The British Beverage: Tea

Anyone that has ever had tea at an American restaurant might wonder what the fuss is all about.  Those Lipton tea bags they give out

with cups of boiling water are about as flavorful as the box they come in.  They are truly awful.  If my experience with tea was limited to this variety, I might wonder wtf the British are thinking, drinking so much of the stuff.  But there are two problems with this tea: 1-it’s not really tea and 2-you’re not making it right.  It tastes nothing like a real proper cuppa, as anyone who’s had one can tell you.

Ironically, they have the opposite problem in the UK.  If you go into most pubs and (assuming you don’t want a pint) ask for a cup of coffee, what they are going to give you is Nescafe.  They take the instant coffee powder and dissolve it in water.  That’s it.  It’s the same problem we have with tea.  1-Nescafe is not coffee, 2-they’re not making it right.  Of course there are places in either country to get a proper cup of tea/coffee, but I just want to clear up a misconception to anyone reading this (who wasn’t aware).  People in the US–Lipton is not representative of a good cup of tea.  People in the UK–Nescafe is not representative of a good cup of coffee.

Okay, so let’s talk about tea, because this is a British blog (and also I don’t like coffee).  First, some history.

Tea was first introduced to the UK in the 17th century.  It was available in ‘coffee houses’ which attracted an almost entirely male customer base. They were the sort of place to read, debate, play chess, etc.  The government tried to ban them for a time because of the revolutionary nature of the clients.  But consumption was quite small, until Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II advocated tea as a ladies drink, and a drink for the upper classes.  She was from Portugal, which meant she had had more exposure to the drink in her homeland, and she was also a teetotaler, and wanted to offer a beverage that didn’t contain alcohol. As the royals do, the upper classes do soon after.  Tea consumption rose among the very rich.

To please the king and his wife, the English East India Company brought gifts of tea for Catherine in the 1660s, but the Company did not import tea on a large scale because there wasn’t enough demand. They began trading in tea in the 1680s.  Eventually, the drink caught on so ferociously that it replaced textiles as the number one import from China.

At this time, both coffee and tea were growing in popularity, but tea eclipsed coffee soon after.  Many theories exist as to why, so I imagine it was a combination of factors.  People say drinking tea was more patriotic, since tea was produced in areas controlled by the British Empire, but I’m not certain this is true because at the time tea was produced in China, and production did not move to India and Sri Lanka until later on (correct me if I’m wrong on this, internet).  I think it was more practical concerns that made tea more popular.  For one thing, coffee was only available from areas of modern-day North Africa and the Arabian peninsula–there was a far more limited supply compared with the vast lands of China.  For another thing, as strange as this sounds to us now, tea could be re-used.  Often the aristocracy would buy the tea, use it, and then the used tea leaves would be dried, packed, and resold to less wealthy families.  The flavor of the tea is not necessarily harmed by re-using it, but it would have to steep longer to achieve the same strength.  Compared to an extremely weak cup of coffee, a weak cup of tea is at least still drinkable.  Imagine re-using coffee grounds and you’ll see the difference. Also, less tea is required for one cup than coffee grounds for one cup of coffee.  It was cheaper all around.

At first, green tea was the most popular among the Brits–probably because it was/is most popular in China.  Smugglers and traders began to add sawdust, sand, etc. to their tea to cut it (similar to drug dealers today) and increase their profits, so perhaps the switch to black tea was partly to avoid these practices.  No matter what the reason, black tea is the tea, as far as the British are concerned.  (Another indication that the Lipton tea is not actually tea–it says nothing about black tea, green tea, or specific varieties contained within.  It just says ‘tea’.)

Twinings started the first ladies’ tea shop in 1717, and tea shops cropped up throughout the UK after that. Twinings was also the first to start creating specific tea blends.  My personal favorite tea in the world is English Breakfast Blend, for example.  Specific tea leaves are used to create a specific flavor, like a recipe.  This is very important, because if you try five different black tea leaves you will taste a big difference.

Enough history. How do you make a good ‘cuppa’?

A bit about the equipment:

You’ve got your kettle. Water goes in this and it goes on the stove.  Also good for making oatmeal or hot chocolate.  Some people also have electric versions (very popular in Europe, actually).

Your cups.  I just use coffee cups (usually with some sort of Harry Potter design on them).  Listen, fancy people might have porcelain or silver teacups and saucers. I am not a fancy person. I drink out of coffee cups because that’s what I have, and the bigger cups allow you to have more tea.  Win/Win. Plus, who has room for coffee cups and tea cups and saucers? Fancy people, I guess.

There are infusers:

or strainers:

More on these later.

And, of course, the TEA.  For this, I am talking the proper loose leaf tea.  What? Tea comes in leaves? I know, right? I had never seen tea that wasn’t in bag form until I was 20-something.  Who knew.  But look how different it looks:

I know, it looks like a bunch of sticks.  Well, it’s leaves. What do you expect?

So, why is it important to get tea loose leaf tea?

Lots of reasons.  Think of it this way–with loose leaf tea you can see exactly what you’re getting.  You can make sure there’s no sawdust or sand in it, obviously, which is very important in modern times.  But the best tea comes from the big full leaves. Prices on tea used to be based on the size of the leaf, because the richest flavor comes from the biggest leaves. When you get a tea bag, the pieces inside are the smallest, worst quality leaves, or something called tea dust.  Also, something about the tea in tea bags (more surface area, maybe?) allows more of the bitterness of the tannins (if you want to be all technical about it) to come through, and the taste is noticeably different. Another problem is that tea bags don’t give the tea enough room to expand–the space is vital to the actual steeping process.

Of course, it’s very common for tea bags to be used, even in the UK, to make it just …more convenient.  The paraphernalia is a bit tiresome, with the kettle, the infusers, the strainers. I get it. I use tea bags at work (Twinings’ Darjeeling is my favorite), because try as I might, I haven’t been able to find a portable tea strainer that really works.

Tea at restaurants:

If you go to a high tea or just get tea at breakfast from a UK restaurant it’s a bit different than what you might logistically do at home.  They have a specific process:

They boil the water in the back, fill a small teapot with the leaves and add the water. They generally steep it for a few minutes before they bring it out to you.  You then pour it through the provided strainer and into your cup. The leaves stay in the strainer or in the pot, and don’t get into your cup.

You can then add milk, sugar, lemon, whatever you like.  Purists say you should add milk and then tea, but I’m not a purist. I imagine these people as the tea drinking equivalent of oenophiles and their rules about wine glasses and earthy bouquets.  I have never noticed a difference in milk first or tea first, but give it a try yourself.

I actually think restaurant tea tastes better than what I make, but at home, it’s a bit of a pain to have a kettle that you put on the stove (the kind that whistles) and a teapot to brew the tea. I’m not up for all that dish-washing.  Here’s how I do it:

I take my kettle, fill it with water (usually just enough for my tea and some oatmeal). I put it on the stove and it boils in 2-3 minutes.  During that time, I take my tea infuser out and put tea in it.  I use an infuser from Adagio (pictured above), which is also where I buy my tea.  Their English breakfast is amazing. But I digress.  You generally want 1 tsp tea leaves for 1 cup. I tend to make cups that are quite big, so I use roughly 2 teaspoons worth.

When the water boils, you take it off the heat and pour the required amount into the infuser.  Some people will tell you that you need to keep the water at boiling temperature during steeping, but I’ve never noticed a difference.  Black tea steeps 3-5 minutes, depending on how strong you want it. Green tea steeps at a slightly lower temperature and usually only for 2-3 minutes. Then you pour it into your tea-cup/coffee mug.  My infuser has a built-in filter that lets the tea seep through and the leaves remain for easy clean-up.  Very convenient.  Add milk, sugar, or lemon (to the tea, not the infuser, obviously) and you’re done.

Of course, I realize this is still quite a bit of work.  If you choose to use a strainer at home, a bit of advice: do not overfill the strainer. The tea leaves need space to expand and release their flavors.  Give them enough room, and steep for longer if you have trouble making a strong enough cup of tea.

There are tons of websites that give great advice on tea brewing, including specifics about time and temperature for specific brews (greens should be steeped a bit differently than blacks, for example). Here are a few:


For information on the controversial milk, lemon, or sugar debate, see this website

A great English restaurant in the US can give you a taste of some real tea.  My favorite is Tea & Sympathy in Greenwich Village (NYC)

A few last hints, tips, and tricks:

-If you choose tea bags for their convenience, do not leave the tea bag in the cup.  Why do Americans do this? Only Americans do it, I believe, and it’s really strange.  The tea will stop releasing good flavors as the water cools, but it will continue to make the cup more bitter and astringent as it sits.  Steep it for the 2-3 or 3-5 minutes depending on the type of tea, and then take it out.

-Shop online. That’s the best way to get good tea. Some websites even have tea bags made with good loose leaf tea inside, or tea bags you can assemble yourself with the tea of your choice.

-Anything that comes out of a Keurig or similar instant machine bears no resemblance to tea.

-If you run out of milk, do not use creamer.  Ever. Casein (a protein component of some dairy products) is part of what makes milk a great match for tea, and creamer doesn’t have casein.  It will just make your tea taste congealed and awful.  Don’t do it.

-Tea actually has a different effect on your body than coffee.  While the caffeine in coffee increases stress responses, the caffeine in tea keeps you awake without any anxiety. It’s soothing.  It also has a ton of health benefits.  So try it!

-Tea goes best with biscuits–that’s British for cookies! Smart people have realized this and sell the perfect accouterments:


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