In June 2020, the people of Britain put their differences aside to condemn a brazen act of aggression against their country.
An American expat known only as “Michelle” had posted an instructional TikTok on how to make “British tea.” A collective groan could be heard from Land’s End to John O’Groats, as Michelle and her daughter blasted a mug of water in the microwave, added a free pour of sugar, half an udder’s worth of milk – then briefly flashed a teabag at the resulting slop.
It was the most disrespectful flouting of Anglo-American conventions since a group of iffily-dressed Bostonians lobbed a consignment of loose leaf into the harbor.
But why are us Brits so comically precious about this unassuming brown liquid?
A bit of history: The thoroughly un-Britishness of tea
Tea is the Britishest thing ever, until you take two seconds to Google it. It’s grown, of course, in China, India, Africa, Sri Lanka… the list goes on, but aside from a few tiny producers, Britain’s not on it.
The world’s biggest tea-quaffing nation per head? Turkey. The teabag? Dreamed up by an American.
English spy James Bond loathes a cuppa so much that in the novel “Goldfinger” he snaps in a sexist/jingoist tirade: “I don’t drink tea. I hate it. It’s mud. Moreover, it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire. Be a good girl and make me some coffee.”
The Brits’ first fling with tea was thanks to a Portuguese woman; Catherine of Braganza arrived in England in 1662, making her tipple of choice a must-have fashion accessory among fawning aristocrats. (Royalty has gulped the stuff ever since, with Twinings being Elizabeth II’s label of choice.)
The East India Company quickly muscled in on this trend and monopolized trade using Indian-grown leaves, often produced via indentured labor. Thumping great taxes led to widespread smuggling, not to mention that whole Boston Tea Party escapade.
In 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger decided to bring in the Commutation Act, slashing tea taxes from 119% to 12.5%. Suddenly, the caffeinated thirst quencher was for the many not the few – and subsequently buoyed by zippy clipper ships (another American invention), an explosion of Sri Lankan plantations, and a temperance movement that would tut loudly if you so much as pictured a small glass of beer.
But tea really won the hearts of the people because it was good for them. Thanks to the boiled water, it staved off cholera – not to mention the British weather. Sweetened with milk and sugar, it revived and energized laborers. And served with bread and cheese as high tea, it became a staple of working-class life – a thrifty stand-in for the evening meal.
High tea was subsequently dolled up by Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford. “She started taking tea and sandwiches between lunch and dinner in the 1840s, and began one of our most delightful traditions,” says Bekki Clover, training excellence manager at Bettys, a chain of tearooms that’s been serving Yorkshire for over a century. “Soon the duchess was joined by her friends, and by Edwardian times afternoon tea, served on the finest china and silverware, had become a byword for elegant socializing.”
The tea has never stopped flowing since. Mad Hatters partied with it. Literate chimps urged us to quaff more of it. Novelists claimed it was the magic key to unlocking their imaginations. The Doctor said it was “just the thing” for healing the synapses – presumably after a tiring day fighting Daleks.
Speaking of TV shows, the UK regularly still cadges electricity from France to power up millions of electric kettles for nationwide brew-ups during ad breaks. They must think we’re mad.
How to make tea properly: The art (and science) of the perfect cuppa
Michelle of TikTok was trolling us by the way. Watch her crackpot recipe for “British eggs” (strikingly similar to British tea) and you’ll understand. But while the microwave stunt proved that Brits revere tea as much as they do David Attenborough, it also highlighted a glitch in the Matrix – no one can agree on how to actually make it.
Mrs Beeton (essentially the Victorian Nigella Lawson) insisted tea was brewed in an earthen pot with boiling water, and could benefit from a pinch of carbonate of soda. George Orwell wrote an entire essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea”, which reels off 11 key rules for brewing up (teabags, he moans, “imprison” the leaves).
Kate Halloran, tea innovation manager at Taylors, says that if using a pot, you should warm it up first by giving it a quick swirl with boiling water.
Everyone has their own tea ritual. But can we use science to give us a definitive answer?
Dr. Stuart Farrimond has spent years researching what makes a good cuppa, and knows all the crimes we’re guilty of.
One big sin is not brewing up for long enough. Farrimond’s advice is to pour just-boiled water into a mug with a teabag, then go and occupy yourself with something else for five minutes, allowing it to brew fully. You’ll thank yourself shortly.
“After the wait, you will find that the richly flavored tea will also be in the optimum temperature range for savoring all the flavors,” says Farrimond, “There are more than 30,000 flavor molecules in tea, all of which need time to emerge.” (By the way, don’t try to cheat by squeezing the bag: you’ll end up with a bitter brew.)
As well as releasing more flavor, leaving the bag in longer means more antioxidants and a ballsier hit of caffeine. “A cup brewed for 30 seconds has 35 milligrams of caffeine, whereas with a five minute brew, you get 50 milligrams of caffeine,” says Farrimond.
Plus, the drink will have cooled to around 37°C (body temperature) – optimum for sipping.
Tea bag or loose leaf?
But should we be using a teabag at all? “Loose leaf tea will probably give you the fullest taste as the best quality leaves are traditionally kept back for this,” Farrimond explains, “That said, because over 95% of tea drunk in the UK comes from teabags, my research has focused on teabag tea.”
Any mainstream teabag will do the trick, although Yorkshire Tea, Twinings, PG Tips and relative newcomer Teapigs are frontrunners, as far as British taste buds are concerned.
A china mug or porcelain cup is ideal for serving your brew in; one major no-no, warns Farrimond, is a Styrofoam cup – the kind you get at football matches and roadside cafes. The synthetic material of these mops up flavor molecules, rendering the tea bland. Scum caused by hard water is also guilty of toying with the nuances of tea. If you’re in a hard water area, using a filter is a must. Special hard water teabags are worth considering too.
Then there are factors the average tea drinker wouldn’t think of. Even the color of your vessel can affect taste; for example, your brain associates a red mug with berries and ripeness – tricking you into thinking the tea is sweeter than it really is. Overall, the more you like your cup or mug, the more you’re likely to enjoy drinking from it. Guard your favorite chinaware with your life.
The milk question
As for *that* milk question? “Hotly debated,” says Farrimond. “The story goes that traditionally milk was added first to protect the fine bone china from shattering when pouring in the hot tea.” Yet he recommends adding milk second, especially if brewing from a teabag in an individual cup: “It gives longer for the tea to brew properly.
“It’s also easier to judge how much you’re adding, so that you can get the milkiness to your liking,” adds Farrimond.
In truth, of course, the perfect cup of tea is whichever one gives you the most pleasure. The important thing as a Brit is that once you’ve decided how you take your tea, you must die on that hill.
Where to drink tea in Britain
High tea has more or less evaporated from the British way of life, but its ritzy cousin afternoon tea lives on as an occasional treat. And while many tea rooms like Bettys still offer tea served a la Duchess of Bedford, the genre has been doing its fair share of experimenting lately.
At the Coed-Y-Mwstwr Hotel in Wales, afternoon tea comes with miniature fish & chips and lamb kofta as standard.
The Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh got creative during the pandemic with a touch of Harry Potter wizardry, offering delivery of cakes shaped like golden snitches and sorting hats to select local zip codes.
At W London, drag queens dish up Darjeeling with a side of edible glitter balls once a month.
In fact, it’s been suggested that plain old black tea might not be exciting enough for the modern drinker – perhaps one reason Yorkshire Tea launched a “Jam & Toast” brew in 2020. But Kate Halloran of Taylors – the company behind Yorkshire Tea’s blends – thinks reports of the common cup of tea’s demise are exaggerated: “Millions of people enjoy a traditional brew as an important part of their day,” she says, “so I don’t think it’s going out of fashion.”
In this complicated age, perhaps it’s time to return to the basic pleasures of a cup of tea. Sip one at the Bridge Cafe in London’s suburb of Acton, where defeated candidates from the UK version of “The Apprentice” TV show come to drown their sorrows. Or slurp it from a flask while rambling through Jane Austen country (tea crops up in many of her books, and she personally bought the family’s supply direct from Twinings to avoid inferior batches tainted with arsenic).
For the most satisfying brew of all, you needn’t travel further than your own kettle: “For me,” says Halloran, “a cup of tea is best enjoyed at home, either watching the football or curled up with a good book.”
Just remember to give the teabag five minutes. And stay well away from the microwave.
Will Noble is editor of Londonist, a website all about London. The book “Londonist Drinks” features a chapter about tea drinking in the capital.