How to Tea: An introduction to British tea culture
Even though “A day without tea is a day without joy.” is a Chinese proverb, the British sure have perfected their own tea culture – and who can blame them? Doesn’t everything taste better when there are floral Chinaware, finger food, and a cake stand involved? Even though it doesn’t take a lot of ingredients to make tea – a tea bag and some water usually do the trick – there seem to be a lot of things that can go wrong and give tea connoisseurs a reason to judge you mercilessly.
But not much longer: Since tea is the most consumed drink in the world after water, it only makes sense that we give it the respect it deserves: I asked Emma and Simon, two Brits who just so happen to be our resident tea brewing and drinking experts, to share their knowledge. If you follow their instructions to a tea, you should become an expert in no time.
1. How do I make a proper cup of tea?
Simon: Of course, you can simply boil the kettle, sling a tea bag in your cup, and pour the water in, but we’re better than that, aren’t we? Let’s bring some British sophistication to the process: To tea like a pro, firstly, boil the kettle. Then, as soon as the water bubbles, pour it into a teapot where a tea bag is waiting. It’s important not to let the water cool down as this amateur error will ruin the flavor. Wait a few minutes while the water and tea bag do their thing before pouring yourself a steaming cup of tea. Proper job! (The amount of brewing time depends on the strength of your tea bag and personal taste, but remember: Nothing is worse than a stewed cup of tea. Nothing.)
2. Do I have to put milk in my tea? How much?
Emma: Yes, a cup of tea without milk is like England without tea – utterly absurd. First, make sure the tea bag has truly stewed and brewed in a steaming mug of water before you even THINK about adding milk. How much milk then needs adding is a matter of personal taste, but only novices drink a brew that has more than an 80:20 tea-to-milk ratio. When in doubt, just add a dash. Never trust a cup of tea that is almost the same shade as the china in the mug. Weak tea is an embarrassment – you might as well drink green tea. Shame.
S: And to think I called you a friend, Emma! Milk should ALWAYS be added first – anything else is a crime against the art of tea. When to add milk has long been a source of fervent debate in the U.K.: If you want to enrage a normally placid Brit, just mention the whole milk first/last debate. *Smh, Emma. Smh.*
3. When’s the best time to drink tea?
E: There is absolutely not one moment where it is not the perfect time for a proper cup of tea. Let me illustrate. Just woken up? The best mornings start with tea. Broken up with bae and need soothing? Tea is here for you. Arrived at work? That, my friend, is surely tea o’clock. Someone in the office has stepped within a 20-meter range of the kettle? Time for a “Not quite how I like it, but I’ll drink it to be polite”- tea. Finished your most recent cup? Get that kettle on. Contemplating a cup of coffee instead? Nonsense, brew yourself another tea to scare such outrageous thoughts out of your head, you clearly haven’t had enough tea today.
4. What should I eat while drinking tea?
E: Biscuits were invented for the sole purpose of dunking (fact). Digestives, especially the ones with the cheeky chocolate layer, are heavenly at all times but are vastly improved by a quick dip in a freshly brewed mug of tea. Make it quick: If you dip it longer than 3 seconds, you’ll risk the biscuit crumbling and landing in the tea with a shameful “plop,” leaving you with half a biscuit and the loss of respect from everyone nearby. A big slice of cake is also an acceptable accompaniment, but to be truly English, pair the cuppa with a huge scone, slathered lavishly with thick clotted cream and some fruit jam.
5. Tea bags or loose leaf?
S: I’ve dabbled in and enjoyed the art of loose leaf tea, which is essential for any budding tea connoisseur, but I’m a man of simple brew needs, so I usually pluck for the noble tea bag. I don’t mess around with flavored tea bags. Life’s too short to pretend some herbal infusion monstrosity is better than a steaming cup of Twinings original blends.
6. Can I drink iced tea instead of warm tea?
E: Why would you even want to? Next question.
7. Am I allowed to drink herbal or fruit tea?
E: Nobody who drinks fruit or herbal tea truly enjoys it. They’re either terribly hipster, believe it to be a miracle dieting solution, or they’ve never had a well-brewed cup of real tea. (Most likely the latter).
8. What do I need for a proper tea party?
S: Don’t overcomplicate matters. Simply bring out your best cups, saucers, cutlery, and teapots, and stack your tiered cake stand with any number of delicious sweet treats. To have a truly epic tea party, keep the tea flowing and be sure to follow Emma’s scone advice: No scones, no party.
9. What’s an absolute no-go when drinking tea?
E: The issue of tea strength and level of milk added has already been covered, but we’re not done yet. You should never have the audacity to make yourself a tea without offering literally everyone in the surrounding area if they should also fancy a cup. Pay extra attention to remember how everybody likes their tea: If you get it wrong, you’ll subject friends or colleagues to drinking sub-par cups out of politeness. These self-respecting tea drinkers will resent you. Also, never use the same spoon to stir a cup of tea that has sugar in to stir a sugar-free tea; people can tell and that kind of reckless, carefree attitude to tea-making will not be tolerated.
10. How many cups of tea do you drink a day?
E: When I first tried a cup of tea at the tender age of nine, I spat it out and swore I could never understand how anybody drinks the ghastly stuff. Looking back, I realize that my parents had let it cool and had made it unacceptably milky in order to protect me from acquiring a tea addiction at such a young age. I now drink eight or more cups a day (and I’m beginning to understand my parents’ logic.)
S: I’ve been drinking tea for as long as I can remember, and not a day goes by where I don’t indulge in my British stereotype. I used to drink around eight cups per day, but my tea intake has dropped considerably since moving abroad. Am I losing my Britishness?!
11. Whom would you like to invite to your dream tea party?
E: Let me just go ahead and shotgun Ryan Reynolds. I’m not sure there’s any explanation needed here.
S: I would drape the Union Jack over the table for the ultimate Brit fest: Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Watson, Keira Knightley and the Queen (with her Corgis, of course) would all be sat sipping blends and tucking into a pack of Hobnobs.
Image by Connie Ma, Flickr / Creative Commons