The art and science of making tea

Tea-making leaves the English obsessed with and hung up on ritualistic observances: water must be boiling, carry the pot to the kettle not the kettle to the pot, the addition of one spoonful or bag for the pot, and the debate about milk first or last. Much of it is bunk. For a nation that seems to prefer its tea the colour of oiled mahogany, and which adds sugar in mountainous spoonfuls, the niceties of procedure should really be lost.

Much scorn is poured on the French for believing that you can make a perfectly good cup of tea using very hot, not boiling water. The French are, of course, right. Depending on altitude, water boils at different temperatures, and making a cup of tea up a mountain on a skiing holiday inevitably means making tea with colder water. It still tastes the same.

I’ve been experimenting to get perfection in my own cup of tea. The experiments have been brought on by the inconsistent but welcome arrival of the occasional perfectly fresh tasting tea. The variable is pretty much the length of time the tea is allowed to brew: too little time and the taste of the milk dominates; too much time, and the hint of tannin dominates.

I use a teapot that takes about two and a half mugs of water and a single teabag. I use a Fairtrade tea of English Breakfast style. The water simply has to be very hot, by which I mean it should have boiled within the past minute. This at an altitude of about 20 metres above sea level. And the tea has to brew for dead on two and a half minutes. If it goes to three it starts to taste stewed. The procedure makes my perfect cup of tea: of moderate strength, fresh, clean and uplifting.

I’m currently experimenting with ideal times based on the principle of dropping the teabag into the hot water. This ensures that Brownian motion alone does its job, and reduces any variables induced by pouring water onto the bag.

As for milk first or last, I prefer milk first. From a studenty point of view it means one less item to wash up, as there is no need to stir the tea unless one takes sugar. From a historic point of view, it stops fine bone china cups from cracking from the sudden addition of a very hot liquid. If I add milk first, it implies either that I am used to drinking from bone china cups or that I was a lazy student.

Since I have moved to soya milk for dietary reasons, milk first is the only option that doesn’t result in an unpleasantly curdled mix. I find Morrison’s soya milk gives the best results: many other soya milks are too creamy for tea.

In emergencies I will make tea in a mug. The constrictions of the mug means that the tea very quickly stews, and the best preventive action is to put the milk in with the tea bag and then add the hot water. The tea will never get very strong this way, but nor does it stew. It also again demonstrates that you can make an acceptable cup of tea without boiling liquid.


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