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How do I make the perfect cup of English tea?

Are you thirsty? Do you fancy making yourself a drink? Depending on the time of day you might be tempted to put the kettle on and have yourself a brew. Can I suggest that you don’t? By the time you reach the end of the article, you will hopefully have a better understanding of the nation’s favourite beverage and your tea-making method might just change forever.

Of course, you might already be a pro, in which case please leave a comment!

This article is written on the assumption that you are using bags rather than loose tea. Messing around with leaves, strainers, infusers and the like is just not for me. 

The widely accepted method for making tea is shown below. However, read on to discover a subtly different method that has been endorsed by scientists.

Step-by-step instructions for making tea

  1. Boil your water
  2. Let the water stand for 2-3 minutes *
  3. Add tea bag(s)
  4. Wait patiently
  5. Give it a gentle stir (not a squeeze)
  6. Add milk and sugar as desired

* Boiling water will actually burn tea leaves and harm the flavour.

Mug or Teapot?

You won’t find a better receptacle for your expertly brewed refreshment than one of our Animal Idiom Mugs, available individually or as a complete set. However, if you want to make tea for several people at once then you can’t beat a good teapot.

The rule of thumb when using a teapot is one teabag for each person, plus one additional bag. So, when brewing up for four people you would add five teabags. Traditionally one teaspoon (yes, that’s where the name comes from) of loose-leaf tea was added per person plus ‘one for the pot’ but I can’t find any reason for the additional spoonful of tea. It is common to warm the teapot before use, this simply keeps the water warmer for longer rather than a cold teapot reducing the temperature before you have even started to brew the tea. Another tip is to leave the lid off the pot while the tea is steeping. This stops the tea over-brewing (stewing) and results in a better flavour.

Water

You want your water to be well aerated. How you do this is up to you, but the simplest way is to pour it from a height so that it is aerated as it hits the base of the kettle. Oxygen in water boosts the flavour.

Heating the water is the next important step in the tea making process. The most common method is to use a kettle but as a travelling teacher you may well find yourself in a sticky spot where you are gasping for a brew (you came prepared), you dig out the little Ziploc bag containing your favourite tea bags. Proud of yourself for being so well prepared and desperate for a little taste of home you search your hotel room for a kettle. It slowly dawns on you that there isn’t one! Before you lose all hope, here are a couple of ways you can boil water in a pinch:

  1. Use a microwave – heat for 30 seconds on half power. Check and repeat until the desired temperature is achieved.
  2. Use a coffee machine (without any coffee in it) to boil the water for you. Simply use the water that it dispenses to brew up.

How long should I brew tea for?

My simple rule of thumb is the darker the tea, the shorter the brewing time. Most people recommend steeping black teas for three minutes or so, whereas herbal tisanes (they are not really teas) should be steeped for longer, perhaps as long as seven minutes. 

If you want to speed up the brewing process, and we often do - imagine taking seven minutes to make the tea if you only have a 15-minute break! It is not the accepted method amongst purists but if you are in a rush then get your spoon in there and give the bag a mash. This will speed up the brewing process but mash with caution as vigorous stirring releases tannic acids into your tea that result in a bitter liquor. There’s nothing worse than a weak brew so I say mash away!

Cultural tip: Try yourself a builder’s brew!

Brits refer to strong milky tea (often with sugar) as a builder’s brew. You can walk into any caff (café) in the land and when asked how you’d like your tea, respond, “I’ll take a builders tea, please.” And rest safe in the knowledge that a fortifying elixir the colour of creosote is heading your way.

Should I add milk before or after the water?

My personal opinion is that when using a teapot, the milk should be added after the tea has been poured into the cup. However, controversially, I believe that milk should be added first, at the same time as the teabag, when making tea in a mug. It is fair to say that the majority of tea drinkers choose to add the milk during the final stages along with the sugar if desired. But I recommend that you try the more controversial approach as the taste of the tea is different, and personally, I prefer it.

I’m not going to go into too much detail here but scientists far smarter than I have actually looked at why milk first is better. According to research conducted by Dr Stapley of Loughborough University, he concluded that adding milk before the hot tea is better. When milk is heated unevenly, which happens when it is added gradually to hot water, it makes the proteins denature. This is often the cause of the unappealing oily scum that you see floating in your mug. The flavour profile of the milk also changes, and the tea will taste less milky.

The consensus amongst tea aficionados is that the creamier milk the better. Having said that, I haven’t found anyone who would go as far as to suggest you use actual cream, which I find strange because I haven’t found anything to suggest that your milk can be too creamy. If anyone has any idea why cream is added to coffee but never to tea, then please let me know in the comments section below.

And there you have your perfect cup of tea!

British Slang – Teacher-Toolkit’s Teatime Thesaurus

Cuppa – a contraction of ‘cup of tea’, as in, “Shall we have a cuppa?”

A brew – comes from the method by which tea is made but now refers to the drink itself, you might say, “Let’s have a brew!”

Char – often thought to be an Anglicisation of the Indian word for tea (char). It is also very similar to the Chinese word for tea, which is tcha.

Rosy Lee – Cockney rhyming slang for cup of tea. Often shortened simply to ‘Rosy’. Jack the fishmonger, having returned home after a day on the market stall selling jellied eels, might say lovingly, “Get the kettle on Margaret and let’s have a Rosy!”

Confusingly, ‘tea’ can also refer to an evening meal. Furthermore, ‘afternoon tea’ also refers to a light mid-afternoon meal, often served in cafes and hotels, consisting of cream cakes served with a teapot containing one of the more delicate tea blends - Earl Gray is a popular choice. Although nowadays the tea may be replaced all together with a glass of champagne.

Top three British tea facts

Fact 1

Tea is pretty popular amongst Brits – almost 80% of Britons drink tea daily and as a nation we make 165 million cups each day. That’s over 60 billion cups a year. The cost of simply boiling enough water equates to about £300 million each year!

Fact 2

High tea was a Victorian concept, and the term is often (incorrectly) used interchangeably with afternoon tea. Not many people know that the Victorians also partook in low tea. The difference? Low tea was served on low tables (similar to modern coffee tables) and lounge chairs whereas high tea took place on tall chairs seated around a table. Interestingly low tea was enjoyed by the aristocracy whilst low tea was enjoyed by the working class.

Fact 3

Adding the milk last used to be a sign of wealth. Inferior china was prone to cracking so people would put the milk in first to reduce the risk that the hot water would shatter the cup. The upper class would put the milk in last to show off the quality of their china.

Tea-themed Classroom Activities 

Tea is such an integral part of British Culture, so here are some quick ideas on how to introduce it to your learners. 

Mixed-up Instructions - Take the instructions on how to make a cup of tea provided and cut them into steps. Then give these to your learners and ask them to put them in the order that they think a cup of tea should be made. This encourages learners to read English whilst also being fun!

'How to' Video - Give out instructions on how to make a cup of tea and ask your learners, either in groups or individually, to make a 'how to' video. They can use props if they wish. This will encourage students to speak in English and learn to present in the language.

Wordsearch - If you want a quick and easy way to introduce tea into your classroom, then check out our downloadable tea themed wordsearch.

Conclusion

I personally think that people take tea far too seriously, it is almost akin to wine with everyone claiming to be an expert. I am certainly not an expert, but I hope you’ve enjoyed my quick guide to making the perfect cuppa.

I think the beautiful thing is that for something so simple everyone has their own way of doing it. The ritual and the methodical process of making it becomes almost as important as the drink itself. So next time you are in need of a pick-me-up, why not pop the kettle on?

Written by Nick Barnes




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