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.
India: the world’s second-largest producer of tea. Our third stop on the tasting tour explored the world of Indian estate teas, focusing on three large and well-known tea regions in the country: Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri. Red Lodge Books & Tea imports directly from estates in Darjeeling and Assam. We compared single-source estate teas (think single-malt Scotch) from Glenburn, Khongea, and Tiger Hill estates to a blended 2nd-flush Darjeeling using tea from Marybong, Lingia, and Chamong estates.
We also explored the rich history of tea in India, from the British East India Company through the modern independent tea industry, and looked at the rating system used for Indian teas, which I wrote about last month here on “Tea With Gary”
The teas we tasted were:
- 1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
- Organic 2nd Flush Darjeeling — Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates
- Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
- Green Darjeeling — Glenburn Estate
- Assam Leaf — Khongea Estate
- Nilgiri FOP Clonal — Tiger Hill Estate
As I mentioned above, India is the 2nd largest producer of tea in the world, but 70% of their tea is consumed domestically, so they don’t play as big a role in the export market as countries like Kenya.
Darjeeling is the northernmost district in North Bengal. Of the 1,842,000 people who live there, over 52,000 make their living through tea. Darjeeling tea, often called the Champagne of Teas, is made from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the Chinese varietal of the tea plant, unlike tea from most of the rest of India, which is made from their native Camellia sinensis var. assamica.
Despite the generalization that black tea is always 100% oxidized (often incorrectly called “fermented”), most Darjeeling black teas are, like oolongs, not completely oxidized. While Darjeeling is known mostly for its black tea, there are oolongs and green teas produced there.
To be called “Darjeeling,” the tea must be produced at one of the 87 tea gardens (estates) in the Darjeeling district. Alas, the majority of tea sold with that name is not actually Darjeeling. Each year, the district produces about 10,000 tonnes of tea, and 40,000 tonnes show up for sale on the global market. In other words, 3/4 of the “Darjeeling” tea in the stores isn’t Darjeeling! That’s why we choose reputable suppliers at our store, buying most of it directly from the estate.
Darjeeling tea changes dramatically by the picking season, which is why we chose three different black Darjeelings for this tasting.
1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1
The first tea we tasted was a first-flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn Estate, where we get most of our Darjeeling teas. Glenburn was started by a Scottish tea company in 1859, but has now been in the Prakash family for four generations. The estate is 1,875 acres (with 700 under tea), and produces 275,000 pounds of tea per year. They are located at 3,200 feet altitude and get 64-79 inches of rain per year. Glenburn employs 893 permanent workers, plus temporary workers during the picking season.
2nd Flush “Muscatel” Darjeeling
Our next tea was an organic 2nd flush blend by Rishi, using Darjeeling teas from Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates. It was specifically blended to bring out the characteristic “muscatel” flavor and aroma associated with second-flush Darjeelings.
Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1
For the third tea, we went back to Glenburn and selected an autumn-picked tea. Unlike the first two, we steeped this using full boiling water for three minutes, bringing out the undertones one might otherwise miss.
To wrap up the Darjeeling teas, we tasted a green Darjeeling from last fall. It’s an interesting hybrid of Chinese varietal and processing methodology blended with Indian terroir.
Assam is a state in northeast India with a population of over 31 million and an area of over 30,000 square miles. If Darjeeling is the champagne of tea, then Assam would be the single malt Scotch of tea. Hearty and malty, this lowland-grown tea comes from the assamica varietal of the tea plant.
Assam Leaf Tea
The Assam tea that we tasted is from the Khongea Estate, which has 1,200 acres of land with 1,100 of that under tea. Sitting at 300 feet altitude, the estate gets 150-200 inches of rain per year, making drainage very important. They employ 1,202 permanent workers (again, more during picking), and produce 2,640 pounds of tea per year.
Since Assam tea is frequently used in breakfast blends, we tasted this one with nothing added and then with milk, as most English tea drinkers (and many Indian tea drinkers) prefer.
Nilgiri is the westernmost district of the state of Tamil Natu. It is smaller (950 square miles) and less populated (735,000 people) than Darjeeling, and quite high elevation, with tea growing between 6,500 and 8,500 feet altitude.
Tiger Hill Nilgiri FOP Clonal
The tea that we chose from Nilgiri comes from the Tiger Hill Estate in the Nilgiris (the “Blue Mountains” for which the district is named). They have 640 acres under cultivation, almost all of which is “clonal,” meaning that it was grafted onto other rootstock from a few mother plants. Tiger Hill has been producing tea since 1971.
This was the third stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.
On January 12, 1946, the Evening Standard published an essay by George Orwell entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Like almost everyone else in my generation, I had to read his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in school. They told us a lot about society and a lot about English culture, but not much about tea.
Orwell was British, and born in 1903. These two facts tell you a lot about how he viewed tea. I’ve written before about “Tea Nazis,” who believe that their way of preparing tea is the only way to prepare tea, and this essay is a marvelous example of that philosophy in action.
He opens the essay by saying that if you look up “tea” in a cookbook it’s likely to be unmentioned. That was very true in 1946. It is less true now, but even though there are a lot of wonderful books about tea, mainstream cookbooks generally find it unnecessary to describe how to prepare a pot (or a cup) of tea.
Orwell continues by pointing out that tea is a mainstay of civilization in England, yet the “best manner of making it is a subject of violent disputes.” Judging from conversations I’ve had with British friends, I’d have to agree with that. His next paragraph sets the tone for everything that follows:
“When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:”
Since in my humble opinion just about everything related to preparing tea is subjective, I’d like to present my own take on Orwell’s eleven rules. Lets look at them one at a time.
“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”
Here, I must vehemently disagree with Mr. Orwell. Perhaps the fact that he was born in India is showing through here. There is excellent tea from China (and Japan and Kenya and Taiwan…). If you want a beverage that will make you feel “wiser, braver or more optimistic,” I would recommend tequila. If you want tea that tastes good, you can find it all over the world.
Incidentally, when Orwell refers to “Ceylonese” tea, he means tea from the country that was called Ceylon when he wrote this essay, but became Sri Lanka when it achieved independence in 1948. We still typically call tea from Sri Lanka “Ceylon” tea.
“Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia-ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”
He has an excellent point about the small quantities. To me, this means preparing it by the cup rather than by the pot, and there is a lot of excellent teaware available for that purpose. Although china, earthenware, and ceramic teapots do add something to the tea, using plastic or glass pots allows you to watch the tea steep. It also adds (and detracts) nothing to the flavor.
“Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.”
I agree that pre-warming the pot helps to keep the water hot as the tea steeps.
“Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.”
My biggest problem with this “rule” is the statement that “all true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong.” In fact, many tea lovers like a shorter steeping time so that the flavor of the tea isn’t overwhelmed by the bitterness and tannins that come out later in the steep.
“Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. 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.”
Philosophically, he’s right. Allowing the water to circulate freely through the leaves does improve the infusion process. I do prefer not to consume the leaves (unless I’m drinking matcha), but a proper modern infuser will catch pretty much all of them.
“Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.”
Clearly, Mr. Orwell was aware of only one kind of tea: black. While boiling water is the right way to go for black and pu-erh tea, you get much better results with green and white tea if you use cooler water. I won’t get into the oolong debate at the moment…
The little aside that he snuck in here about freshly-boiled water is perhaps the biggest point of argument I hear from tea lovers. Does your tea really taste different if the water is heated in a microwave instead of being boiled in a teapot? Does the tea taste different if you reboil water that has been boiled before? In a blind taste test, I can’t tell the difference. Perhaps you can.
“Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.”
I confess. I do this.
“Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold — before one has well started on it.”
Your cup is as personal as your clothing or your car. Most of the time, I use a 16-ounce ceramic mug made by a local potter. When I’m trying a new tea, I make the first cup in a glass mug so I can see it better. I typically use a smaller cup for matcha, a bigger one for chai lattes, and a bigger one than that for iced tea.
“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.”
Unless I’m drinking chai, I do not add milk to my tea. I have made the occasional exception (I actually like milk in purple tea), but I generally prefer to taste the tea, not the milk.
“Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.
The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”
When I make chai, I don’t use either of Orwell’s methods. I find that the spices extract better with the lipids in the milk present than they do in water alone. In other words, I heat the milk and add it to the water while the tea is steeping. It changes the flavor considerably.
When I’m adding milk to any other tea, I typically put it in the cup first and then add tea to it.
“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”
Good point, Mr. Orwell. Now please substitute the word “milk” for “sugar” in this paragraph. Then go back and read rule nine. I don’t sweeten my tea (chai being the exception again — I like some honey in it), but I see nothing wrong with doing so. Adding a bit of sugar is no different than adding a bit of milk.
Oh, and by the way, tea was traditionally prepared in salt water in ancient China. And one of my favorite chai blends does, indeed, contain pepper.
“Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.
Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.”
Again, Orwell is speaking only of black tea here. I do not expect bitterness in, for example, a Long Jing Dragonwell green tea. And I would argue that there are a lot of fine black teas that have minimal bitterness: Royal Golden Safari from Kenya, to pick a favorite of mine.
If I had to pick one issue to argue in this essay, it would be that George Orwell considers all tea to be the same (after eliminating the majority of the world’s production by limiting himself to India and Sri Lanka). Even within the world of black tea, there is immense diversity. I don’t use the same preparation methods or expect the same results for a malty Assam tea and a delicate first flush Darjeeling — much less a smoky Chinese lapsang souchong.
My recommendation? Experiment. Try new teas, and try them first without adding milk or sweetener. Use your supplier’s recommended water temperature and steeping time. Taste the tea. THEN decide whether you want to steep it for a shorter or longer time; whether it needs a bit of milk; whether you’d prefer to sweeten it.
The best tea is your favorite tea, prepared just the way you like it.
I love visiting other tea shops and other bookstores, especially shops that carve out their own niche. When visiting other people’s shops, I get great ideas for our own tea bar, learn new things, taste new teas, and get an opportunity to chat with other people who share my obsessions. I’ve heard a lot about Teavana, and I was quite looking forward to visiting one on our trip to California last weekend.
I found their selection of teaware impressive. The overwhelming majority of it was oriental, but they had some nice new avante-garde items and a few English teapots. At first glance, their selection of tea is impressive, too. They had 117 varieties of loose-leaf tea in big tins behind the counter. First impression: positive. Then it began falling apart.
I knew what I wanted. I was in the mood for a cup of pu-erh while I browsed. Unfortunately, there were two employees there — one behind the bar and one roaming the shop — and the roamer really wanted me to try all the free samples and look at all the pots. I didn’twant to try the samples. It was an effort to get past him and order a cup of tea.
Next problem: They don’t have any unflavored pu-erh. Every single blend they had contained fruits or flowers or something. No vintage aged pu-erh bricks. Not even a generic blend. Ditto on rooibos. No unflavored red or green. Every single one was blended with other stuff.
Okay, clearly this place isn’t for purists. Let’s switch to chai. The fellow behind the counter found me an oolong-based chai, which (aside from too much cinnamon, in my humble opinion) was pretty tasty. Generally, I don’t put milk in my tea, but chai is an exception. I don’t like it as sweet as most Indians do, but I like some milk and a touch of honey.
The Teavana shop had no milk. None. Only some non-dairy creamers. As I said, I don’t put milk in my own tea, but our tea bar has nonfat, 2%, whole milk, half-and-half, and soy milk. I want to make sure I have whatever the customers want. Teavana doesn’t appear to think that way.
Then my wife came up and pointed out another problem. They had six different teas available for tasting that day. Every single one was pre-sweetened — and not one was pure tea (they were all fruity or herbal blends). If you want to sell me your product, let me taste the tea, not the sugar. And what would a diabetic have done in there?
Overall, I found myself thoroughly unimpressed. When I want a really nice cast-iron teapot, I may check out a Teavana. For the tea itself, I’m going back to looking for independent tea rooms and shops when I’m on the road.