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The Perfect Cup of Tea part 2 (Royal Society of Chemistry)

Last week, RSC teacupwe took a look at the International Organization for Standards (ISO) and their standard for the perfect cup of tea (ISO 3103:1980). They are by no means the only organization out there that believes it knows what constitutes “perfect” when tea is concerned!

Today, we’ll look at Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, and a 2003 press release they issued called How to make a Perfect Cup of Tea (their capitalization, not mine!). You can download this document in PDF format from their website if you’d like.

I’m sure the RSoC is a wonderful organization. Their self-description on the press release sounds downright wonderful.

“The Royal Society of Chemistry is the leading organisation in Europe for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of 45,000 members worldwide and an internationally acclaimed publishing business, our activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public.”

Were I a chemist in Great Britain (or possibly even here in the U.S.), I would definitely want to join this society. But a quick perusal of that paragraph above fails to reveal anything about their expertise in tea. Perhaps it’s just that they are British. That must be it.

The document begins, logically enough, with a list of ingredients and a list of implements. This raised my eyebrows immediately.

“Ingredients: Loose-leaf Assam tea; soft water; fresh, chilled milk; white sugar.”

I love Assam tea as much as the next guy, but is using Assam really a prerequisite for preparing the perfect cup of tea? Can a white-tip Bai Hao oolong not be perfect?

And I’m going to let a bit of my prejudice show here: I’m no tea Nazi, and I’m happy to let you prepare your tea your own way. I do, however, think that if a cup of tea is perfect there is no need to adulterate it with milk and sugar.

“Implements: Kettle; ceramic tea-pot; large ceramic mug; fine mesh tea strainer; tea spoon, microwave oven.”

Oh, my! One of the implements required for preparing the perfect cup of tea is a microwave oven? Please tell me that my friend Angela from London isn’t reading this. It would set her poor heart aflutter. They’re only using the microwave to warm up the cup, but still!

The instructions follow all of the standard British rules for making a cup of black tea (I’m sure George Orwell would approve): pre-warm the cup, take the pot to the kettle, pour the milk in the cup before the tea, and so forth. I will give them kudos for this little gem:

“Drink at between 60-65 degrees Centigrade to avoid vulgar slurping which results from trying to drink tea at too high a temperature.”

It’s the next paragraph, though, that stopped me in my tracks.

Personal chemistry: to gain optimum ambience for enjoyment of tea aim to achieve a seated drinking position in a favoured home spot where quietness and calm will elevate the moment to a special dimension. For best results carry a heavy bag of shopping – or walk the dog – in cold, driving rain for at least half an hour beforehand. This will make the tea taste out of this world.”

I simply don’t know what else to say. I’m going to go prepare myself an imperfect cup of tea and ponder this for a while.

The Perfect Cup of Tea part 1 (ISO 3103:1980)

ISO teacupEverybody wants to brew the perfect cup of tea. Well, except those silly coffee drinkers, but we usually ignore them on our tea blogs, don’t we?

I’ve made it clear on this blog before that I’m not a big fan of tea Nazis, nor do I necessarily agree with folks like George Orwell about what constitutes a “nice cup of tea.” There are many, however, that believe the perfect cup is not subjective and is not open to debate.

Some organizations that feel they have the secret well in hand have released official documents describing the process, although I suppose that means it’s not a secret anymore. I’ve recently looked over a couple of those documents that I’d like to share. Today, we’ll look at a lovely document called ISO 3103:1980.

ISO 3103: Tea — Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed standards for everything from electronics to language and currency codes to quality control management. They also have a food safety management group that has taken it upon themselves to set the standard for preparing a cup of tea.

The standard itself (ISO 3103:1980) is available in the U.S. for the low, low price of $53.00 (less for members) from ANSI, the American ISO member (buy it here). The official description is

“The method consists in extracting of soluble substances in dried tea leaf, containing in a porcelain or earthenware pot, by means of freshly boiling water, pouring of the liquor into a white porcelain or earthenware bowl, examination of the organoleptic properties of the infused leaf, and of the liquor with or without milk or both.”

(I have to confess, word geek that I am, that I had to look up the word “organoleptic.” I will definitely be using this word in the future!)

For those who don’t wish to pony up fifty bucks for the official standards document, there is a summary on Wikipedia. In keeping with their Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, I shall copy the details here and save you the trouble of clicking on the link. I’m changing their bullet points to a numbered list for easy reference. These numbers don’t appear in their document.

  1. The pot should be white porcelain or glazed earthenware and have a partly serrated edge. It should have a lid that fits loosely inside the pot.
  2. If a large pot is used, it should hold a maximum of 310 ml (±8 ml) and must weigh 200 g (±10 g).
  3. If a small pot is used, it should hold a maximum of 150 ml (±4 ml) and must weigh 118 g (±10 g).
  4. 2 grams of tea (measured to ±2% accuracy) per 100 ml boiling water is placed into the pot.
  5. Freshly boiling water is poured into the pot to within 4–6 mm of the brim. Allow 20 seconds for water to cool.
  6. The water should be similar to the drinking water where the tea will be consumed
  7. Brewing time is six minutes.
  8. The brewed tea is then poured into a white porcelain or glazed earthenware bowl.
  9. If a large bowl is used, it must have a capacity of 380 ml and weigh 200 g (±20 g)
  10. If a small bowl is used, it must have a capacity of 200 ml and weigh 105 g (±20 g)
  11. If the test involves milk, then it is added before pouring the infused tea.
  12. Milk added after the pouring of tea is best tasted when the liquid is between 65 – 80 °C.
  13. 5 ml of milk for the large bowl, or 2.5 ml for the small bowl, is used.

Clearly, this standard is designed for comparative testing of tea, not for consumption. In my humble opinion, this standard would ruin the majority of the teas that I drink. The water temperature (paragraph 5) would make a bitter mess out of most white and green teas, and the steep time (paragraph 7) would destroy most of the black and pu-erh teas I drink (and the oolongs and greens, for that matter).

It surprises me not in the slightest that British version of this work (called, appropriately enough, BS-6008) received the Ig Nobel Prize in 1999.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll take a peek at what the Royal Society of Chemistry has to say.

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