more subtlety than coffee; it is meant to be sipped, not gulped.
Tea is consumed as either a hot or a cold beverage by about one-half of the world's population. The earliest mention of tea is in a Chinese dictionary of 350 BC. Tea cultivation was thereafter introduced to Japan in about 590 AD. Tea was first mentioned in European literature in 1559.
Tea is very important to the British, especially the English. It is a measure of hospitality and friendliness. If you visit an English home or office, you can be expected to be offered tea. If you accept, you are acceptable. If you decline, you may be suspect.
Tea was not always the hot drink staple of the British. In 1657, more coffee was drunk in England than anywhere else in the world when tea was first publicly sold at Garway's Coffee House in London. Tea was a tough sell. It was very expensive and only advertised for its medicinal properties. The turning point came with the restoration of the monarchy when Charles II ascended the throne. The Kingís queen, Catherine of Braganza, brought tea from her native Portugal and Charles drank tea throughout the day. Charles IIís habit gave tea the marketing boost it needed. Drinking tea became the pastime of the court, and then the entire country. The afternoon tea custom spread across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam (now New York City). Tea then became the staple drink of the American Colonies, until the fateful Tea Act of 1773 which precipitated the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. In a curious reversal of habits, tea caught on and stayed with the British, while the Tea Act tipped the scales against tea for the Americans. Today, the British generally start their day with a "cuppa" and drink several cups of tea during the day. Some English will actually have coffee during their "tea" break, but most folks will have actual tea.
The word "tea" can have different meanings. The first and obvious meaning is the drink itself. The second meaning is the period of time in the afternoon, usually 4:00, when people will stop for a break of a hot drink and biscuits. I heard the word "tea" used by Scots as we might use the word "picnic" or "snack." We visited our Scots friends for a weekend. The first day we toured the countryside and a bit after noon our hostess declared that we needed to break for a tea, that is, lunch. She pulled out a bag of sandwiches, box drinks, and potato chips. As we were leaving the next day, our hostess gave us a bag of goodies for a "tea" (light meal) on the train trip back. There was no tea, or even a beverage, in the bag -- it was a collection of sandwiches, snack crackers, and some candy: a meal on the go.
There is also the idea, foreign to the traditional English, of the "High Tea." What we think of as a High Tea is a far thing from a real high tea. Some have argued that it served as a supper for the working man, but if so, it has long since lost that meaning. As we know it now, it is a meal, passing as "light refreshment," involving prodigious amounts of tea, crumpets, scones, pecan pie-lets, cucumber sandwiches, and a formal dining environment. Though there are High Teas given in London, they are mostly for the benefit of tourists who expect the English to provide a "High Tea." To set the record straight, high tea came about in northern England as merely a meal that would substitute as a light dinner. To the English, however, tea is a simple affair of hot drink and maybe a couple of cookies. Note that this is different from the Tea Houses that are fairly ubiquitous throughout the nation. These do offer a Creme Tea which will cost about four pounds (depending on how touristy the place is). This will get you a pot of tea, hot scones, "home-made" jam, and thick cream. This is how you might go out to get your afternoon tea. You can sit, relax, get a nice light refreshment, and soak in some local history.
There are some similarities between the English and Japanese attitude towards tea. Both cultures place an inordinate amount of attention on a hot drink made from boiled leaf juice. For the Japanese, the tea ceremony is an art form to be done in a prescribed way because the aesthetics of the process demand it. The ceremony is made deliberately beautiful for its own sake. The English also take an extraordinary interest in the process of making tea. However, for the English the making and drinking of tea is less about aesthetics and more about class distinctions. Remember that the United Kingdom is a class society. For example, if you add your sugar to the cup before or after you pour the tea, you can be marked as either middle or upper class. In short, tea is not merely a hot beverage, it is a integral part of British culture, probably more secure than the Union Jack and the royal house of Windsor.
Real tea drinkers will swear by the following rituals of preparation. There are several components to a proper "cuppa." They are the tea, the water, the kettle, the pot, perhaps the infuser, the cup, the "condiments," and the biscuits.
The first component, of course, is the tea. It always involves tea leaves. There are many varieties: Orange Pekoe (the standard "Lipton" variety), Earl Grey (preferred by the upper class), Darjeeling (an Indian tea), Lapsang Soochong, Imperial Gunpowder (so called because the dried leaves have the same silvery color as old-style gunpowder), and many others. Major British mass-market manufacturers are Tetley and PG. There are three major types of tea, distinguished by their "color." The colors are a result of the manufacturing processes and these are Black, Green, and Oolong teas. English teas are usually "black" tea blends meant to be sturdy enough to stand up to the use of milk and sugar. Green teas should be sipped plain.
Though a "proper" cup of tea will make use of loose tea leaves, the use of tea bags is popular in Britain. However, the British tea bags seem to be meant for brewing a whole pot of tea, not a cup at a time as we do here. Therefore, British tea bags usually do not have the string and paper tag on the end. These kind of British tea bags are round, flat, and are not "double folded" as are the tea bags in the U.S.
Regarding the storage of tea; because tea leaves readily pick up foreign aromas and fade in contact with light, they should be sold and stored in opaque airtight containers. Therefore never store tea leaves in the refrigerator as moisture will damage them. Tea "caddies" are containers made of porcelain, wood, or other material that is meant to store loose tea leaves.
There is no such thing, to the British mind, as a proper cup of instant tea (as we would use to make a glass of ice tea). Of course, iced tea itself is an aberration of the colonies: those far-off, exotic, and barely civilized parts of the world that speak a bastardized form of the language -- that is, places like the United States.
The second component is the water. The water should start out cold, never use previously boiled water. Once boiled, water loses oxygen and gives tea a "flat" taste. Naturally, the better the water the better the resulting drink. There was a recent controversy regarding "tea scum," which is an oily-appearing film that floats on the top of the water in the brewing pot. A scientific study concluded that tea scum was caused by hard water -- endemic in London. The study suggested that adding a bit of lemon juice would cure the problem - and conversely, that the addition of milk increased scum. Nonetheless, the people were aghast -- adding lemon just to reduce tea scum was just not worth the effort and change of habit involved. The British are a traditional people -- if tea scum was good enough for grandma, it will be good enough for me.
Third is the kettle. Brewing tea requires boiling water. This is what the "tea kettle" on your stove is for. There are also specialized electric water boiling pitchers; they are acceptable. Water must be brought to a "rolling boil." Again, for it bears repeating, do not re-boil your tea water "lest you get 'a sort of soapy-looking tea'."
Forth is the teapot. There are several varieties. While living in London we used a "stainless" (though it did "stain" properly, see below) steel pot and it worked very nicely. You may have seen teapots that are actually more ceramic sculpture than instruments of brewing. I am not sure that you would really want to brew tea in those kind of pots. There are also different sizes: larger and smaller. This matters in using the right size of infuser (if you so choose, more later) for the right amount of tea. You should also know the traditional difference between a coffee pot and a teapot (as well as their cups, more on that later). A coffee pot is usually taller, thinner, and with a short spout. A teapot is usually short, squat, and has a longish spout.
Repeated uses of a teapot will cause staining on the inside. This is considered a good thing as the pot is now properly "seasoned" or "aged." Do NOT go to your friend's house, volunteer to do the dishes, notice the stained teapot, and then scrub it out with steel wool! You will have erased perhaps decades of effort to create a properly seasoned pot. That does not mean that you can't clean out a teapot; just use hot water, normal dish washing detergent, and a sponge or gentle plastic pad.
As to brewing the tea in the pot; there are actually two interactions with hot water. When you are ready to pour in the boiling water, first pour in some of the hot water from the kettle into the pot. Swirl it around both to rinse and to pre-heat the pot. Then dump the water.
The fifth component is the infuser or the strainer. This is where we have a parting of company between a "good" pot of tea, and the purists. The purist, and with good reasons, have no knowlege of the infuser. Here, you must weigh your preferences. The infuser, otherwise known as the "tea ball," is a hollow metal container that opens up with holes in it. Infusers come in different sizes and even different shapes. Be sure yours is matched to the size of teapot you have. The infuser is connected to one end of a chain. The other end of the chain will have a hook. You open up the infuser, place the loose tea leaves into it, close it up, pick up the other end of the chain, place the infuser into the pot, and then hook the chain over the lip of the pot to avoid loosing the chain and fishing for the infuser later.
Now the purist's method. Measure out your tea leaves and just dump them into the pot leaving them free to circulate when the water is added. However, this tends to create a bit of a mess, both in the pot and in the bottom of the cup (from whence came the phrase "the reading of tea leaves"). Since messiness is something generally to be avoided, this would not be recommended only for that reason. When you pour the tea into the cup, you must pour the brew through a strainer to avoid getting messy tea leaves into the tea cup. Most tea experts will tell you that using an infuser will not allow the water to properly brew the leaves because there is not enough room for the leaves to expand. They have a very good point at that. Nonetheless, the rest of the world will stay with the infuser (and its cheap cousin, the tea bag) because the strainer is just too messy. The infuser really is a useful tool that simplifies clean up and it does make a passable cup of tea. Nonetheless, this paper is about a "proper" cup of tea. The author "leaves" this choice between loose and infuser to the reader.
The next step is to add the remainder of the hot water that will actually brew the tea. Regardless of the use of loose leaves, infuser, or tea bag, the water should be poured over the tea. That is, tea first before the water. Pour in enough hot water so that the pot has the appropriate amount, usually about 3/4 full. Close the lid of the tea pot.
At this point in the process, you may wish to use a tea "cozy." A cozy is a knitted or quilted cover for the tea pot that is meant to keep the tea warm. There is a trade off to using a cozy. On the one hand, the cozy does keep the tea warm; but on the other, it will hide the appearance of your tea pot - usually acquired not only for function but also looks.
Brewing the tea is now just a matter of time. Specifically, three to five minutes worth. In that time, the tea leaves will soak in the hot water and expand, the hot water will release the flavorings in the leaves, and the natural circulating action of hot water in the pot will mix the flavor throughout the water. When the end of the five minutes is up, you are ready to pour a cup. Of course you will need to pour through the strainer to remove the tea leaves. If you have used an infuser (or bags), open the pot, pull out the infuser or bag (if you have used them) by the connected chain (or with a spoon), and put it someplace safe for it to finish draining. Close the lid of the pot and you now have tea to serve.
The sixth component of a proper "cuppa" is the cup itself. We have already discussed the characteristics of a teapot compared to a coffee pot. Tea cups are also different from coffee cups. Coffee cups are, like coffee pots, usually taller, proportionally thinner, and hold more fluid than a tea cup. It seems that most coffee cups are not flared at the lip. By contrast, tea cups seem to be short, broad, and usually have a flared lip. Note also that the two cups are frequently made out of different materials: the tea cup is a piece of china, a coffee cup is mearly a ceramic mug. The distinction can be illustrated in that coffee can be properly served in a "mug," but tea is only properly served in a cup.
The seventh element is the "condiments." Getting the brewed tea into the cup is not the simple matter that you might think. There is the consideration to the condiments, my name for milk and sugar. Though, to remind you, do not use the condiments for green teas. In Britain, cream is not used in tea; rather, milk is used as whitener. Milk can be either regular whole milk or something called UHT milk. I have not seen anything that resembles our instant creamer (like "Coffeemate"); that is, instant milk is not used.
Always put your milk in your cup first before adding the tea. This is to avoid scalding or "bruising" the milk. This does make some sense. The milk, usually cold, if added suddenly to near-boiling hot tea, might curdle. However, if the tea is introduced into the cold milk, the milk is raised to the tea's temperature in a more gradual manner. The use of milk in your tea is optional.
Sugar is the next condiment. It can be measured and placed in the cup either by a teaspoon or by using sugar cubes. If someone is serving you tea, they may ask, "One lump or two?" This refers to the number of spoons or cubes you desire. If you take sugar and there are sugar cubes present, look for the sugar tongs. Sugar tongs are large tweezers used to pick up sugar cubes. Use the tongs instead of your fingers! Artificial sweeteners are barely acceptable, as are alternative sugars (like "raw" sugar). What doesn't seem to be acceptable is to not sweeten your tea at all! I actually had a difficult time convincing someone who was serving me tea that I didn't want any sugar. I finally gave up and took one lump.
The timing of when to put the sugar into the cup is another controversy. On one hand is the efficiency of putting the sugar in with the milk. This not only gets both condiments in at the same time, it also allows the sugar to begin dissolving sooner. However, there are others who shun efficiency and put the sugar in after the tea is poured. I believe that putting in the sugar after the tea is considered more upper class, which makes some sense. After all, if you are a true aristocrat, gentleman, or lady, you have little need for time saving efficiency - you have, and may take, as much time as you please. Even so, efficiency is a virture of a "meritocracy." Meritocracy, rule by the talented, is still somewhat suspect in Great Britain.
Once tea and condiments are in the cup, take up your teaspoon to stir it. Be careful to avoid hitting the spoon against the sides of the cup as that causes a noisy "dinging." The received wisdom is to stir in a circular clockwise motion. Here is where your author diverges from the accepted protocol. A gentle, straight-line movement of the spoon is probably better than a circular motion to avoid noisy stirring.
The last element of a proper "cuppa" are biscuits. Generally, if you are having tea with someone else and they are serving, the biscuits will be "presented" in some manner (putting them nicely on a saucer with a napkin on it would be fine). Eating biscuits straight out of the wrapping is pretty tacky! Furthermore two biscuits per cup is considered the acceptable amount. Also note that the maximum would likely be four biscuits at one sitting. More than that and you'll start to get "looks." As an American, you may find yourself getting hungry with only four cookies to sustain you. My advice: fill yourself up on something later. Tea manners are just as important as table manners -- do not make a pig of yourself.
Speaking of Tea manners, a couple of other points. Do not sip your tea noisily. Do hold your cup with your forefinger and thumb and hold the saucer in your other hand. Do not make an effort to extend your little finger out into space (sticking your pinky out) -- you'll just look silly. However, you may find that letting your little finger relax will find it separated from the others -- that posture is just fine. Do not hold your cup in the palm of your hand as if cradling it.
I hope that this has been helpful. Please remember that even most English would not follow all of these "rules." However, it always makes a better impression if you try to follow them.
One last word about tea drinking. Not only is there the direct benefit of the taste and ambiance, but there are now newly discovered health benefits to the partaking of the friendly "cuppa." First, there is the fact that tea contains about one half, or less, the caffeine of coffee (though this may be due to differences in brewing methods). Additionally, tea leaves release their caffeine first, so the amount of caffeine can be reduced by pouring off all the tea after 30 seconds and then adding fresh boiling water to the leaves. There are studies purporting to link the drinking of green tea as a cancer preventative. Though less spectacular, a nonetheless startling study reports that some of the flavor compounds in green Japanese tea can kill the bacteria that act to create dental "caries" ("cavities" to you and I).
So now, with these thoughts in your mind, why don't you immediately scurry off to the kitchen, dust off the kettle and tea pot, find some tea, and spend a few minutes engaged in the simple joy of preparing and enjoying a "proper" cup of tea. Bon appetit!