I analyzed the instructions for making good black tea in essays by four prominent male British authors. All studies required boiling water and a warm pot for making adequate tea. All preferred loose tea leaves to teabags, but the rigidity of this preference varied. Dismay at the practice of offering a teabag with a pot of warm water in restaurants was also nearly ubiquitous. Authors were evenly split as to whether tea or milk should be poured first.
The methods for making a perfect cup of black tea are somewhat controversial. While many debates in online fora may provide a snapshot of modern tea usage, I turned to the non-peer-reviewed literature to compare tea-making recommendations by several prominent authors.
Essays about tea by four prominent male British writers were scored for five tea-making parameters: water temperature, whether the teapot should be pre-warmed, whether it is acceptable to add sugar to tea, whether milk or tea should be poured into the teacup first, and whether teabags (rather than loose-leaf tea) are acceptable. All studies concerned the making of black tea in the British style.
Table 2 summarizes five key features of “perfect” black tea according to the four essays. The two temperature-related parameters were highly uniform among authors. Parameters relating to the addition of supplemental substances were less uniform and often contradictory. Although all sources agreed that loose leaf was preferable to bagged tea, the strictness of this preference varied.
British males included in this analysis uniformly indicated boiling, and no less than boiling, water and a heated pot or mug as mandatory for making good tea. Several criticized the American restaurant industry’s habit of bringing hot (but not boiling) water to the table to allow patrons to steep their teabags. The inflexibility on the issue of water temperature is interesting, in that higher temperatures should increase the rate of infusion but not necessarily the quality of the tea. That is, cooler water should still be able to produce the desired tea flavour, but will require a longer steeping time to do so. This is not the case if chemicals in the tea leaves must undergo temperature-dependent changes (e.g. the denaturing of a protein) in order for the desired flavour to be produced. High temperatures do in fact alter the chemical structure of green and white teas, which are steeped in cooler water to avoid this process.
The rate of infusion will also depend on the surface area:volume ratio of the tea leaves. Loose leaves sitting in the bottom of the teapot will present the most surface area and thus infuse the fastest. Bagged tea, on the other hand, is effectively confined to the surface area of the bag if it is packed too tightly, making infusion slower. If the teabags are not left in for long enough, not all of the desired chemicals will infuse into the tea water and the flavour will be compromised. It is interesting, then, that all authors chose to focus on temperature rather than leaf-holding medium as the key feature of good tea making. Perhaps, as Adams (1999) suggests, tea bags as a first step make tea drinking more accessible and thus should not be the subject of a witch hunt. Indeed, it is much easier to insist on boiling water—something easily controlled by the tea-maker—than on the purchase of loose leaf tea, which can be rather difficult in many parts of North America. We cannot, however, rule out sheer crotchetiness as a result of too many lukewarm teas served in American restaurants as the reason for such uniform insistence on boiling water.
Titles of the four essays did not correlate with the rigidity of the authors’ preferences. For examples, Hitchens (2011) claims to be offering instructions on making “decent” tea but actually presents fairly strict guidelines. Even the strictest rules (Orwell 1946) promise merely a “nice” cup of tea. However, the ambiguity of the other two titles (Adams 1999, Gaiman 2006) preclude further conclusions on this matter.
The three most recent authors complain specifically about bad American tea, and their complaints cover more than a decade. It seems that these repeated instructions on tea-making have had little impact on the American public. The prominent atheism of these authors may serve not only as a barrier to proper tea-making catching on but even as an incentive for Americans to try to make even worse tea in the hopes that Christopher Hitchens will go away. In light of this hypothesis, the recent rise to political prominence of the so-called “Tea Party” movement in the United States as a correlate of tea quality should be investigated further.
Addams, Douglas.1999. Tea.
Gaiman, Neil. 2006. The last tea post.
Hitchens, Christopher. 2011. How to make a decent cup of tea.
Orwell, George. 1946. A nice cup of tea.