It has come to Your Humble Blogger’s attention that not all Gentle Readers are familiar with George Orwell’s essay on A Nice Cup of Tea. Y’all will remember that I have little use for Mr. Orwell’s ideas, but I do recognize that he has a talent for starting arguments. In fact, my recollection of the essay (which appears to have been incorrect) was that he began by asserting that people should (a) have strongly held opinions about tea, and (2) disagree with each other about those strongly held opinions. In that vein, herewith a few of my own rules for tea drinking.
First, tea must be tea. Mr. Orwell restricts it to tea from India or Sri Lanka (Ceylon that was), and that is my preference as well. There’s nothing wrong with a nice lapsang souchong, although I don’t like the smell very much, and an oolong can be tasty, so I do part company with Mr. Orwell to some extent. Where I draw the line is that tea must be made from tea leaves. Other infusions are not the thing at all.
Second, the tea leaves must be oxidized, that is, the tea must be black. Again, oolong tea, which is only half-oxidized, is not an abomination, but for a Nice Cup of Tea, we are talking about black tea.
Third, permissible oils to flavor the tea are as follows: vanilla, jasmine, orange, cinnamon, bergamot. That is all.
Fourth, whenever possible, tea should be purchased in bulk, loose rather than in bags. Your Humble Blogger recommends t-sac paper filters, but of course tea-bells and tea-balls are presumably better for the environment, and the madman Orwell thinks you just fling the leaves in loose. Do you know how, with tobacco, the best leaves are used to make fine cigars, and the next best are used for the best pipe tobacco, and the next best for good cigars, and the next best for good pipe shag, and then decent cigars and ordinary pipe tobacco, and so on and so on, and then they sweep up whatever is left on the ground and make cigarettes out of it? I suspect much the same goes for teabags. Even if you only want a cup, it’s best to use loose tea.
Fifth, Mr. Orwell is correct that tea is best made by the pot, preferably an earthenware pot. The Brown Betty is one good option out of many. In general, though, the closer a teapot is to a Brown Betty, the better I like it.
Sixth, a good cosy is essential, if you are planning to drink tea over any substantial length of time. Putting tea in the microwave (or worse, putting water in the microwave before steeping the tea) is a poor second. I do it, of course, but it’s not the right thing to do.
Seventh, use more tea leaves than you think you need. The rule of one teaspoon for each cup and one for the pot applies to a cup, that is, eight ounces or so. An actual teacup or mug is likely to be twelve ounces or more. But the point is general, that is, use lots of leaves.
Eighth, the water should be hot but not too hot. The ideal temperature is achieved in the following manner: when the kettle whistles, pour a cup or so of water into the empty pot. Slosh the water around for a moment or two and set the pot down. Then spoon out your leaves into your filter or ball or strainer or whatnot. When that is ready, the teapot should be warm, so pour out the water. Put the tea in the pot and pour the water onto it. The water has had the chance to cool a degree or so off boiling, so you won’t scald the leaves.
This, by the way, is one of the aspects of tea-making that makes your own brewed tea so much better than that purchased at a coffeehouse or restaurant. Coffeehouses generally keep the water very hot, which not only scalds the leaves but (particularly in the tall cups they tend to use) results in a twenty minute wait for the tea to be drinkable. Restaurants, on the other hand, will give you a little carafe of warmish water that will just about turn the water brown, but results in a tasteless wash. Even places that have decent quality tea (not Starbucks) provide an inferior tea-drinking experience. Some get it right, but those are few and far between.
Ninth, the steeping should be brief. Much less than the three to four minutes you have read about. Two minutes, or even a minute and a half should be fine. For a nice strong cup, use more leaves, not more time. Most people don’t use enough leaves, steep it for longer to make up for it, and then dilute the resulting sludge with milk and mask the burnt-leaf taste with sugar. These are well-meaning people for the most part, and one shouldn’t attempt to inhibit their “enjoyment” of their “tea”, but keep your own cup away from theirs.
Tenth, as could be inferred from the above, proper teamaking means you should avoid adding either milk or sugar to tea. Tea made by other people may require milk, if it is particularly strong. If the leaves have been scalded, you may want to sweeten it, as well. But sugar and milk are the duct tape of tea. You should have some around, and be willing to use it, but any time you do, it’s because there was some failure somewhere.
Oh, and if you do need to sweeten tea, honey is better than sugar, and set honey is better than clear honey. A decoction of tea-and-honey, though, is best thought of as a treatment for a sore throat, rather than as tea.
Eleventh, if you have made your pot properly, that is, with plenty of leaf and a shortish steep, you can make another pot with the same leaves. The second pot of the day will still be tasty, but will have very little caffeine. No, it won’t be as good as the first pot, but it will be better than decaffeinated tea, which has essentially been through the same process, but before you bought it. Some people who have been warned off caffeine will simply throw away the first pot; I hope to stave off that day for a while yet.
Finally, my Best Reader would be disappointed if I did not add that it is well known that Marxists drink herbal tea.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,