A Storm in a Teacup

“The best manner of making tea is the subject of violent disputes” – George Orwell

Despite the fact that around 76% of Britons drink at least one cup of tea every day, and that tea is the 2nd most consumed drink in the world after water, theories on the proper way to make a simple cup of tea range far and wide and, as Orwell notes, provoke some violent disputes.

Everyone from tea specialists to scientists have weighed in on the great tea debate, and the factors that are reported to affect the taste, sensation, and overall experience of drinking a cup of tea are numerous. We have gathered these many options here for you to try out at home and make an informed decision on which combination of ingredients, equipment and expertise come together to create the perfect brew.

 

EQUIPMENT

Bone china is usually appropriated as the ideal vessel, as the delicate china parallels the delicacy of the tea inside it.

Orwell noted the importance of a proper breakfast cup for your tea: shallow cups with wide brims would make the tea go cold before you have had a chance to enjoy it. Therefore, he made the case that cylindrical mugs are a more optimal shape.

If using a teapot, swill a cupful of hot water around the pot and pour it out before adding the water from the kettle. This warms the pot, which helps the tea to brew.

 

 

TEMPERATURE

Tannins dissolve in water at 80 degrees C, and you need to take into account the type of tea you are using when considering optimum brewing temperatures.

Black and green teas are made from the same plant; the difference between them is how they are processed. Black tea leaves are crushed, meaning the chemicals within the leaves get oxidised, as they are exposed to the air. This creates floral and fruity flavours from the otherwise bitter-tasting compounds (such as tannins). Black and Herbal teas perform best when brewed at full boil temperature.

Green tea leaves, on the other hand, remain intact, so fewer tannins are exposed to the air. White and green teas have delicate leaves, which will burn and leave a bitter flavour if they are steeped at too high a temperature. Instead, brew these leaves below boiling temperatures, approximately 76-85 degrees Celsius.

Oolong teas, as a middling strength, should be brewed at temperatures between 82 and 88 degrees.

On the other hand, Dr Julia King, head of the Institute of Physics, stated that the secret to great tea was keeping the water at 98 degrees Celsius. In case you don’t have a thermometer handy at all times, a good rule of thumb is to boil the water until just before the kettle clicks off. Watch the pot carefully, as, proverbially at least, this will ensure it doesn’t boil.

 

INGREDIENTS

Use fresh water, as re-boiled water has reduced oxygen content, and can therefore taste stale. There is also an argument for using soft or filtered water, as hard water contains more calcium, an element which binds to the plant extracts in the tea leaves to form scum.

Tea bags can be restrictive to the brewing process, so many tea connoisseurs emphasise the need to use loose leaf teas. When using loose leaves, convection currents can swirl around the leaves, helping the fragrant flavours to diffuse. If you do want to use a teabag, at least make sure there is a lot of space for leaf movement in it.

How much tea is needed can depend on the size of the leaf – the smaller the leaf, the deeper the brew. In general go for a small quantity of small leaves or a large quantity of large leaves to create a deep and flavourful cup.

With regards to milk, the quantity needed depends on the strength of the tea. In the words of Fortnum and Mason, “Darjeeling performs shabbily with milk,” whereas milk can help to temper the flavours of stronger teas such as Assam. Generally speaking, the lighter the tea, the lesser the requirement to add milk.

 

 

ORDER

Milk first or tea first? Originally, milk was added to the cup first to help prevent the poor-quality vessels from cracking when the boiling water was poured in. When finer, stronger china was introduced, adding the milk in second was a show that one had the finest china on one’s table. Evelyn Waugh even recorded a friend referring to a lower-class person as ‘rather milk-in-first’, reflecting the social divide that tea-making created.

The modern-day argument for milk-in-first was put forward by Dr Stapley, who argued that when milk is exposed to high temperatures, such as being dropped into a mug of piping hot water, the proteins tend to denature (degrade), producing a stale taste, therefore it is better to add the hot water slowly to the milk. Adding hot water to the milk is also reported to cause the fat in the milk to emulsify in a different way, giving the tea a creamier taste, and slightly lowering the temperature of the brew, making it closer to a reasonable drinking temperature.

However, there is also an argument of practicality – adding the milk in second, especially when you are brewing an unfamiliar tea, means you can better judge how much milk is required, as you can see the colour and strength of the tea first. Furthermore, if the milk is in the cup already, the temperature of the water is affected, which can in turn affect how well the tea brews (see above about optimum temperatures).

So, the order is really a matter of asserting your priorities in a brew.

 

STEEPING TIME

Steeping time is largely down to personal taste. It is suggested that Britons are now drinking weaker teas than past years, which could be due to our getting used to shorter brewing times, in an effort to make the tea-making process as short as possible. However, there are over 300,000 chemicals in tea, all of which need time to emerge, to fully appreciate their flavour. This means allowing the tea to brew for at least 2, but up to 8 minutes.

 

EXTERNAL FACTORS

Doesn’t a glass of cool water taste so much better on a hot day, when you are feeling thirsty? The same idea could apply to your tea. Think about the times of day when you particularly desire your tea, whether it is first thing in the morning over breakfast, on a mid-morning coffee break in the office, or when you get home from work and relax. The times when you really desire a cup of tea could make it ‘taste’ better purely from a psychological point of view.

An Australian scientist working at Newcastle University found that microwaving tea helped to activate more of its ingredients and increase its health benefits. However, judging by the enormous distressed outcry on social media when David Tenant’s character Detective Hardy was seen microwaving his tea on the TV series Broadchurch, it seems that most people are so appalled at the idea of microwaving a cup of tea that the thought alone ruins the cup for them.

Overall, it would appear that you have to be happy and confident with how you made your brew in order for you to enjoy it.

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