Making a nice cup of tea

When my British friends seriously want some tea, they get specific about what they want: not just tea but a nice cup of tea.

Let’s take that apart: We can leave a and of alone without destabilizing anything important. But think about the word nice. Because you don’t just have a cup of tea in this country, you have a nice cup of tea. Even when the nice is silent, if you listen carefully you can hear it resonating in the background. I need a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea.

And if the cup of tea you get tastes like second-hand dishwater? It’s all the more disappointing, because what you wanted was that nice cup of tea, not this travesty you’ve been handed.

In the U.S., we never sit down to a nice cup of coffee. We drink coffee, we make coffee, we drop by our friends’ houses for coffee, and we go out for coffee. But we don’t expect that comforting nice from it. It’s just, you know, an ultra-fat mocha semiccino with whipped cream and caramel sauce with a side of chocolate chip muffin and a triple bacon cheeseburger deluxe on a sesame seed bun. With mayo.

In other words, it’s no big deal.

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

I don’t know what it says about our two cultures that one seeks comfort from a hot drink and the other doesn’t, but I’ve known people here in Britain to welcome a cup of tea the way I’d expect someone to welcome a stiff drink after a day when the computer blew up, the basement flooded, and the dog filed for divorce; I’ve known them to take the first sip and say, like a borderline alcoholic after a brief flirtation with sobriety, “I needed that.”

Or maybe that’s me I’m quoting. If so, forget it. I’m not British. Or I am, but not deeply enough to count.

So let’s move on. People who expect comfort from a hot drink seem to find it. Point made, in a wobbly fashion.

After nice comes cup. Go into any cafe any you can ask for a pot of tea, and in some for a mug. In most places you’ll get a pot whether you ask for it or not, and all of that is fine, but if the nice gets spoken at all, it comes attached to a cup—one of those curved shells you wrap your hands around while the warmth seeps into your half-frozen soul. The thing you bring to your lips, allowing all the love that went into its making to flow into your metaphorical as opposed to your literal heart. It may have been made in a pot, but whoever made it poured it into a cup for you and that’s what we’re talking about— that cup and its the contents, and by extension the acts of making and handing.

We’ve gone well beyond the rational here. This is about caring and nurturing. It’s about love itself, in an indirect way.

So tea is central to the culture. Does that mean an American can’t march in and make a decent cup? Americans seem to hold one of three opinions:

  1. [Fill in the blank] criticizes my tea-making and always will because I’m American. Even if I do it right, I’ll never do it right.
  2. I’ve been to Britain and read every book ever published on the subject. Tea is my religion and I’ve returned home to convert a refined few among the heathens.
  3. Oh, get over it. It’s just a drink. Wanna cup?

If you’ve been hanging around my blog for any length of time, you can guess which category I’m in.

I don’t know how many categories British opinion falls into on the subject, and that may be for the best. However, in my unbiased opinion, I make a decent cup of tea, and if a friend’s in serious need I can even make a nice cup of tea. It’s hot, it’s strong (except when I make it for M., who drinks it so weak that I just boil the water and wave a teabag through the steam), and under normal circumstances it comes with something home baked.

And with that we arrive to the heart of this post. How do you make a nice cup of tea?

Am I qualified to answer that question? Do I care? Uncertainty hasn’t stopped me in the past, and neither has good sense. I don’t see why they should now. I predict, though, that from here on everyone who drinks tea will disagree with me about something. Have a good time, folks. I’m looking forward to it.

You start with the tea. If you’re American, this is the hard part.

Leaf tea: You can go to a fancy tea store and buy leaf tea, choosing one that was picked before sunrise from plants that have never been spoken to harshly. And you can pay any amount of money you like for the privilege, as long the amount is large. If you live in a tea-drinking country, on the other hand, you can buy leaf tea in a supermarket. No one in sight will know how the plants were spoken to or when the tea was picked. But it’s tea.

Wherever you buy it, try a few kinds and see which one you like.

Which means you have to brew it, and the first trick is to avoid stuffing it into anything that won’t let the water flow through. I’ve tried a variety of brewing gizmos over the years and most of them are as useless as stuffing the leaves in an old sock, and that includes the cloth or paper gizmos that imitate teabags. Why you want to avoid teabags and then use something that imitates them I don’t know, especially when they don’t work as well as the teabags you’re avoiding. (I am going to catch such hell for saying that. I can hardly wait.) Choose the wrong gizmo to stuff your leaves into and you’ll end up with expensive tannish water.

Open baskets do work—in this barbarian’s opinion.

In Britain, a lot of the cafes that use leaf tea dump it directly into the pot and give you a strainer, which comes with something to rest it on so you don’t end up splattering teadrops everywhere. Because the leaves are swimming around in the water, you don’t have to worry about whether the water’s flowing through them. The tea will be good and strong, but if you’re slow about drinking it, it’ll turn bitter. Some cafes give you an extra pot with hot water to thin it out with once that happens, but even with the extra water it sometimes gets strong enough to make you grow hair on your tongue.

Teabags: British supermarkets sell more kinds of teabags than they do baked beans, which is another way of saying you have a lot to pick from. If you’re in the U.S., your choices are limited. You can buy Twinings or something along those lines—one of those brands that entombs each teabag in a little plasticky-foily packet so you’ll understand how special it is, and how special you are to have bought it. I hate Twinings. Which—according to Kate Fox’s Watching the English—is because I’m not upper class. The lower classes drink their tea strong. The upper classes wants theirs to be as refined as they (think they) are, so their tea has to be pale and (lack-of-objectivity alert here) flavorless. So if you’re American and you like Twinings, go ahead and drink it and know that you’ve got more class than I have. Or want, thanks.

When I lived in the U.S., I bought Lyons tea from an Irish store near us and it was strong enough to turn my hair gray. Just look at the photo I use. Back when I drank coffee, I had (mostly) black hair. But Lyons is great stuff. If I hadn’t been able to get that, I think I’d have gone for Lipton’s rather than Twinings. At least it has some oomph to it.

Do I use leaf or teabags? Teabags. I used to keep some leaf tea for special occasions but the tea I made with it was never as good and how’s that a way to celebrate?

Water: This is the other ingredient in tea. If you want, you can use bottled water and it may or may not make your tea taste better. It will be more expensive. Your choice. You can use a kettle or a pan to boil it. If you’re in Britain, you’ll almost surely use an electric kettle because it’s fast. You’ll use it so often that you never put it away. If you’re in the U.S. you can still use an electric kettle but only if you’re willing to invest some time in the project. I grew old waiting for electric kettles to boil in the U.S. I’d have been 56 if I’d just put the water on the stove, but no, I had to buy an electric kettle and so I’m 68.

I have no idea why American electric kettles take so long.

What you can’t do is stick the water in the microwave. Even if it’s in a nice cup. Because microwaves don’t get the water not enough. The true secret of a nice cup of tea is that the water has to be boiling when you pour it over the tea. Or, okay, if it stopped boiling 30 seconds before I get to it, I don’t quibble, I just pour. But if it didn’t boil, or if it boiled back when my hair was black, it’s not worth using.

Do you have to warm the kettle? In my book, it depends on how cold the kettle is. Which depends on how cold the house is. If it’s cold, pour a little of the water in it, slosh it around, let it sit if you want to, warm the thing up, then pour the water out and make your tea. And if you’re making a single cup? I’ve never stopped to warm a cup, although it makes as much sense as warming the kettle. And the tea’s been fine, thanks.

I’ve read that you shouldn’t reboil the water because all the air goes out of it, or all the—oh, I don’t know why you’re not supposed to do it. You’re not. All the experts agree. So put in as much as you need and no more.

How long do you brew it? Well, how strong do you like your tea? I remember a huge ad in Paddington Station saying that after five minutes tea was stewed, not brewed. Stewed tea is bad. Why? Because a huge poster in Paddington Station said so.

I don’t leave my tea that long unless I wander off to do something else and forget it, in which case it may be as much as ten minutes before I wander back. If I’m in a hurry, I stir it. What you (and you’ll notice how seamlessly we’ve switched from me to you here) don’t want to do, if you’re using teabags, is squeeze them. It makes the tea bitter. Really. It does. Just lift them out, all dripping and nasty. Or leave them in, but if the tea’s going to be sitting a while, you may end up with a hairy tongue.

Add milk. Or milk and sugar if you feel strongly about it. Then sit back and enjoy a nice cup of tea. With love.