I grew up drinking tea in England. No one ever dreamed of giving a child coffee, what with all of that caffeine and what not. I remember my mother making “milky coffee” which was mostly steamy milk with just a dash of coffee and plenty of sugar. No one, on the other hand, thought twice about giving a child a cup of tea. “Here you go,” sang my grandmother, handing me a spoon, “Wind it up!” By which she meant for me to stir it, so that the sugar was blended throughout and not a golden-brown sludge on the bottom of the cup.
At the age of thirteen, I joined the Brentwood School Print Club. It was a magical place where a bunch of misfits gather to express pleasure in type faces, long before personal computers were to bring us more fonts than we could ever have imagined. We had our own room and, if we had a faculty sponsor, I had never met him and never would. However, the magical thing about print club was that we had our own room – the old table tennis club storage room. It had an outside door which locked and we had keys! But that is not the best bit. It also had running water and a kettle.
Every English home has an electric kettle. It does one job and does that job bloody well, It boils water, That is it. It boils water fairly fast. It boils water so that it is boiling hot and this is very important. Back at the Boston Tea Party (1779) The Sons Of Liberty protested British oppression by attacking merchant shipping and, supposedly chucking a whole bunch of tea into Boston harbor. True or not, folks from the United States have been drinking their tea cold ever since. “Ice and lemon with you tea?” they ask. Blechhhh. Tea should be drunk hot, with milk. The water to make it should begin life stone cold and brought to the boil before meeting the tea leaves in the pot. It is ritual. It is sacrosanct. It is life.
And so it came to pass that, at the age of 22, I found myself upon the shore of the United States; Bloomington, Indiana to be exact. I spent the next ten years in that pokey college town in one of the less fashionable parts of the less than fashionable mid-west. Wandering in the wilderness, I searched for a cup of tea that would sooth my troubles the way that a good cup should. If you are tired, tea will pick you up. If you are stress, tea will calm you down. If you are sad, tea will help lift you spirits. If you are in a good mood, a nice cup of tea will round things off perfectly.
The one thing that I will say about the United State, when they import tea they import some damn good stuff. I worked my way through a large assortment of very good tea, but never found the flavor I was looking for. “It must be the water,” suggested an English friend. They put all kinds of weird chemistry in the water over here, That’s why American teeth shine in the dark!
One day, broke and dejected, I was hanging out in my local Iranian grocery store. I needed tea and they had a box of 100 “Super Gold Quick Tea – Each Bag Makes Two Cups!” tea bags for two bucks. It was that or nothing – and nothing is simply not an option for an Englishman.
Once home, I put on the kettle and brewed a pot of tea. Voila! There it was. Cheap Sri Lankan tea – dirt cheap and thrifty. It was at that point that I had a breakthrough, an epiphany, if you will. I grew up in a household that was not exactly wealthy. We did not drink expensive tea and I had been looking in the wrong place all the while. From that day to this, I have sought out cheap Indian or Sri Lankan black tea. I can guarantee that the next time that I shop, the brand will be out of stock and I will have to chance it with another unknown cheap tea from South Asia. Sometimes there is a nice surprise… and sometimes a major disappointment. It is my way of living dangerously and I encourage you to do so too.
- Use cold water. You can filtered water if you want, but do not use distilled water. I have no idea if this is science or superstition, but cold, natural water is supposed to have more oxygen in and so enliven the flavor of the tea. The boiling process removes some of the oxygen, so always start with fresh water and do not reuse water that you may find left over in the kettle.
- Bring the water to a full boil. A microwave just does not boil water. it may heat it. You may even see pin-bubbles that might lead you to believe that it has boiled, but do not believe it. Black tea requires a full 100 degrees c (220F). This is not true of Japanese green tea, but essential for black tea.
- Use a tea pot. Loose tea or bags, one cup or four – use a tea pot. Loose tea require one heaped teaspoon per cup and one for the pot. You can probably get away with one bag per cup.
- Pour the boiling water over the tea in the pot. You should use enough water to fill your cups once the tea is brewed. We do not have good central heating in England. So, pour some boiling water into the tea pot before you put your tea in. This will “warm the pot” and prevent a drop in temperature when you pour the boiling water over the tea, Have I mentioned how important it is that the water be boiling? Additionally, once the tea is brewing in the pot, you should place a tea “cozy” over the pot to keep it hot.
- Allow the tea to brew for 3-4 minutes.
- Pour a little milk into your cup. It is “not done” to pour the tea first and the milk after. The folk lore of this runs that bone china is brittle in the cold English climate – brittle and expensive. Boiling tea, poured into cold china, is apt to make the china shatter or break. The cold milk brought down the temperature of the final product to a less dangerous range. It is said that her majesty, the queen, pours her tea before her milk. The rest of us know our place and pour the milk first.
- I have a teapot with a strainer basket (diffuser). This makes it easier to pitch the used tea leaves. Certainly, I do not want to test the quality of my plumbing with the vast quantities of tea leaves that I generate. I also have tea strainers which catch the tea between the pot and the cup, if I am using a pot without a basket.
Dentists have been telling me to drink less tea for years. I know that it makes my teeth all yellow and “English”. I am envious of those pearly-white American gnashers that I see on a daily basis. However, they simply aren’t worth giving up tea for.