We Brits are known for a few things: Shakespeare, The Beatles, red double-decker buses, Piers Morgan (sorry America). But nothing stands taller or prouder than our national love of tea.
The perfect cup of tea is no trivial matter! It is the lifeblood of businesses and a pillar of the community in times of crisis and celebration. Like our accents, the enjoyment of tea comes with regional variances and nuances. But nothing divides friends, families and colleagues like a poorly made cuppa.
Tea malfeasances, transgressions and offences
There are certain crimes against tea that are simply unnecessary! Badly brewed, dirty kettles, double dipping! All of these transgressions lead to only one outcome: tasteless pisswater!
If you don’t drink tea, then you may be forgiven for showcasing your utter ignorance on how to make the national beverage. But ignorance will only save so you many times. If you are guilty of any of these crimes, please stop immediately!
1. Scummy tea
Nothing says ‘I dislike you intensely’ more than an offering of scummy tea. Hard water areas such as London are prone to this happening. (Read this if you want to know why tea scum forms).
2. One teabag, two cups
Let’s get one thing straight unless you’re making tea for a small child this is NEVER acceptable in polite society! In fact, it’s not even acceptable around impolite society. Don’t do it! One person + one cup = one bag. It isn’t rocket science.
3. Not asking how people take their tea
Nothing makes me have a British fit more than a cup of tea that I can’t drink but I really lose my rag when people just assume how I like my tea. Some people like it milky, others strong. Some people take sugar, others prefer honey etc. ASK! You’re just being rude if you don’t.
4. Dirty, uncleansed kettles
Clean your kettle every once in a while because it will make your tea taste better.
What brand of tea is best?
Some people believe that only expensive, branded teas will do because they are supposedly made with a higher quality of leaf and therefore produce a better brew. For others, a 99p box isn’t any different from one that costs £3.79 (and if the consumer watchdog shows are true, they may have a point!). Personally, I believe you should buy what you like: Twinings, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea or a supermarket’s own brand. It’s your money and your choice.
Milk or Lemon?
This is truly a personal preference. Some taste great with milk but others are more delicate in flavour and require lemon. Or you can choose to have neither.
The old argument regarding how one should serve tea was recently made famous in Ron Howard’s 2006 film of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. When Langdon (Tom Hanks) arrives at the home of eccentric scholar Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) he is given a series of questions in order to enter the premises:
Sir Leigh Teabing: “First, shall I serve coffee or tea?”
Robert Langdon: “Tea, of course.”
Sir Leigh Teabing: “Correct. Next question, Milk or Lemon?”
Robert Langdon: “That would depend on the tea now.”
*FYI – Teabing served Earl Grey which is traditionally served with lemon. (I prefer milk).*
Milk in first or last?
If ever there was a question more likely to stir up a storm in a teacup, then it’s this one.
Putting the milk in last was considered to be the ‘correct‘ thing to do in refined social circles, but the reason for this is often forgotten. – Debretts
Tea became popular in Britain during the 17th Century when poor-quality cups made from cheap china were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, and putting the milk in first helped to prevent this. When stronger and therefore, more expensive materials came into use, this was no longer a necessary precaution. Therefore, putting the milk in last became a way of flaunting that one had fine, expensive china on the table.
So how does this relate to our 21st Century tastes?
The fat in the milk emulsifies in a different way when the tea is poured, which does change the flavour of the tea, giving it a more even, creamier flavour. It also cools the tea slightly to a more acceptable drinking temperature.
It is easier to judge the correct amount of milk to add once you have seen the strength and colour of the tea.
How to make a good cup of tea
Tea is like a well-designed, but idiosyncratic bomb: mess up the steps or get the timing wrong and you are left with nothing more than a cup of dirty dishwater staining your china. But every household deals with tea differently: strong, weak, milk, lemon… how we enjoy it is very personal. Nevertheless, there are a few easy fixes to ensure your brew is the best!
Teabags vs loose leaf
Note: This is a personal (and sometimes financial) choice.
Let me makes this very clear: loose leaf teas are superior to teabags. Don’t argue, just accept the facts. The finer the quality of the leaves, the better tasting the finished product will be. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a great cuppa using teabags – you just need to understand there are different ways to make both types of tea.
Know your leaf
According to Fortnum & Mason, the perfect serving of tea starts with ‘knowing one’s leaf’. Black, green or white.
… different leaves require different treatment. Some need boiling water, some slightly cooler water, and all need to be infused for a different length of time.
What’s in a name?
Are you enjoying a Darjeeling, Assam, Earl or Lady Grey? Teas come in a variety of named blends that provide different flavours. I encourage all new tea drinkers to try as many as possible – it’s the only way you’ll find your favourite. And, in case you were wondering, make mine an Earl Grey.
Most Brits drink black tea. When making it from tea leaves follow these steps:
- It starts with your kettle! Make sure it is clean and as free from limescale as possible. If you live in a hard water area (like London) you may find it necessary to fill, swill and empty the kettle several times to remove the excess buildup. This step is ESSENTIAL for communal kettles (you have been warned!).
- Fill the kettle with fresh water, this ensures the water is aerated (oxygenated). Water that has been boiled already will affect the taste of your tea.
- Warm your teapot with the boiling water and then dispose of the waste. This will keep your tea hotter for longer and tea should always be served hot.
- Put into the teapot one rounded teaspoon (or caddy spoon) of tea leaves for each person and one extra spoonful ‘for the pot’.
- Pour the hot (not boiling) water onto the leaves. They do not need to be stirred.
- Leave the leaves to infuse for three to five minutes, depending on taste.
- Serve using a tea strainer if your teapot doesn’t come with one built in.
Making a ‘normal’ cuppa with teabags
Let’s be honest, most people (myself included) don’t have time to faff about with loose tea during the day. Nevertheless, even making tea the ‘easy’ way can go seriously wrong if prepared incorrectly. Here are my tips for a good cup of tea using teabags:
Follow steps 1 and 2 as above!
- Warm the mug first by rinsing with boiling water. This will keep your tea hotter for longer and tea should always be served hot.
- Pop in ONE teabag per mug. The brand, style and flavour of the teabags you use are entirely personal.
- I suggest pouring the hot water from a good height. (I have no scientific evidence to back this, but the tea always tastes good!)
- If you like milk, add until you have achieved the desired strength and colour of tea. Alternatively, add lemon.
- If desired, add sugar, or sugar substitute, and stir anti-clockwise (very important step here!).
- Enjoy with a biscuit (or three).
Now go and make a cuppa with your new found knowledge.