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!
I try not to be a tea snob (or a Tea Nazi). You drink what you like and I’ll drink what I like. But being a part of the tea industry means I hear from a lot of people with — shall we say — very strong opinions. One thing we all seem to agree on is that we really prefer loose leaf tea to teabags. But why is that?
There’s a quality difference, perceived if not always actual. Ask a tea snob about Lipton tea and they’ll tell you those teabags are filled with the floor sweepings left over after all of the good stuff was packed up. There’s a hint of truth to it: the tea isn’t swept up from the floor, but it’s often fannings or dust. There’s a good reason for that, too. By breaking those tea leaves into tiny pieces, the water has much more surface area to interact with. That’s why teabags often produce a heartier, stronger, and more “brisk” cup of tea.
You can get larger leaf teas in bags, though, and the “pyramid” or “sachet” bags allow much more flow of the water through the leaves. Still, argue many in the business, the highest grades of tea are typically reserved for sale as bulk loose leaf tea, and that gives us a better-tasting cup when we use loose leaf.
There’s another factor, though. One that’s as much based on aesthetics as taste. I like the whole leaf teas because I like the leaves themselves. The picture above shows dry and wet leaves from a whole leaf Royal Golden Safari, one of my favorite black teas. It’s a whole-leaf black tea from Kenya. After you’ve steeped it, you can see the leaves and buds fully unrolled. You can smell the leaf, feel the texture. You can see the size and shape of the leaf. Experiencing the leaves becomes a part of experiencing the cup of tea.
Wine drinkers enjoys more than just the taste of the wine. They’ll swirl the wine in the glass to bring out the nose, watch the legs as it runs down from the rim, examine the cork for hints of how the wine aged. The tea equivalent is watching the “agony of the leaf” as the tea leaves expand fully in the pot or infuser, holding the leaf and comparing its smell to the aroma of the brewed tea, and examining the leaves to glean what information you can about the origin and preparation of the tea.
What is “brisk”? The Lipton people say it means “astringent.” I might say it refers to a cool afternoon on the back deck watching tea leaves unfurl in hot water as I anticipate the luscious cup that I am soon to enjoy.