Cor, I’m gobsmacked! The world’s gone barmy! The Telegraph, that bastion of Britishness, has declared in no uncertain terms that 80% of Britons don’t know how to make tea! Not only that, it’s scientists that say so. Scientists! Why, just look at the headline:
Okay, let’s all just keep calm and carry on here. I have certainly addressed the subject of making the perfect cup of tea before. And scientists have weighed in, too. Why, there’s a British standards document from the Royal Society of Chemistry that explains it step by step. Even George Orwell defined the ideal cup (although I disagree with him).
You see, the world is filled with tea Nazis: people who aren’t happy with figuring out how to make their tea; they have the cheek to tell you how to make your tea. I am a much more mellow fellow myself. I believe that if you make a cup of tea and you enjoy it, you’re doing it right. You may not be doing it my way, or the Royal Society of Chemistry’s way, or George Orwell’s way, but you’re doing it in a way that makes you happy. It doesn’t get much more “right” than that.
But let’s set my sappy altruism aside for a moment and examine what The Telegraph and the scientists at University College London have to say. They do, as it turns out, have some quite valid assertions — although their science reporter may have been a bit hasty in his conclusions.
“Despite drinking 165 million cups of tea each day, scientists believe that most Brits do not allow the leaves to infuse long enough for the complex flavours to emerge. Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association claim tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers.”
I’m going to start out by making an assumption here, and that is that we’re specifically talking about black tea. I make my assumption based on the fact that their entire article assumes you’re adding milk to your tea (I have never met anyone who added milk to white or green tea, although I did meet one sad little man who put milk in his oolong), and that you’re using boiling water, which is perfect for black tea or pu-erh but ruins white or green tea.
One of the characteristics prized by British tea aficionados is astringency (which Lipton’s calls “briskness”). Your average breakfast tea in the U.K. is steeped until it is quite “brisk” (which I call undrinkably bitter). The astringency is then cut with milk, and possibly sugar as well. Generally speaking, when I want milk I drink a glass of milk. When I want tea, I want it to taste like tea. I take mine black, which means I use shorter steep times to control the astringency.
“And they advise using a pot rather than a tea-bag in a mug to allow convection currents to swirl tea leaves fully through the water.”
Okay, I have to agree with them there. Teabags are evil, and here’s why:
Dried tea leaves swell as you steep them. To extract the maximum flavor (and caffeine, and antioxidants…) from the leaves, they need water flow around them. Teabags were introduced for convenience, and they are, indeed, convenient. On the downside, though, they don’t give the leaves room to swell, and they severely limit the flow of water around the leaves. To address this problem, tea makers generally don’t put high-quality whole-leaf tea in the bags. Instead, they use finely crushed leaves, known as “fannings” or “dust.” This increases the surface area exposed to water, allows them to make the bags smaller, and (here’s the evil part) use the lowest-quality tea that was passed over by all of the tea makers that buy whole leaf — what I refer to as “floor sweepings.”
The article goes on to quote Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London:
“It’s obviously subjective but I feel people are missing out on a drink which could be so much more sophisticated because they don’t wait for the tea to brew long enough. Tea is made of 30,000 different chemicals, it’s a very complex thing and those molecules take time to emerge and influence each other.”
He could well have stopped after the first three words. It is obviously subjective, indeed. Perhaps the first 10,000 chemicals that emerge are the ones you find tastiest, and the last 10,000 are the ones that I prefer. Should we both steep our tea the same? Of course not.
On an unrelated note, I sometimes feel that my formal training in electrical engineering and computer science does not really qualify me to speak as an expert on tea. Seeing The Telegraph quote a professor of “materials and society” as a tea expert makes me feel better.
Back to the point at hand, Mr. Miodownik goes on to say something that reinforces my point from above:
“Fair enough if you want a hot milky drink, but then why drink tea?”
The article explains that the UCL people have an answer to the question of whether the milk should be added before or after the tea is poured. They don’t, however, address the issue of whether the milk should be there in the first place. That’s because it’s subjective. Some of us prefer tea, instead of hot milky drinks!
I also particularly enjoyed their discussion of a tea study by a milk company, which quite refutes the premise of the article.
A study carried out by Cravendale milk in 2011 found that the perfect cup of tea needed eight minutes (two minutes with the tea bag or leaves, six more afterwards) before it reaches optimum flavour and temperature.
UCL tells us that tea must be steeped “far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers,” but Cravendale says that a two minute steep is just fine as long as it can sit in milk for six minutes after it is steeped.
So who do we believe? The scientists or the milk company?
How about neither?
Make your tea the way you like to make it. Steep it until it tastes good. If you want to add milk, cream, lemon, sugar, ice cubes, honey sticks, a sprig of mint, a dash of cinnamon, or a soupçon of cayenne, then by all means do so.
As for me, I shall eschew teabags, brew my favorite black tea for 2:30 to 3:00, and sip it straight.
As I write this, I am drinking an 8-year-old aged shu (“ripe”) pu-erh tea from Vital Tea Leaf in Seattle. I started by doing a 20-second “wash,” swirling the leaves in boiling water and then pouring it off. My first infusion was 2:00, and the second was 2:30, as I wanted it a bit stronger. Proper British tea drinkers may want to stop reading now, as I steeped it neither in a mug nor a ceramic teapot, but in a brewing device made of (*gasp*) plastic. After drinking rich, earthy teas like this, it’s hard to go back to plain black tea!
Last week, we 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.
I rarely sweeten my tea, with a few notable exceptions (chai just doesn’t taste like chai if I don’t add some honey and milk to it). That doesn’t, however, mean I have a problem with you sweetening your tea. I’ve written before about tea absolutists (a.k.a. “tea Nazis”) and their attitudes. I hope I never become one.
What does kind of bother me, however, is preparing a cup of a new and interesting tea for a guest and having them sweeten it before they taste it. For some people, though, they know how they like their particular favorite tea, and they assume that’s how they’ll like all tea. I think it indicates a general unawareness of the breadth of flavors in different varieties of tea.
A friend of mine came by the tea bar the other day, and I was excited to pull out a new tea for her to try. She was born in Ireland, and lived in the British Isles for most of her early life. I know she likes strong black tea, so I figured she’d really like this Royal Tajiri. I asked her, “would you like to taste it plain before you add your milk?”
She looked at me like I was nuts and said, “plain is with milk.”
Back on the subject of sweetening, times are changing. Used to be, a tea bar or coffee shop could put out a bowl with some of the white packets (sugar), some of the blue packets of aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal), and some of the pink packets of saccharin (Sweet’N’Low), and everyone was happy. Expectations have gone up, though. Now, you really need to have the green packets of stevia (Truvia/PureVia), yellow packets of sucralose (Splenda), and brown packets of natural brown sugar. And perhaps a jar of honey, a jar of agave nectar, and a jar of pure maple syrup.
Some want the most “natural” sweetener they can get. Others have a particular sweetener that they like the taste of. Others are primarily worried about the calories. For those who wish to experiment, I’ve been trying something a little different lately.
Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay that’s now being grown in a bunch of countries. It has a number of sweet components to its leaves, and the most potent (Rebaudioside A) is the base compound used to produce the powder in the green packets. That powder has a slight but noticeable flavor, which you’ll definitely pick up in a delicate tea (not that any of you would actually sweeten a delicate tea, would you?).
I’m now stocking dried raw stevia leaf in the tea bar. I use it — quite sparingly — in a couple of my house blends to add a touch of sweetness, and I’m starting to get more customers asking me to drop a pinch of stevia leaf in the pot when I’m brewing their tea. The flavor from the raw leaf is different from the flavor you get from the processed powder. Is it any more “natural” than the powder? I really don’t think so. But it feels different to add some leaves to your infusion instead of stirring a powder from a packet into the finished tea.
Going back to my mantra: whatever method of preparation works for you is the right one — for you.