Black Tea: making a single good cup – a “how to” guide

The brewing of tea is both an art and a science. George Orwell presented us with his own eleven golden rules, and much scientific study has been applied to the addition of boiling or near boiling water to dried leaves which have been transported thousands of kilometres. People become passionate and worked up about their tea-brewing methods, but in essence the addition to leaves of water is a simple act, which, if done properly, will yield good results every time.

It must be noted that there are very few detailed recipes that have been published for simple, old-fashioned tea. Orwell’s rules are in a class of their own. Not even Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, boasting recipes for 316 “tantalizing” food recipes and 608 “Esquire-tested drinks” contains any mention of tea (Esquire, 1953). The “Every-day Cook-book and Enyclopedia of Practical Recipes”, by Miss E. Neill has only eleven brief lines on the making of tea, despite boasting to be “economical, reliable and excellent” (Neill, 1889). It is as though it is assumed the knowledge of tea is common, and it doesn’t have to be written about.

This essay deals only with the preparation of black tea, as the preparation for green tea is slightly different. Both teas come from the same plant—the difference lies in the processing of the leaves (Martin, 2007). However, black tea is what many refer to as “normal tea” (Faubert, 2009). Ms Neill, in her “Every-day Cook-book and Enyclopedia of Practical Recipes”, says that preparing black and green tea is the same (1889), however, this is not true. When preparing green tea, the water is not boiled, and only heated to around 80 degrees Celsius before being added to the leaves (How to Make Green Tea, 2011). Black tea is my personal preference, and these are instructions for its preparation.

I employ the aid of a modern convenience: the tea-bag. Orwell declared that there should be, “No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea” (Orwell, 1946), however the modern tea-bag isn’t a sickly, dripping muslin bag, but a device that can be relied upon to make tea brewing clean, simple and still produce good results.

The choice of black tea is entirely personal. Myriad varieties greet you if you care to visit the supermarket aisles, and personal preference will have to be relied on to make the decision.

First, you must assemble the instruments: the electric kettle; a teaspoon; and a cup or mug. The first two items are self-explanatory, however the cup needs thought. An old-fashioned style cup and saucer is appropriate, but a sturdy, thick mug with a good handle is the thing you need. A thin dainty cup is fine if you wish to discuss fashion and the social pages, but a mug is the modern choice of someone who would like to have a good cup of tea.

Secondly, assemble the ingredients: water; the tea-bag of your choice; and your favoured condiments. Condiments could quite possibly include salt and pepper, but the usual tea taste destroyers are sugar, honey, milk and cream.

Now, “put the kettle on”, as they say. Fill the kettle with fresh, cold water from a tap to maximum fill level as indicated within the kettle by a line or marker. Then, plug the kettle in to a power socket, and switch the socket and then the kettle on. Now that the water is being boiled, you have enough time to prepare the rest of the tea-brewing operation.

Set the cup or mug on a firm, flat surface. Place the tea-bag at the bottom, and wrap the cardboard tab and string in and around the handle of the mug. This prevents the tea-bag from being lost in the bottom of a scaldingly hot cup of tea, impossible to retrieve.

When the water boils, take the kettle to the mug and pour straight into the mug. Do not wait for the water to settle or cool. The water must be boiling when it begins its reaction with the black tea (Orwell, 1946). Without doing anything, let the tea-bag rest at the bottom of the mug in the water for twenty to thirty seconds.

Unwrap the cardboard tab and string of the tea-bag from around the mug or cup handle, and raise and lower the tea-bag, via the cardboard tag attached to the string, in and out of the water. Continue with this oscillating action for about ten seconds.

Add your sweeteners—sugar, honey, etc—with the aid of the teaspoon; which acts both as a carrier and a standard measure. Then, still using the teaspoon, stir your sweeteners into the water.

Orwell says that true tea-lovers don’t use sweeteners to “mask and destroy the taste of their tea” (1946)—so it is perfectly acceptable to ignore the previous step.

Remove the tea-bag. The cardboard tab attached to the string which is, in turn, attached to the tea-bag makes this process very simple. Holding the tea bag above the mug by the tab, use your index finger and thumb to squeeze the water out of the tea-bag at the sides, letting it drop back into the mug. Dispose of your tea-bag thoughtfully, either in waste to landfill or an appropriate compost bin.

Stir your tea once again with the tea-spoon.

Add your “condiments”. Add your milk and cream now, and stir once more with the teaspoon.

There are many who suggest that you should put your milk or cream in first, before the boiling the water and the tea-bag; however it is easier to judge how much milk or cream you require if you add it in after the tea (Orwell, 1946).

Lastly, remove the teaspoon—adding it to the washing up pile or putting it in the cutlery holder in the dishwasher—and your tea is ready.

Take the first sip carefully, as, if you have completed these instructions promptly, your tea should still be very hot, the way that it should be. You won’t want to ruin the entire cup by having to deal with a burnt tongue caused by the first mouthful.

Your tea is there to be enjoyed, and don’t take many little sips, but decent mouthfuls—the only way to truly appreciate the flavour of the tea.

The science of tea brewing has many different schools of thought, and the art has many disciplines (Goodwin, 2007). However, the creation of a simple and easy cup of tea doesn’t require articles published in leading scientific journals, or artistic peer assessment. It needs common sense and simple practice.

A warm comforting cup of tea should be both a pleasure to drink and a pleasure to make. All it needs is boiling water, a tea-bag and a cup or mug, plus the comforting sweeteners some require. Don’t overcomplicate tea, and you’ll be sure to enjoy it.

Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, 1953, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, New York.

Faubert, N, 2009, Black Tea: the So-called Normal Tea, Examiner.com, viewed 4 April 2013, <http://www.examiner.com/article/black-tea-the-so-called-normal-tea>.

Flickety, L, et al., c. 2012, How to Make Green Tea, WikiHow, viewed 4 April 2013, <http://www.wikihow.com/make-green-tea>.

Goodwin, L, 2007, How to Brew Tea, VeeTea, accessed 4 April 2013, <http://www.veetea.com/site/articles/how-to-brew-tea>.

How to Prepare Green Tea, 2011, Green Tea Base, accessed 4 April 2013, <http://www.greenteabase.com/how-to-prepare-green-tea>.

Martin, L, 2007, Tea: The Drink that Changed the World, Tuttle Publishing, Vermont.

Neill, E., 1889, Every-day Cook-book and Enyclopedia of Practical Recipes, Examiner Press, San Francisco; available at <http://archive.org/details/everydaycookbook00neiliala>, accessed 13 March 2013.

Orwell, G., 1946, January 12, “A Nice Cup of Tea”, Evening Standard.

The Common Sense Cookery Book, 1982, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

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