The Perfect Cuppa

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teaI was incited to blog about the “perfect” cuppa by an article in The Guardian titled, “How to make tea correctly (according to science): milk first.”

As a user of many tea bags – a single bag per cup – I must protest. You cannot possibly get a decent cup of tea that way. The milk cools the water too much for the tea to steep properly. It comes out like that stuff they serve in fast food places: greyish, diluted warm milk with a dreary tea bag floating in it like a dead fish.

Sorry, but there’s gotta be a better cuppa.

First let’s get something straight: a cup of tea is something with actual tea in it. Calling herbal drinks without leaves of the camellia sinensis plant “tea” is an aberration. They are merely herbal infusions. Calling them a “tea” is like calling a cup of Bovril a “coffee.” Or calling a glass of Coke a “brandy.” Companies may combine herbs with real tea, and in which case they may be called a “tea” (albeit grudgingly in some cases). I will brook no exceptions. Ginger-sleepy-zinger-sunshine is not tea.

George Orwell took a stand on tea (the real stuff, not some New Age infusion), calling it one of the “main stays of civilization in this country.” With that statement, I would agree. But we part ways shortly after. The devil is in the details.

He wrote about tea in his 1946 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea. He turned the whole thing into a rather authoritarian manifesto with 11 stuffy rules, paraphrased below:

  1. Only use Indian or Ceylonese (Assam) tea.
  2. Make it in small quantities in a teapot.
  3. Warm the pot beforehand.
  4. Tea should be strong.
  5. Put the tea straight into the pot: don’t use strainers, muslin bags or other devices to “imprison” the tea.
  6. Take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way around
  7. Stir the tea after pouring the water, or better, give the pot a good shake.
  8. Drink out of a good mug not a shallow cup.
  9. Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea.
  10. Pour tea into the cup first before the milk.
  11. Drink tea without sugar.

Let’s start by taking rule nine out of the mix. No one gets milk with cream on the top any more. I’m old enough to remember those glass milk bottles with the funny necks where the cream rose. But today it’s an anachronism. Technology has advanced.

The rest of the rules? Well after a few days searching online and through my books, I can find no consensus on exactly what process makes the perfect cuppa. There are many pages of rules and suggestions, some that contradict what others say. Times and temperatures differ. But let’s look at Orwell’s rules in more detail.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-8LbiVjmXc]

As for rule one: there’s a little too much of the old imperialist Brit in this. Only drink tea from the Raj and all that. Orwell defends his comment by stating:

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.

Given that tea originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, and there are many varieties there, and that green tea is the most-consumed drink in the whole world, I would think that some folks feel equally “wiser, braver or more optimistic” after a cup of Chinese tea just as some do with Indian tea. But Chinese tea was not part of the Empire, and didn’t contribute to Britain’s imperial coffers.

(I can’t say I’ve ever felt particularly “wiser, braver or more optimistic” after a cup of tea, although I’ve certainly been less grumpy some mornings, and some afternoons I’ve felt calmer and more relaxed.)

Orwell may not have been aware of the wide range of teas available, such as oolong and pu-erh, nor had the experience of Dragonwell or other premium green teas. His taste in teas was likely culturally limited – today we have a wider scope to drink.

But as Richard Alleyne observed in The Telegraph, tea is inexorably British from an early age:

…the average Briton makes their first cup of tea at seven and a half years old.

Tea is inbred into the British genes, it seems. My mixed English-Scots heritage must explain at least some part of my love for a cuppa. I love a good cuppa as much as I like a glass of good wine, and I drink a helluva lot more tea than wine.

Had Orwell merely commented on the flavour or robustness of black-versus-green teas, I might have let it pass. Instead, I was sorely disappointed in Orwell’s parochial reasoning. He comes across as a culinary Kipling. Orwell was born in India, by the way, and although he left it by age one, he maintained a romantic notion about Asia and the east through his life.

Rule three we agree on; warm your cup, too, if you’re making it with a tea bag. The energy in the hot water will go to steeping the tea, not warming the cup.

Rule four depends on the type of tea and personal tastes. What may be a strong pu-erh to me may be insipid to you. And vice versa. I have no love for the weak fast-food or coffee-shop teas which seem to all use the same industrial-quality tea bags. Only rarely does one find a whole-leaf tea bag in these places.

Orwell recommends six teaspoons of tea leaves per pot. As the BBC comments on his rules, that’s too strong for today’s standards:

Orwell’s six-spoons of tea per pot – mightily extravagant when the author set down this rule during post-war rationing – is still far too strong today. The RSC endorses no more than a single spoon of leaves.

Rule five seems idiosyncratic. Ever strain a cup of tea through your teeth? That’s what you do when the leaves are loose. Not everyone likes chewing bitter tea leaves and most folks are too polite to spit them on the floor. And anyone who has inadvertently broken a tea bag knows how obnoxious those tiny, sticky bits of tea leaf are in a cuppa.

But perhaps Orwell had in mind to strain the tea when pouring it into the cup. Me, I prefer the modern stainless-steel strainers that fit into a pot and allow the tea to infuse into the water without the leaves.

Rule six: Orwell didn’t have electric kettles, and perhaps in his home, the distance from the stove to the tea pot was long enough for the water to cool. But that’s not the case today. Besides, the optimum temperature for all tea isn’t always boiling. Black tea – Indian and Ceylon – yes. Oolong, green, white or yellow teas are all better at somewhat lower temperatures than boiling. How much lower is open to debate, however.

The Rare Tea Company has some advice about temperature:

For good leaf tea the water should be below boiling. This is because the amino acids (which produce the tea’s flavour) dissolve at lower temperatures than tannin. Tea made with water at 100°c will be more astringent and less sweet.
(Don’t try this with industrial tea-bags. The delicate, subtle flavours of leaf tea are not there – and it will just produce grey water).
Ideally stop the kettle before it reaches the rolling boil- when small bubbles form along the sides of the kettle. Alternatively the warm cup brewing method is an excellent way to cool the water (see below).
If you are a real stickler and want to get it exactly right white and green teas are best at about 70°c.
For black and oolong teas use water around 85°c.
For herbal infusions use 100°c water, and 90°c for Chamomile.

Rather curiously, Orwell doesn’t mention time. Brewing time is crucial for a good cup. Oolong teas take the longest to steep fully (three or more minutes depending on type); black tea should steep for about three to six minutes, while green teas only one to three minutes. Experts recommend that in order to make a stronger cup, you should add more tea, not more time to the steeping. And tea bags steep a little less than these figures, because the contents are so small (more surface area) and release their flavour more quickly.

If you’re like me, you usually judge by the colour, not the time. Looks ready? Okay, add the milk.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AaVYhZmVzc]

Twinnings suggests two-and-a-half to three minutes per tea bag. And they should know something about it: they’ve been selling and blending tea since 1706. And perhaps that’s optimum for their tea bags. Grocery store teas may require more or less time. I can only suggest you experiment with your favourite brand.

The Telegraph ran a story in 2011 suggesting that a longer time makes better tea:

Scientists have discovered that the key to the best tasting brew is to let it sit for six minutes before drinking.
Not only does it avoid scolding but by then it has cooled to 60C, the optimum temperature to let the flavours flood out.
But leave it until after 17 minutes and 30 seconds and the tea will be past its best.

And the Daily Mail adds:

Finally, the secret is patience. Drinking your tea too hot just causes the mouth to burn. A wait of six minutes allows the brew to cool down to 60C, the perfect temperature for sipping.

Similalry, The Guardian article offers this advice for we impatient tea drinkers:

Drink at 60-65C, to avoid vulgar slurping which results from trying to drink tea at too high a temperature.

I can’t say my cuppa ever lasts more than 17 minutes. But let it sit six minutes before drinking? At 6 a.m. I am not in the mood to wait, Buddha-like, patiently staring at a cooling cuppa while it undergoes its chemical changes.

I’m sorry, I just can’t imagine fussing with my digital thermometer, dipping it into my cup of steaming tea and waiting to achieve the optimum temperature. If I must slurp, then slurp I will. Patience be damned.

The UK Tea & Infusion Association offers a chart of recommended times and temperatures for a variety of teas, as well as some hints about storing tea (another topic I will reserve for later).

Rule seven: stirring. I assume this helps homogenize the tea. I stir my tea bag, too. However, care must be taken not to squeeze it overly much at the risk of making the tea bitter.

Rule eight I agree with, except of course in formal situations. I like large mugs, large enough to maintain a warm cup for the duration of the sipping. But any cup or mug has a point at which the remaining tea cools rapidly. As the Daily Mail tells us, some scientists insist a china cup is best:

…the smooth surface of a china cup or mug made not only keeps the natural tannins in the tea from sticking to the side, but the sounds, such as the teaspoon clinking against its hard surface were ‘comforting’.
‘You want a smooth, impervious surface, you don’t want cup to bind the tannins. And also from a psychological aspect, it provides a lovely association of things like drinking tea with your grandmother which foam cups do not…’
‘The ritual of tea making is also important. Making it in teapot and pouring it in porcelain cups invariably tastes better, even though from a chemical point of view it should be the same however you serve it.’

As for sugar: Orwell comments a trifle haughtily:

…how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. 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.

And while I agree to some degree, I have to point out that western cultures generally favour sweet and salty flavours over sour and bitter (which food companies exploit mercilessly, as Michael Moss has documented in his book, Salt Sugar Fat). Properly made, good green teas are not bitter, and have a native sweetness. The bitterness should not rise to the point where the tea tastes metallic or unpalatable. For some, the sugar mitigates that bitterness. Of course, too much sugar and you turn the cuppa into some syrupy concoction not entirely worthy of the name ‘tea.’. The same of course goes for coffee: the beloved double-double is more a comment on our cultural addiction to sugar than on our affection for coffee.

Bitter beer? That deserves a comment I will reserve for another post.

But really the big argument revolves around the milk. First or last? Orwell wrote in favour of the last school:

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.

But, the Guardian article notes:

To test the recipe for the perfect cup of tea put forward in 1946 by George Orwell himself, Dr Stapley of Loughborough University established that putting the milk in after the boiling water is incorrect, as it causes the milk to heat unevenly (as opposed to pouring the water on top of it). This uneven heating of the milk causes the proteins in it to denature, meaning they lose their structure and “clump”, affecting the taste and contributing to that skin you get on the top. So when someone says they can tell if you put the milk in first or second in the tea you’ve made for them just by tasting it, turns out they probably can…
Also, Stapley in his study said the denatured milk resulted in a less pleasant taste. But that’s a subjective opinion, not a measurable fact. Taste is incredibly subjective, to the point where even professionals like wine tasters can’t demonstrate any consistency under scientific scrutiny. So who’s to say this is any different? Why are denatured proteins automatically less delicious than intact ones? A fried mushroom is typically more enjoyable than a raw one, why should tea be any different?

Then, Dean Burnett, the author, argues for the opposite when using tea bags, as I did above:

…if the tea bag is in the milk before the water, this will cool the water too quickly, affecting the brewing. So if you make the tea in a pot, fine. If you don’t, then that’s a whole other issue

The UK Tea and Infusion Association is equally blunt: “Brewing tea from a bag in a mug? Milk in last is best.”

Lest we slough this off as simply English-centric angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin dialectic, Burnett observes:

As an aside, having been to America and sampling the weak tea made there, it must be stressed that the teabag should either be in a pot or the mug itself; it is not sufficient just for it to be in the same room.

Anyone who has stood in a line at a North American coffee shop trying to explain what the word “steep” means to the server who is eagerly pouring the milk into the cup at the same time as the bag and water, knows of what he writes. But perhaps his most important point is this:

…it’s not just the physical and chemical properties of the tea itself that influence our perception of it, but the procedure of making the tea can have an important role.

Making and drinking tea is a personal experience best appreciated at home. In a shop or restaurant is more mechanical; a habit we’ve developed for the take-away hot drink, willingly exchanging quality for convenience. Which is why we use tea bags at home, too. But let’s not get into the whole tea-leaves-versus-bags debate right now and stick to the procedural issue.

The Guardian article continue the milk-first-or-after debate from other apologists:

Dr Stapley is adamant. “If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk, and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation – degradation – to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk.”
Veteran tea drinker Tony Benn test-drove the perfect cup of tea yesterday, at the London headquarters of the society. He calculates that he has got through 27,375 gallons in 60 years, and is a tea first, milk second man. The milk went in first. The tea was poured in. He sniffed. He sipped. He pondered. “It’s very tasty, I must say,” he said. He sipped again. “Oh, it’s delicious.”

But, the author adds, other scientists will happily challenge that:

… the physicists waded in and said all that matters is the water temperature, not the milk. “Trust chemists to make things complicated,” Institute of Physics chief executive Dr Julia King said. “When it boils down to it, the physics is more important than the chemical side of things.”

Then there’s the question of just how much milk is appropriate. I measure mine by the colour of the tea, the Goldilocks’ approach: not too light, not too dark. But the “experts” have a more empirical approach, according to the Daily Mail:

The experts recommend around five per cent of milk in the cup – and adding it first if pouring from a teapot – which helps bind with the harsh tannins and make it a smoother, more enjoyable drink.
‘The proteins in the milk clump together with the tannins, making a black tea much more easy to drink.
But adding milk to hot water causes it too ‘cook’ slightly, so the ideal would be to pour the tea into your milk and then enjoy,’ said Professor Sella.

I’m not sure how to measure 5%, especially when adding milk to a rather full cup after the tea has steeped. I supposed I could measure everything ahead of time, but it seems too finicky.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote a piece on tea in the 1990s. In it, he commented on the way to make a cup of Earl Grey:*

Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea. Go back to where you’re staying and boil a kettle of water. While it is coming to the boil, open the sealed packet and sniff. Careful – you may feel a bit dizzy, but this is in fact perfectly legal. When the kettle has boiled, pour a little of it into a tea pot, swirl it around and tip it out again. Put a couple (or three, depending on the size of the pot) of tea bags into the pot (If I was really trying to lead you into the paths of righteousness I would tell you to use free leaves rather than bags, but let’s just take this in easy stages). Bring the kettle back up to the boil, and then pour the boiling water as quickly as you can into the pot. Let it stand for two or three minutes, and then pour it into a cup. Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with milk. If you think you will like it with milk then it’s probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea1. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea you will scald the milk. If you think you will prefer it with a slice of lemon then, well, add a slice of lemon.
Drink it. After a few moments you will begin to think that the place you’ve come to isn’t maybe quite so strange and crazy after all.

Amusingly, Adams added a footnote:

This is socially incorrect. The socially correct way of pouring tea is to put the milk in after the tea. Social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics. In fact, in England it is generally considered socially incorrect to know stuff or think about things. It’s worth bearing this in mind when visiting.

The iconoclastic Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate Magazine, weighed in on the matter of how to make the optimum cuppa. But first he comments on American tea standards:

It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to. It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed, it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter.

He then addressed the actual business of making a cuppa:

Do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour. Finally, a decent cylindrical mug will preserve the needful heat and flavor for longer than will a shallow and wide-mouthed—how often those attributes seem to go together—teacup. Orwell thought that sugar overwhelmed the taste, but brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary.**

A few sites  address the matter of water and recommend fresh water for each boil. Some even offer hints on the type of water to use, but here in Collingwood, Ontario’s best municipal water is just right. For those not fortunate enough to have access to our water, the Yorkshire Tea Company suggests:

Run the tap a little so the water is nicely aerated. Use water that has boiled just once – any more than that and the level of oxygen in the water is reduced and your tea can taste a bit ‘flat’.

So where is this leading? Is there a perfect cuppa? Is there a method everyone can follow to produce the optimum cup of tea regardless of tea type, container or location?

No.

It depends greatly on your own personal taste. Do you like bitter, strong, or milky weak tea? Sweet versus plain? Do you prefer green over black teas? Can you appreciate the subtleties of white tea? Do you prefer lemon or milk? No simplistic formula will give everyone the same experience. The perfect cuppa is what happens at the moment to lift you, to make you smile.

For me, the perfect cuppa is that lazy after-work cup when Susan and I are on the deck in the early evening, the trees in full leaf, the day warm, the dogs at our feet, a book in my lap.

Sometimes it’s the rushed cup served just after 6 a.m. when we’re running around the house to feed the animals, listen to the news, get showered and dressed, check the Web and the tea just provides the spark to light my morning’s activities.

Sometimes it’s an afternoon green tea, sipped in a more contemplative moment as I mull over something I am writing, or some passage in a book I am reading.

It’s all about the context.

Temperature, time, the procedure and the swirling of the water… they’re all important when I have the time, the patience and the focus. But fretting over the minutiae seems to take away from the delight. When I’m at home, alone, I can put my attention into the details. After all, at any moment I have my whole life to make that cuppa (as my friend Eric used to say about his coffee). The cup I make at any time of the day will be the perfect cup for that moment.

~~~~~

PS. While reading up on tea, I chanced across the crazy Food Babe’s nutty rants, this time about tea. In it she whines about the company Celestial Seasonings, claiming its products have “cancer-causing pesticides.” She then complains about what she’s found in herbal infusions, clearly unaware of the taxonomic difference between tea and a herbal infusion. She’s such a wingnut, you have to laugh at her pseudo-scientific claptrap. She has the food science expertise that my cat has.

* I met Douglas Adams in the mid-1980s, at a software company’s event in the late Elvis’s mansion in Las Vegas. I happened to be carrying a copy of one of his books in my sports jacket and he autographed it. I still have that book. That’s a fun story for another post. The book will probably end up on eBay this winter, because I want to fund the purchase of another ukulele…

** Hitchens also sarcastically comments – as was his wont – about North American penchant for mediocre coffee:

Until relatively few years ago, practically anything hot and blackish or brackish could be sold in America under the name of coffee. It managed both to be extremely weak and extremely bitter, and it was frequently at boiling point, though it had no call to be. (I use the past tense, though there are many places where this is still true, and it explains why free refills can be offered without compunction.) At least in major cities, consumers now have a better idea how to stick up for themselves, often to an irksome degree, as we know from standing behind people who are too precise about their latte, or whatever it’s called.

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