Tea is magic. Its curative powers know no bounds. Bad news about your driving test? Have a nice cup of tea. Missed that promotion at work? Two sugars in mine please. Zombie apocalypse? Tea.
The British consume 165 million cups of tea every day. That’s 60.2 billion cuppas a year. To put into perspective how awash with tea we are, the UK population is 63.6 million people – so that’s three cups every day for every man, woman and child. At least.
But not all of it’s good tea. For every mug that makes you gasp in satisfaction and delight, there’s always one you leave half drunk, unloved, on the kitchen worktop.
If we drink so much tea, shouldn’t we pledge to accept no less that the best every time? Less dishwater and powdered milk, more Assam served in your favourite mug. Of course we should. This post is full of tips from tea experts, on making your favourite brew better. But first, a bit of background.
We weren’t always such tea freaks
Tea was first imported into the British Isles at the beginning of the 17th Century, according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association. It took a while to catch on. In 1660 the famed diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that he ‘did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before’. He didn’t say what he thought about it though.
Like many of our predilections, it didn’t become really popular until it was endorsed by a celebrity.
Charles the Second married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1661. Reaching British shores after a long sea journey from the Mediterranean, she was gasping for a cuppa. It was such a rare and exotic beverage at the time that she was given a tall glass of England’s other national drink instead; beer. It didn’t go down too well.
Soon Catherine’s addiction to tea spread through the court of the King, into the upper classes and, eventually, their minions. The first bulk orders of China tea to the UK were recorded in 1664.
As for adding milk – we can blame the French for that. The practice began in the mid 17th century, a decade before Catherine of Brazanga married Charles II. Depending on which source you believe, milk was used among the French aristocracy to temper the bitter taste of dark tea – though there’s some evidence that cold milk prevented delicate porcelain cups from cracking when hot tea was poured into them.
We may have begun drinking Chinese teas in good old Blighty, but demand soon outstripped supply. Established trade routes and our colonial past meant that, over time, Indian tea became more popular. The standard tea we drink now, that the rest of the world knows as “English Breakfast Tea” is mainly Assam, with a blend of Ceylon and Kenyan black teas.
Some tea is more equal than others
By the 20th century tea was so well established that the debate about how you make the perfect cup of tea could begin. One of the first to pitch in, curiously, was journalist, intellectual and novelist George Orwell – who had some very particular ideas about his cuppa. His 1942 essay “A Nice Cup of Tea” set out eleven essential tips for a lovely brew. Some of them now sound strange and anachronistic.
For example, Orwell tells us to choose loose Indian or Ceylon tea, but not bother using a strainer. “In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful,” Orwell wrote, “Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.”
But the chap who wrote 1984 and Animal Farm has some advice that has lasted the test of time too. He used a teapot – as was much more common – and gave it a good jiggle to mix up the leaves after adding hot water. It should go without saying that the pot is warmed before hand.
Orwell also tells us to “pour the cream off the milk” before pouring it into the cup. These days we can buy ready skimmed milk – and it helps the natural taste of the tea come through.
Advice from China
Though tastes have changed, modern experts are still convinced that loose tea is best. Don Mei at tea specialists Chinalife has some splendid tips for brewing up. Though they specialise in very high end and healthy teas we can still use some of the advice in our search for the perfect cuppa.
He suggests that you should always use loose leaf tea – and that it’s not as inconvenient as you might think.
“Tea bags contain very poor quality tea,” says Mei, “You can be drinking twigs, secondary leaves, things you really shouldn’t be drinking.”
This tea-and-other-stuff mixture, says Mei, is mulched into a dust that releases the bitter tannins in the infusion too quickly – which may be one reason why we Brits like our tea with milk.
Mei gets around the problem of bits in your tea by suggesting that you use an infuser basket in your teapot – a good sized mesh container that lets the hot water get to the tea leaves. You can buy teapots with infusers built in.
Another good tip from Don Mei is to use more tea and brew it for a shorter time. The usual western way of making tea is to pop a couple of teaspoons in the pot and brew it for ages. This produces a drink with lots of sticky tannins and less of the fresh, light flavour of the leaves.
An advantage of this approach is that you can reuse the tea for a few more brews.
Heston’s Tea Maker
If there’s one person in the world who can tell us how to precisely and exactly brew any beverage of your choice, then it has to be scientific chef Heston Blumenthal. Our people spoke to his people at kitchen appliance maker Sage by Heston Blumenthal who pointed us in the direction of some of the clever cook’s tea making tips. They include:
- Let hot water cool before you pour it on the tea leaves. Boiling water makes the tea bitter.
- Milk should go in second – so you can gauge the strength of the tea. That’s one tip both Heston and George Orwell can agree upon.
- Temperature and time are the most important factors. Water should be off the boil but above 70 degrees and you should give your tea enough time to brew naturally.
If you’re making tea the old fashioned way, these tips will definitely help – but Blumenthal has gone further. He’s taken all the guesswork out of making the perfect cup of tea by helping to develop his own tea making device. The Tea Maker – made by Sage – turns any kind of loose tea into the perfect cuppa. You add water, load the filter with loose tea and then set the Tea Maker to brew your beverage to taste. The result? Tea that’s exactly right, every time.
Tea, the everyday way
So, now we know the very best way to make tea.
- You use loose leaves, in a warm tea pot using water that’s just off the boil.
- You give the pot a swirl and leave it to stand for a good few minutes.
- Stirring or pressing the leaves with a spoon bruises them and impairs the flavour, so don’t do that – but do use an infuser or strainer to stop the leaves from escaping the pot when you pour. George Orwell didn’t mind getting bits in his teeth, but we do.
- Finally, milk goes into the cup after the tea, preferably skimmed or semi.
But what if you don’t have time for all this faff? Sometimes you’ve only a few minutes to chuck a tea bag into a mug. Gill Mann, director of Delimann of Devon, thinks you can still make a great cup of tea that way with a technique she thinks is foolproof.
She told us you should:
- Add 200 ml of freshly boiled water to your tea bag (the best quality you can get)
- Allow the tea bag to brew for 2 minutes
- Remove the tea bag
- Add 10 ml of milk
- Wait 6 minutes for the cup of tea to reach its optimum temperature of 60c
- Sit back and enjoy!
Gill’s company Delimann delivers lovely cream teas all around the UK, so her very precise instructions should be taken very seriously. Perhaps they’re the modern equivalent of George Orwell’s famous eleven steps.