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NEWSFLASH! Most Brits don’t know how to make tea!


Brits don't know how to make tea!

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:

Telegraph Article

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).

Keep Calm and Make Tea (properly)So how do we deal with this gormless assertion from The Telegraph? We shall take it one item at a time, beginning with the definition of knowing how to make a cup of tea.

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:

no teabags

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!

An open letter to restaurants about tea


Open letter to restaurants header

Dear Restaurants,

I love you. Really I do. I’m not a picky guy. I’m certainly not a snob. I love a five-course meal at a five-star restaurant, but I also must confess a fondness for a “Snag Burger” at the bar down the street from my shop. I love a good Indian buffet, a medium-rare steak, authentic London fish and chips, and an authentic Inverness haggis with neeps & tatties. Basically, if the chef cares about how the food tastes, I’m probably going to enjoy it. And if your servers care about serving the customers, I’m probably going to enjoy being in your restaurant. I love eating out.

But we’ve really got to talk about your tea.

First, if your restaurant is even half a notch above fast food, you have more than one type of tea, right? It may be powdered sweepings from the factory floor in a Lipton teabag, but you’ll have a black tea, a green tea, something without caffeine, and either Earl Grey or Moroccan Mint. If you don’t offer at least those four, you’d might as well hang a sign that says, “Tea Drinkers Not Welcome.”

So let’s start with that. When we order a cup of hot tea, either ask what kind we want, or present us with a basket or box containing a selection to choose from. Don’t just bring out a cup of black tea and then let us find out later that you had other options.

RULE 1: Tell us (or show us) the options!

Next, don’t grab the water until you’re on the way to the table. If we’re ordering black tea (and that includes Earl Grey), then we want that water boiling, or darned close to it.

RULE 2: Hot water. Really hot water.

And now, a big no-no. Don’t ever ever put the tea leaves (or tea bag) in the water before you bring it to us. The only exception to this rule is if you run a tea shop and your waitstaff plans to monitor the entire steeping process for us, in which case you’ll be controlling the steep time as well.

RULE 3: The tea meets the water at the table.

There are several reasons for this.

First, most serious tea drinkers have their own opinions on how long their tea should be steeped. I typically short-steep my black teas and drink them straight. My friend Angela steeps hers long and strong and adds milk. There’s no way to prepare a cup of tea that will make both of us happy. You have to let us do it ourselves.

That said, if you start the tea steeping in the kitchen, we have no idea how long the leaves have been in the water when it gets to our table. A glass carafe (like the one in this post’s header) helps that, but if we don’t know the particular brand and style of tea you’re serving, it’s really hard to judge by the color.

Additionally, not all tea takes the same water temperature. If I’m drinking black tea, I’ll pour in that boiling water the second it gets to me. If I’m drinking green or white tea, I’m going to let the water cool a bit first. Boiling water makes green tea bitter.

Once our tea is steeped to our liking, we’re going to want to remove the leaves from the water — or pour the water off of the leaves.

RULE 4: Give us something to do with used leaves or teabags.

I’ve been in many restaurants that give me a cup of water and a teabag, but no saucer to put the bag on when I’m done steeping it. I really don’t want a soggy teabag on my dinner plate, and you probably don’t want it on the tablecloth or place mat. Even the nice places that bring me a pot of water with a strainer full of leaves and a cozy to keep the pot warm sometimes don’t provide a place to put that strainer. Oh, and this reminds me of rule five:

RULE 5: Don’t just dump leaves loose in a pot with a spout strainer unless it’s a single-serving pot.

It’s frustrating to pour off a cup of tea and know that by the time I’m ready for the second cup, it will be oversteeped and nasty and there’s not a thing I can do about it.

Those five rules will cover the basics. All but the real tea snobs can make something acceptable to drink if you have a few choices (which need to include unflavored options — don’t just give us Earl Grey, mint, fruity stuff, and herbal stuff) and serve it properly. But if you’d like to upgrade the experience and really make us tea drinkers feel welcome, here are a couple of bonus tips:

BONUS TIP #1: Make sure all of your servers can answer rudimentary questions about your tea selection.

Everyone who works there should know which of your teas have caffeine and which don’t. They should know the difference between green and black tea (and know that Moroccan Mint is green and Earl Grey is black). They should know the teas from the tisanes (herbals), and they should know which ones are organic and/or fair trade.

If you serve leaf tea, as opposed to bagged dust, give the staff a bit more information, like origin and style. You want your server to be able to tell a customer whether that red wine is a Merlot or Zinfandel and whether it’s from Bordeaux or Napa Valley. Why shouldn’t they be able to say whether the black tea is a Darjeeling, a Ceylon, or a Keemun?

BONUS TIP #2: Give us a couple of upgraded options.

Offering a oolong, a white tea, or a pu-erh makes me feel like you really want me to enjoy the experience. I don’t even mind paying more for a Bai Hao or a Silver Needle. It’s like offering some really nice wines in addition to the everyday wines; or offering craft beer in addition to Bud Light. That tea can make a good meal a really memorable one.

Attitude is everything in the service industry. If you and your staff are proud of the food you serve, it shows. Steak lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their steaks. Tea lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their tea. Most of the time, we’re lucky to find a restaurant that will even put a bit of effort into their tea, much less take pride in it.

If you aren’t a tea expert, find one and ask for advice. Show that you’re trying, and that you take as much pride in your drinks as you do in your food. We will notice. You will turn us into regular customers. We’ll be happy and you’ll be happy. We all win.


While writing this blog post, I was drinking Jasmine King, a jasmine silver needle white tea. The touch of woodiness in the tea blended beautifully with the heavenly aroma of the jasmine. I don’t drink a lot of white tea, but I’m getting hooked on this one.

Phong Sali 2011 Pu-erh from Laos


At World Tea Expo this year, I picked up a Laotian pu-erh (well, technically a “dark tea,” since it doesn’t come from Yunnan) from Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis Tea House. I mentioned this in a blog post back in June, and said I’d be tasting it and writing about it “soon.” Well, since it’s a very young sheng (a.k.a. “raw”) pu-erh, I figured it wasn’t a big hurry, and “soon” ended up being October. Oh, well. Had to get all that Oktoberfest stuff out of the way first, I suppose.

Phong Sali Laotian Pu-erh

Let me begin by explaining the label and the style of this tea.

That big “2011” on the label is the year that it was produced. Most pu-erh drinkers will tell you that a sheng pu-erh should be aged a minimum of five years before you drink it. I certainly won’t argue that the flavors improve and ripen as the tea ages, but in my humble opinion there’s nothing at all wrong with drinking a young sheng. I enjoyed the bit that I took off of this 357-gram beeng cha (pressed cake), but I’ll be saving most of it to drink as it matures. Will I be able to hang on another three years or more to drink the majority of it? That remains to be seen.

The words “Phong Sali” do not refer to the style of the tea, but to its origin. Phong Sali (or, more commonly, Phongsali) is the capital of Phongsali province in Laos. Technically, as I mentioned above, this tea style should be called by its generic name (“dark tea”) rather than its regional name (“pu-erh”), because it doesn’t come from the Yunnan province of China. Since the little town of Phongsali (population about 6,000) is only about 50 miles from Yunnan (which borders Phongsali province on the west and north), I think we can let that bit of terminology slide.

“Old tree” refers to the tea plants themselves. In most modern plantations, the tea is pruned to about waist height to make it easy to pick. In many older plantations, the tea has been allowed to grow into trees, which can reach heights of thirty feet or more. The particular tea trees from which this tea comes are over 100 years old.

Tasting the tea

Unwrapping the beeng cha provided my first close look at the tea. The leaves are quite large, and the cake is threaded with golden leaves that didn’t oxidize fully.

Phong Sali beeng cha

There is still enough moisture in the cake to make it fairly easy to flake off some tea from one edge. Shu pu-erh is often dried very hard, as it is “force fermented” so that it will be ready to drink earlier. Sheng pu-erh, on the other hand, needs a bit of moisture in it to continue fermenting over time. I decided to try it in a gaiwan rather than making a large cup, so that it would be easier to experiment with multiple infusions and smell/taste the tea as I went.

I used water just a bit cooler than boiling (water boils at 202°F at this altitude, and I used 195°F water for this tea), and roughly 7 or 8 grams of tea. Unscientific, I know, but I didn’t measure it. I steeped the tea for just a minute the first time, and got a delicate but flavorful cup of tea. The flavor is similar to a characteristic Chinese green tea (think dragonwell), but more woody and with a bit of spice.

The picture on the right shows the leaves, uncurled after the first steeping. They are large, supple, and fragrant.

Phong Sali leaves and liquor

That one-minute steep wasn’t really enough to hydrate the leaves, so I went for a second steep at 1:30 (pictured at left above). Much more flavor, but still extremely delicate compared to a fully-aged sheng pu-erh. I enjoyed a third and fourth steep, which had only minor changes in flavor, but was interrupted before I had a chance to keep going and see how it stood up to eight or ten steeps. An experiment for a quieter day, I suppose.

This tea is definitely worth enjoying a bit early, and I will definitely be coming back to it. Again, we’ll see how much survives to full maturity. I’m not very good at waiting!

All the Tea in China: Stop 1 on the World Tea Tasting Tour


Guangzhou teapotLegend says that tea originated in China in 2737 B.C., over 100 years before the first Egyptian pyramid was built. In this first stop on our tasting tour, we explored China’s best-known tea growing areas in Yunnan, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian provinces. We also took a look at traditional Chinese teaware, including gaiwans and guangzhou teapots.

The teas we tasted were:

  • Organic Longjing Dragonwell (green)
  • Organic Pinhead Gunpowder (green)
  • Jasmine Dragon Tears (green)
  • Silver Needle (white)
  • Organic Shui Xian Wuyi Oolong
  • Organic Keemun Mao Feng (black)
  • Organic Golden Yunnan (black)

We started out by taking a look at the legend of the history of tea, going back to Emperor Shennong in 2737 B.C., and then talking about the major tea growing provinces of China. Four provinces were represented in our sampling: Yunnan, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian. Obviously, this is just a beginning, but in a single short class, we can’t hit them all.

China - Slide04

After the background was covered, including varietals of the tea plant, we launched into the individual teas, organized by style.

White Tea

First was white tea, the most lightly processed. I chose a Silver Needle blend from Rishi instead of a single-origin tea for this one mostly because our focus was comparing Chinese white tea with green and oolong teas. At some point down the road, we’ll do a comparative white tea tasting where the focus will be on terroir and origin.

China - Slide12

One of the bullet points on the slide is an important one: busting the caffeine myth of white tea. The fact that this tea is made from early-picked buds means that there is a high concentration of caffeine. The preparation style does nothing to change that. The longer steep times we typically use on white tea just accentuates this.

We steeped the tea for five minutes in 165 degree water.

Green Tea

I chose three different green teas for the tasting. Each brought something completely different to the party.

China - Slide15

First – a straight green tea very typical of Chinese fare, with a history dating back well over a millennium. The name of the tea comes from the finely-rolled leaves resembling gunpowder.

We steeped the gunpowder tea for three minutes in 175 degree water.

China - Slide16

I simply couldn’t resist including the original story (fable?) of Longjing tea here, which I’ll be covering in much more detail in the future. Of all of the green teas I’ve tried, this is the one I keep coming back to as my favorite.

We steeped the dragonwell tea for three minutes — although I only do two minutes when I’m brewing it for myself — in 175 degree water.

China - Slide17

And finally, we come to the only flavored tea of the evening. We followed tradition with this tea, placing seven tears in each cup and sipping the tea as the leaves unfurl. Unlike all of the other teas we tasted, this one didn’t have a fixed steeping time. Everyone began sipping after a minute or two and kept sipping as the character changed over the next few minutes. We used 175 degree water.

Oolong Tea

We could have easily set up an entire evening just tasting Chinese oolongs (we are, in fact, doing this with Taiwanese oolongs on March 29), but for tonight we chose only one: an oolong from the Wuyi mountains.

China - Slide21

It was a very difficult choice deciding which oolong to include. My first temptation was Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy), but since I had two rolled teas already I decided to go with an open-leaf oolong.

We brewed this for three minutes in 195 degree water.

Black Tea

And finally, we moved on to black tea. Choosing only two black teas to represent China wasn’t easy (although it was a lot easier than choosing a single oolong), so I simply went with my two “leaf and a bud” favorites: one fully oxidized rich black with overtones of red wine (Keemun Mao Feng) and one lightly oxidized golden tea from Yunnan.

China - Slide25

China - Slide26

This was another case where I steeped the teas both at three minutes in boiling water for a better comparison, but when I drink them myself I prefer about 2:30 for the Keemun and 4:00 for the Yunnan.

We closed out the evening with a discussion of steeping times, water temperatures, multiple infusions, and other factors involved in preparing a great cup of tea. As always, I ended with the admonition to ignore the Tea Nazis and drink your tea however you like it.

There is no wrong way to enjoy a cup of tea.

If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).

Seasons of Tea


As my tea bar does more direct tea buying (as opposed to buying through distributors), I have an opportunity to taste some absolutely fascinating teas. As I tasted some estate-grown Darjeelings the other day, I was reminded of how much difference the picking time makes on the character of the tea.

Darjeeling Teas

A “reference cup” (far left) for comparison with three Darjeelings from the same estate. The other three are a first flush (with yellow label), a second flush (green label) and an autumn pick (blue label).

The three teas on the right side of the picture above are all Darjeeling teas from the Glenburn estate. The terroir is identical. It’s the same varietal of Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the Chinese tea plant) — all FTGFOP1 clonals. They are all black teas. They were steeped for the same amount of time using the same water at the same temperature. I used the same amount of tea leaf for each cup. What’s the difference?

  • The light golden tea second from left is a first-flush Darjeeling, picked on March 20th. At that time of year, the spring rains are over and the tea plants are covered with fresh young growth. The tea is very light in color, and the flavor is mild but complex with a touch of spiciness. Although all four of the teas in the picture were steeped 2-1/2 minutes, I actually prefer my first flush Darjeelings steeped for a considerably shorter time (although everyone has different opinions on that). I’m drinking a cup as I write this, and it’s just about right at a minute and a half.
  • The amber cup to the right of the first-flush is a second-flush, picked in June. The drier summer climate produces a heartier cup of tea, with a flavor often described as “muscatel.” There is more body and a bit more astringency as well.
  • The darkest cup of tea on the far right is called an Autumnal Darjeeling. This one was picked on November 10th. By then, the monsoons are over and the new growth on the tea plants has matured. An autumn-picked Darjeeling will be darker in color, stronger in flavor, and fuller-bodies, but without as much of the spicy notes Darjeelings are known for.

These seasonal differences account for massive differences in caffeine content as well. Early in the season, tea plants will have more caffeine concentrated in the new growth, which is what’s picked for the delicate high-end teas. The data that Kevin Gascoyne presented at World Tea Expo last year showed a 300% increase in caffeine between two pickings at different times of year in the same plantation.

Comparing Darjeeling teas can be difficult, as much of the “Darjeeling” tea on the market isn’t authentic. According to this 2007 article, the Darjeeling region produces 10,000 tonnes of tea per year, but 40,000 tonnes is sold around the world. Even if you don’t consider the local consumption, that means 3/4 of the tea sold as Darjeeling is grown somewhere else. That’s why it’s so important to buy from a trusted source.

When selecting teas, we tend to look first at the production style (black, green, white, oolong, pu-erh), and then for the origin (a Keemun black tea from China is quite different from an Assam black tea from India). As consumers, we rarely know the exact varietal of the plant or the picking season, but those factors are every bit as important to the final flavor.

I suppose the main message of this article is that you can’t judge a tea style on a single cup. You may love autumnal Darjeeling and dislike first-flush. You may enjoy a second flush from Risheehat and not the one from Singbulli.

Keurig K-Cups and Tea


Keurig tea K-Cup

The Keurig pokes one hole in the top (visible here) and one in the bottom when it brews.

We checked into the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone last week for the latest stop on my book signing tour. As usual, I schlepped in all of my tea stuff so I could have a decent cup in the morning: electric kettle, teapot, a selection of loose-leaf tea.

Frequently, hotels have coffee makers in the room (unless you’re in Las Vegas), but I don’t like having my tea water taste like coffee, so I don’t use them.

In this room, however, was a Keurig® B130 In-Room Brewing System, the kind that uses the single-serving K-Cups. The sampling of K-Cups in the room included two regular coffees, two decaf coffees, one tea, and one herbal blend. I decided to give their Celestial Seasonings English breakfast tea a try. For some reason, Celestial Seasonings decided not to capitalize “English.” Because of my Scottish heritage, that makes me smile, but that’s irrelevant to the subject at hand.

Following their instructions, I took the sealed cup, which had its lid puffed out from the altitude, and inserted it in the machine. When I closed it (puncturing the top & bottom of the cup), the top of the coffee maker popped open. I added a cup of water, set the mug in its place, and looked for adjustments. Finding none, I just pressed “brew.”

The cup was ready surprisingly fast (one point for the machine), with much hissing and burbling. And it tasted like … your basic cup of breakfast tea in a restaurant. I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, so I use shorter steeping times than the British generally do. Unfortunately, there are no adjustments on this machine, so I got a stronger, more astringent brew than I wanted. Minus one point.

I couldn’t taste any coffee at all in my tea — and I am pretty sensitive to that flavor — so that’s plus one point.

After my wife removed the tea K-Cup and made herself some coffee, I decided to see if I could get a second infusion out of the tea. I carefully lined up the puncture hole on the bottom of the cup and reinserted it. I followed the rest of the process as before, and got a pretty decent second cup. It was weaker than the first, of course, and similar to what you’d get if you reused a tea bag.

Used Keurig tea K-Cup open

The used K-Cup was quite full of leaves.

Opening the used cup gave some insight into the workings. As you’d expect with a mass-market breakfast tea, they used CTC (crush, tear, curl) processed leaves, broken into quite small pieces. This provides the large surface area needed for the accelerated brewing process Keurig uses.

I understand you can purchase special K-Cups to fill yourself. It would be interesting to play around with whole-leaf teas and tweak the amount of leaf. Unfortunately, since you can’t adjust water temperature, the Keurig would destroy delicate white or green teas, and since you can’t adjust steep times, it would produce bitter oversteeped pu-erh or Darjeeling.

Interestingly, I took a look at the list of tea K-Cups on Keurig’s website, and it does include green and white tea. I’m guessing that their target audience probably uses boiling water in green tea anyway, and doesn’t realize it’s not supposed to taste like that. Most of their 50 selections are black tea, of course, and many are herbal tisanes rather than tea. There are a couple of chai selections there, and I’m guessing those would work.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a fast, easy way to replicate your basic restaurant-style black tea, the Keurig will work admirably. If you want more than that, it’s a lot cheaper to buy an electric kettle and an IngenuiTEA, and you’ll get much better tea, too. The Keurig Brewer is at heart a coffee maker, and using it for making tea is like driving nails with a wrench: you can do it, but it’s a sub-optimal solution.

A Nice Cup of Tea


George Orwell press photo

British writer George Orwell

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.

Orwell continues…

“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.

Steeping Times


Chi Tse Beeng Cha aged pu-erhThe World Tea Expo in Las Vegas has been a phenomenal (and somewhat overwhelming) experience. It will take quite a while for everything to sink in. There were some fascinating trends discussed at the show, and I also learned a lot about just how differently people enjoy their tea.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am not a tea Nazi. It matters not to me whether you make your green tea with boiling water, steep your Darjeeling for ten minutes, or whisk your matcha with an electric frother. However you enjoy your tea is the right way for you. Personally, I like my tea steeped much less than most of my friends. A couple of minutes is plenty for most robust black teas in my humble opinion, and I give many of them less than that.

Opening day at the Expo for me was the World Origins Tea Tour. We had presentations from representatives of eight different countries, and tasted teas from each one. The conference organizers were clever enough to put the seminar rooms directly across the hall from the restrooms and give us a 15-minute break between countries. Speaking on behalf of the entire audience, I’d like to give the World Tea Expo a hearty “thank you” for that move! I’d also like to compliment the staff on providing 140 people with 30 different teas to sample and getting them all out to us promptly, and prepared perfectly. In case you didn’t do the math in your head on that previous sentence, they served 4,200 cups of tea at the right temperature with both dry and wet leaves to pass around the table. That’s pretty darned impressive.

The audience members at the World Origins Tea Tour asked lots of questions, and many of them were about how the presenters preferred to make their tea. The first country presented was China, and the speaker said that he rarely steeped tea for himself more than about 30 seconds. I’ve been known to steep a nice aged pu-erh (or pu’er or puer or puerh or…) for 30 seconds, but have never actually tried such short steep times on other teas. He drove me to experiment. He also drove me to ask more questions around the show floor.

I came across a brochure that said the traditional way to prepare pu-erh tea was a ten-second “wash” (rinse the leaves in hot water and discard the water) followed by a twenty to thirty-second steep. I also came across a company that was handing out samples of some beautifully packaged single-serving pu-erh discs. The samples suggested a four-second steep time. Yes, I said four seconds. I asked the woman running the booth if that was right, and she said it was. She placed some tea leaves in the infuser of a glass teapot and poured boiling water through the infuser into the pot. The total steep time of the tea was the few seconds it took for the water to drain through the slits in the glass. She poured some for us, and it had plenty of flavor: rich and complex without being overwhelming.

A whole new world has opened to me. I’m going to be playing around quite a bit with über-short steeping times to see what I get. I’m anxious to get back to the Tea Bar and experiment with some of my friends.


As a side note, by the way, we were staying in the LVH (formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton) in the block of rooms reserved for the Tea Expo. As with my previous experience at Bally’s, the front desk refused to provide any means of heating water in the room so that I could make my own tea. I went to the front desk and asked to speak to the manager. I explained that if their hotel was hosting the WorldTea Expo, they really should let us make tea. He explained that we could rent water heaters, but they only had two, and it cost twice as much to rent one as it would cost to run out to the store and buy one.

Unlike Bally’s, however, the LVH manager said that I could call room service and request hot water a few times a day if I wished. They would rush it up to the room at no charge and do their best to keep it hot. That still leaves them a notch below every cheap motel in Montana (which all provide free coffeemakers and wi-fi), but several notches above Bally’s. I know the decision not to offer a microwave in the room was made way above this manager’s pay grade, so I don’t blame him for the situation. In fact, I’d like to offer him a hearty thank-you for his exemplary customer service.

Tea Timer app for iPhone


I’m not one of those “Tea Nazis” who tells everyone else how long to steep their tea, but I’m pretty particular about my own tea. And when I’m serving at the tea bar, I want consistent results. If someone has a cup of sencha today, I want it to be just like the cup of sencha they had last week or last month.

We have a little timer at the tea bar, but it’s a pain in the neck. Want to steep something for 3:45? Press the “minute” button three times, the “second” button 45 times (!), and then the start button. Not at all what I was after. So, in the spirit of “there’s an app for that,” I went searching for an iPhone app when we opened the tea bar last May.

The app I settled on is called, appropriately enough, “Tea Timer” by Martin Schultz (distributed by Decane). I’m using version 1.6. It’s very simple, very customizable, and very straightforward. When you first load it, it comes up with a starter list of teas and their steep times. I disagreed with virtually all of them, and just deleted the whole lot and started over.

Tapping any tea from the list will start the timer, showing a screen like the main picture at the top of this post. There’s a “restart” button at the top right, a “Tea Timer” button (which really should say “cancel”) at the top left, and you can tap anywhere else on the screen to pause the timer (tapping again restarts it). When the timer hits 00:00, you here a sound indicating that your tea is ready.

The main Tea Timer screen. Tea Timer in action

The “Edit” button in the upper-left corner lets you delete, add, or edit the teas on the list.

When you add a new tea, you can select the name (I use general categories rather than specific teas), the steep time you wish to use, and the sound it should make when the tea is ready (I like the fanfare). That tea goes on the end of your list on the main menu. Entering the steep time uses spinner wheels, and you have a great selection of sounds to choose from.

Editing a timer Sound options

Problems and Issues

There are a few things I’d like to change about this app. Decane must not be overly interested in hearing the ideas, as there isn’t a “feedback” button anywhere on the website or the app itself. I’ll tweet them a link to this review and see if they respond.

  • No way to sort the list of teas — I sure would like to be able to put them in alphabetical order, or sort by general type. Unfortunately, it just leaves them in the order in which you created them.
  • When you start up the app, it immediately starts timing whatever tea style you last used. That may be marvelous for the guy who always drinks the same tea, but I generally don’t do the same thing twice in a row. When I start it, I want to see the list of teas so I can select the one I want.
  • It needs a quick manual override. I use a pretty short steep on my black teas. If someone says, “give me four minutes instead of three,” the only way I can do that is to look for another tea that has a 4-minute steep time and use that, or else start the timer, wait one minute, and press the “restart” button.
  • It’s nice that it prevents the iPhone from going into sleep mode while the timer is running. I like that. But if I finish a cup of tea and forget to shut down the app, it leaves the iPhone awake and the screen bright, draining the battery. From the main menu, it should allow the iPhone to sleep after some period of time.

Overall, it’s a good app, and it does exactly what I desire: it gives me precise timing for the various types of tea that I drink. For $1.99, it’s worth overlooking the few annoyances that it has.

Tea Absolutists (a.k.a. Tea Nazis)


There are a lot of types of tea people. Tea purists, tea snobs, tea ceremonialists, tea sippers, tea guzzlers, tea herbalists, tea totalers (okay — just kidding on that last one). Today’s commentary is on the tea absolutists.

I, like most tea drinkers, have my favorite way of preparing each of my favorite teas. You may well do it differently, and I really don’t care. If you walk into my tea bar and ask for a cup of lapsang souchong, I will make it the way I make lapsang souchong for myself: 1 tbsp of leaves per 16 oz pot, 195-200 degree water, 3:00 steep time, no sweetener or milk. If you then decide that you’d rather use a bit less tea and steep it a bit longer, and perhaps add some stevia and cream, that’s fine with me.

The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea! You see this all the time in books and magazine articles, and on the websites of many tea suppliers. “Use 5 grams of this tea for your 16-ounce pot (because we love mixing metric and English units). Use 195-degree water, and steep for 3:45. Dammit, don’t you dare steep it for 4 minutes or it will become too astringent. And boiling water will scald it. And if you add lemon, you’re a heathen. An uncultured heathen, I tell you!”

The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea!

I am especially amused by the water temperature absolutists. They’ll come into my tea bar and ask if my water is 210-212 degrees. “Well, no,” I explain. “We’re at 5,550 feet altitude. You can’t get water that hot.” They’ll insist that they have to have boiling water, and I’ll explain that water boils at 202 degrees here. Yep, the water is 10 degrees cooler than boiling water at sea level, but by golly it’s still boiling.

I think the absolutist attitude has done much to turn people away from the enjoyment of tea. If someone says they don’t like black tea because it’s too bitter, it’s probably because they’ve been pouring leaves (or dropping bags) into a pot of boiling water and leaving them in there for ten minutes. I’ve had several people who “didn’t like black tea” get very excited about a nice first flush Darjeeling steeped for a scant two minutes. There’s still plenty of flavor, just a tiny bit of astringency, and barely any bitterness.

Darjeeling absolutists are probably starting up their flamethrowers as they read this. “How can you steep it for only two minutes? You’re not getting any flavor out of it!” A quick Google search shows recommendations anywhere from 90 seconds up to 6 minutes for a first flush Darjeeling (I’m one of those 2:00 to 2:15 people), and the majority of them are convinced that their answer is the one and only true answer. If everyone else just followed their procedure, the world would be a happier place.

The correct steeping time for your tea is the steeping time that produces a cup of tea that you like. You. Not me, not the tea expert in the shop down the street, not the guy that wrote that book on your coffee table (or tea table, I suppose). Ditto water temperature. Ditto quantity of leaves. Ditto sweetening. Ditto the type of cup. Ditto lemon, milk, cream, or whatever else you may enjoy putting in your tea.

At our tea bar, we really want people to enjoy the teas we serve. We’re not worried about making it “right,” we’re worried about presenting it well and making it so that our customers enjoy it. It’s very easy to lose track of how long your tea has steeped, so we take care of that for you. We use tea timers and a chart based on our own preferences. But we ask people, how strong do you like it? On their next visit, they may say, “I liked that sencha last time, but it was a bit strong.” So this time, we’ll use a little bit less, and steep for 3:00 instead of the 3:15 that I prefer. Hopefully, the customer will say, “That’s fantastic! Give me a half-pound bag!”

At home, you may prefer delicate porcelain teacups. Here, we use sturdy glass mugs, because they show off the tea well, and they don’t break easily. We keep whole milk, 1% milk, soy milk, and half-and-half at the bar rather than telling customers what we think they should use. We have locally-grown honey, but we also supply sugar and several artificial sweeteners.

When people are trying a new tea, I encourage them to let me make them a cup first, and then take an ounce home to experiment. Sometimes the “guess what I tried” stories I hear later give me ideas for new things to do with tea.

So, tea absolutists, I encourage you to be as anal-retentive as you like when preparing tea for yourself. But lighten up and let everyone else enjoy their tea any way they like. Please?

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