No one can agree on how to make tea

Since reading “A Hacker’s Guide to Tea” (and this worthy discussion) I’ve begun drinking more of the beverage, which I rather like now that I know how to make it: tea isn’t hard to prepare. But I came from the idiotic “more is better” school of thought and figured the longer and hotter that tea is steeped, the better it must be. In reality, this just makes it tremendously bitter and vile.

In actuality, light teas—like green and white—need to be steeped at temperatures well below boiling for about a minute or two. Black teas should be steeped with boiling water for two to three minutes. Tea should be loose leaf and circulate freely with the hot water poured on it; I now use an IngenuiTEA from Adagio for one to two cups. The drink falls from the bottom of the device, rather like it’s peeing, but I find the overall effect quite amusing.

Still, the number of people with very strong and conflicting opinions about how to make tea is astonishing. “Very strong and conflicting opinions” would also have made an excellent title for Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, but today he merely offers bilious tea making instructions—and that’s as strange a construction to write as it is to read—in How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea: Ignore Yoko Ono and John Lennon, and heed George Orwell’s tea-making advice:

It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed, it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter.

I love the overstated, overstuffed phrasing: “ridiculous business,” “dispiriting tampon surrogate,” “best thrown away.” But his advice is limited to black tea. He goes to to quote Orwell ” ‘[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.’ This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.” But, in The Story of Tea: A Cultural and Drinking Guide (which is not very good and reads like a travelogue), Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss say:

While millions of avid tea drinkers around the world ‘take the teapot to the kettle’ to use water that is as hot as possible to brew ‘proper English tea,’ we find that even the stoutest black teas prefer to be brewed in water that is slightly off the boil. Any perceived reduction in strength can be made up by steeping the tea a little longer.

Here is my proposition for Hitchens and innumerable others: instead of insisting that one way is better, why not take the Coke-Pepsi challenge? Brew a large number of cups both ways, give them to a large number of people over a large number of occasions, and see which one works better? More likely than not, neither will work out. Based on the large amount of contradictory advice I’ve read regarding tea, I would guess that once one has a reasonably fresh, loose leaf and a reasonable knowledge of approximate brewing temperatures, the rest is superstition.

The analogy to wine is probably appropriate: except for people with very highly developed senses for wine, most of us probably can tell “bad” “better” and “best” but little more. So we decide what wine to drink based on price and innuendo more than anything else. By the same token, I bet that Hitchens can’t really tell the difference between tea brewed off the boil or not, but he probably derives a certain amount of status by having very strong opinions about how tea should be brewed. I leave to the reader who is familiar with Hitchens’ work to decide whether this general principle might apply beyond the realm of caffeinated beverages.

Finally, Hitchens is only writing about black tea, but he doesn’t say as much. Making green or white tea as he recommends will be terrible. Still, even there the advice is contradictory Tony at The Chicago Tea Company—quoted in the first link—says black tea should be steeped for one minute or so. “A guide to tea” by the foppish Chris Cason says that black tea should be steeped no more than five minutes, while white teas are more forgiving and could be steeped as long as seven. I am more inclined to agree with Tony, based on experiment. The issue of making tea should not, however, be one argued with the fervor of someone discussing Middle Eastern politics.

EDIT: I’m now reading Orwell’s “A Nice Cup of Tea,” in which he says:

“If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.
This is curious, not only because tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than 11 outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial” {Orwell “Essays”@990}.

To me, the most interesting part of this is his comment about how only “two” of 11 points “would be in pretty general agreement,” while “four others are acutely controversial.” This indicates that tea-making preferences have been an issue for at least sixty years (the essay was published in 1946) and are likely to continue to be controversial in the near future. So far as I know, “violent disputes” haven’t resulted from tea making, but then perhaps Americans, especially those in overheated Arizona, are not so particular about tea, or there isn’t the critical mass necessary for violent factions to form.

EDIT 2: A redditor pointed me to the ISO 3103 standard on making tea. Even the parody, however, leans toward black tea: “The method consists in extracting of soluble substances in dried tea leaf, containing in a porcelain or earthenware pot, by means of freshly boiling water [. . .]” Follow the standard regarding green tea and you’ll find a less-than-optimal cup.

As long as we’re discussing Hitchens, here’s one of the more amusing quotes from Hitch-22: “I always take it for granted that sexual moralizing by public figures is a sign of hypocrisy or worse, and most usually a desire to perform the very act that is most being condemned.”

2 responses

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing your knowledge on how to make tea! I was going to simply read the back of the package (which has all of the needed information) but reading your elongated version of performing a simple task really blew me away. You have a future in writing my friend. I suggest your next post should be about using the microwave properly and to it’s full potential. It will be better than reading the those darn obsolete instruction packets.


  2. Pingback: There is Now a Standard for Everything: Nutritional Snacks and Perhaps Making Tea

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