The Perfect Cuppa

The other day I listened to James May chatting on Radio 5 Live about the new series of Man Lab and in it he discussed the perfect cup of tea. As in everything in life, I agreed with some of what James May said, but disagreed with other parts, for example he suggested using the same water for heating the teapot for reboiling and using to brew the actual tea, but I insist that you should use freshly drawn water for the tea. This is important as you need the best water possible to make an infusion of water. My suggestion is you boil the kettle as there is always old water in the kettle, pour that water into the teapot, then draw some clean, fresh water and boil that; pour out the water from the kettle, add the tea leaves and then pour over the just boiled water. James May’s chat then brought to mind a fun piece of research done by Northumbria University that claimed to have worked out a formula for the perfect cuppa – what a load of bunkum!

And also as anyone who likes The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy knows that: “Tea is considered a delicacy in many parts of the Galaxy. However, the proliferation of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Nutrimatic Machines has made it very hard to get a good cup of tea.” And tea is used to drive the imporbability drive of the Starship the Heart of Gold. So making a good cup of tea is of vital importance to the universe.

But the beauty of tea is that it is personal and how you make tea is best for you, i.e. there is no perfect way to make tea. That having been said there are some no-nos and some better ways of making tea. Then some of us have our foibles, for example I use a tea cosy – now that is seriously unmanly, but I insist it keeps the temperature up high enough to get the best out of your tea leaves. So for what it is worth, I thought I would review some old books and how they told you to make tea, then give you my own version of the perfect cup of tea.

Mrs Beeton On Making Tea (1861)

To quote from Mrs Beeton: “There is very little art in making good tea; if the water is boiling, and there is no sparing of the fragrant leaf, the beverage will almost invariably be good. The old-fashioned plan of allowing a teaspoonful to each person, and one over, is still practised. Warm the teapot with boiling water; let it remain for two or three minutes for the vessel to become thoroughly hot, then pour it away. Put in the tea, pour in from ½ to ¾ pint of boiling water, close the lid, and let it stand for the tea to draw from 5 to 10 minutes then fill up the pot with water. The tea will be quite spoiled unless made with water that is actually boiling, as the leaves will not open, and the flavour will consequently be colourless and tasteless,- in fact, nothing but tepid water.”

Comments: I have tried the Mrs Beeton method and the tea you come out with is strange in that it is much more bitter yet weaker than a good brew I would expect – I guess that the long brew pulls out the astringency in the tea leaves while the final dilution cause the tea to lose some of its body. I reckon this shows the change in our lifestyles as perhaps her recipe was based on making a breakfast tea with China tea leaves, like Kintuck, rather than the stronger Assam based tea blends.

Edward Smith on tea in “Foods” (1873)

Edward Smith writes some 29 pages on tea as a food compared to almost nothing written by food writers nowadays. He suggests for a fine thin tea to “infuse it from ten to fifteen minutes; but if common tea be selected the infusion should not stand more than five to ten minutes. In all cases the pot should be kept quite warm, and covered with a cosy.” This method brews a frighteningly strong tea that is really bitter, so while Mr Smith was regarded as a guru on food, this is a disaster of a way to make tea.

Jospeh M Walsh in “Tea-Blending As A Fine Art” (1896)

“In the proper preparation of Tea for use, therefore, the object should be to extract as little of the tannin as possible and as much theine and volatile oil as can be extracted without permitting the infusion to boil or overdraw.  To best obtain these most desirable results, put the requisite quantity of Tea leaves in a covered china or earthenware pot – all tin and metal vessels should be avoided – and pour in freshly boiling water that has been boiling for at least three minutes, and then allow the vessel to stand where it will keep hot, WITHOUT boiling, for from eight to ten minutes before serving, according to the variety of Tea used.”

“In moderate strength it requires about one teaspoonful of good tea to a half pint of boiling water and an ordinary half teacupful of leaves to every quart of boiling water, the latter making a fairly strong infusion for five persons.  China and Japan Teas require from eight to ten minutes to draw thoroughly, the former requiring but little milk and sugar…India, Ceylon and Java Teas generally should not be allowed to draw more than five to seven minutes at the outside after the boiling water has been poured on…, while the addition of an extra quantity of both milk and sugar greatly improves their drinking qualities.”

Comments: Mr Walsh’s teas are brewed very strong and for much longer than I would dare go for, resulting in a bitter brew.  However, his comments are interesting as it is the only book that I have found that tackles tea making in the 19th Century America.

Elizabeth Hughes Hallett “The Hostess Book” on “A Fireside Tea” (1937)

“But first of all make sure you can make a good cup of tea. When made properly it is most refreshing and stimulating, but when badly done it acts as poison to the system.

“The real secret is to have the water freshly boiled. Water which has been standing at the side of the fire for some time time is stale. The teapot must be kept clean and sweet, and an occassional scald with boiling soda water will ensure its freshness.

“The amount of tea to use depends greatly on its quality. One teaspoonful to each person and one to the pot is the old-fashioned rule, but with a good blend of tea a teaspoonful will be found to be sufficient for two cups.

“To make the tea pour a little boiling water into the teapot and let it stand for few minutes. When thoroughly heated, empty and dry it. Pour the required amount of tea into the pot and pour in boiling water. Cover with a cosy and let it stand in a warm place for 3 or 4 minutes. Do not allow it to stand too long, otherwise it would be bitter and harmful. Serve according to taste with sugar, cream or milk, and when one is especially tired the addition of a slice of lemon will prove most exhilarating, without milk.”

Comments: this is pretty much how I make my British cuppa, except that I would steep for 5 minutes and not 3 – 4 minutes, and would say go for freshly drawn water that has been freshly boiled, rather than “water freshly boiled”. It is interesting to note that more scientific analysis later agrees with Mrs Hallett’s brewing time.

George Orwell & The Perfect Cup Of Tea (1946)

George Orwell (this is the literary part of this blog) wrote about tea in 1946 for The Evening Standard.

In summary, George Orwell key points are: (i) Indian and Sri Lanka tea only, which I would agree with, although African tea is good as well; China tea is too weak for a general British/Irish cuppa; (ii) make tea in china or earthenware teapots; (iii) the pot should be warmed beforehand but as most of us do not have Agas or a range, it should be with boiling water and not on your stove; (iv) tea leaves should be straight into the pot, i.e. not tea bags or in infusers etc, although the big plastic infusers are great and really practical, but if you can free the leaves, let them float about free, happy and easy; (v) give the tea leaves a good stir; (vi) use boiling water; (vii) pour off the cream from the milk first; (viii) about 6 heaped teaspoons for a quart sized teapot, which equates to about 1 heaped teaspoon per cup, which is how we brew it at home; (ix) tea should be taken in a mug.

On the downside, George Orwell does not talk about the water, which is crucial to tea making, and he is of the “milk-in-second” school, which is the cause of much contention.

McGee On Making Tea (1984 & 2004)

In Harold McGee’s seminal work on “Food & Cooking“, Mr McGee devotes some space to tea and coffee. To quote, the key points: “In the West, a relatively small quantity of tea leaves – a teaspoon per 6 oz cup/ 2.5gm per 180ml – is brewed once, for several minutes, then discarded”; “The infusion time ranges from 15 seconds to 5 minutes, and depends on two factors. One is leaf size; small particles and their great surface area require less time for the contents to be extracted. The other is water temperature…black teas are infused in water close to the boil, and relatively briefly.”; “In a typical 3-5 minute infusion of black tea, about 40% of the tea solids are extracted into the water. Caffeine is rapidly extracted, more than three quarters of the total in the first 30 seconds, while the larger phenolic complexes come out much more slowly.”

As for serving tea, Mr McGee writes: “Once tea is properly brewed, the liquid should be separated from the leaves immediately; otherwise extraction continues and the tea gets harsh. All kinds of tea are best drunk fresh; as they stand, their aroma dissipates, and their phenolic compounds and components react with dissolved oxygen and each other, changing the color and taste.

“Tea is sometimes mixed with milk. When it is, the phenolic compounds immediately bind to the milk proteins, become unavailable to bind in our mouth surfaces and salivary proteins, and the taste becomes less astringent. It’s best to add hot tea to warm milk, rather than vice versa; that way the milk is heated gradually and to a moderate temperature, so it’s less likely to curdle.”

Comments: the idea of warm milk is curious, although I agree milk that is at room temperature is better than straight from the fridge. Also, some mention but not much detail about types of tea and origins. McGee does talk about water and suggests it should have a moderately acidic pH of 5, rather than the neutral to alkaline of most municipal water, and he also indicates that Volvic is a good source of mineral water for tea making. I will come back to water in a later blog.

Northumbria University & The Perfect Way To Brew Tea (2011)

Northumbria University was commissioned by Cravendale, the milk producer, to do some research into the perfect cup of tea, which unsurprisingly elicited quite a lot of PR (see http://atomicspin.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/hard-hitting-research-from-cravendale/ and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8577637/How-to-make-the-perfect-cup-of-tea-be-patient.html).

In overview, Northumbria University claims the best brew is as follows:

1. Add 200ml of freshly boiled water to your tea bag (in a mug).
2. Allow the tea bag to brew for 2 minutes.
3. Remove the tea bag.
4. Add 10ml of milk.
5. Wait 6 minutes before consumption for the cuppa to reach its optimum temperature of 60 degrees centigrade.

They even helpfully created a formula for all of this (which must make it right):

TB + (H2O @ 100°C) for 2mins BT + C (10ml) 6 mins BT = PC (@ OT of 60°C)

where TB = teabag, BT = brewing time, C = Cravendale milk, OT = optimum temperature and PC = perfect cuppa.

As senior lecturer, Ian Brown, explained: “When enjoying a cup of tea, our palette requires a balance between bitterness and sweetness. Milk quantities and brewing time were key factors studied throughout our investigation into the perfect brew.

“Prominent sensory attributes of black tea are its bitterness and its dry, ‘puckery’ mouth feel, also known as astringency. Our findings show that 10ml is the preferred amount of milk for our cuppas, due to its ability to balance natural bitterness and allow a smoother taste sensation.”

My comments are as follows: firstly, the best tea is not from a teabag, but from loose leaf tea leaves and this shows a similar social change as that between Mrs Beeton and Mrs Hallett, i.e. a shift from loose leaf tea to bagged tea and in their case from China to India-style teas; secondly, the tea leaves must be brewed for longer to get all the flavours to come out – 2 minutes is way too short and 5 minutes is about right; thirdly, Cravendale tastes metallic to my taste buds and I go for full fat milk and remove the cream first rather than semi-skimmed – Cravendale is homogenised which is the worst type of milk; fourthly, always brew your tea in a teapot then (in my opinion and the UK is divided on this) milk in first; fifthly, other than the quality of the tea leaves, water quality is probably the most crucial factor and where is the mention of that.

What I did find interesting was the idea of a limit on when you must drink your tea by 17.5 minutes, and the fact that 66% say they make the best tea, followed by your spouse at 16%, dads at 4.5% and lastly mums at 2.1%, which just proves the best tea is how you are used to having it brewed for you.

[PS: Supposedly, this unbiased piece of pretend research, which you can download via this link, says that Cravendale, which sponsored the research, makes the best milk for your cup of tea - well I never].

James May’s Perfect Cuppa (2011)

Within James May’s new book for his series Man Lab, he has a few pages on brewing tea alongside vital stuff like how to score a penalty and making a fish finger sandwich.

James May cites a piece of work by Dr Andrew Stapley of Loughborough University that suggests that George Orwell was overdoing his tea strength and that you should revert to the old maxim of “one teaspoon per person and one for the pot”, that milk should go in first and that sugar can enhance the flavour of tea so long as it does not dominate the flavour. However, we use a quart sized teapot and I put in 5 – 6 teaspoons, so I reckon George Orwell was on the money.

Dr Stapley’s research is published by The Royal Society of Chemical Engineers as their “official” way of chemically brewing a perfect cuppa. In it, there are a couple of interesting points: firstly, they talk about drawing “fresh, soft water and place in kettle to boil” as previously boiled water has lost some of its dissolved oxygen, which is needed to bring out the tea flavour, while hard water tends to give rise to tea scum; he suggests filtering hard water and avoiding bottled waters for the same reason (note that McGee advises Volvic as well as bottled waters even though these do tend to have a high mineral content); secondly, he suggests preheating the ceramic teapot in a microwave by adding a quarter of the cup of water to the teapot and placing on full power for a minute; thirdly, they address the touchy subject of the timing of the milk – Dr Stapley’s research suggests that if adding the milk second, the milk is overheated for a few seconds, so causing milk proteins to denature and clump together, so making for a less pleasant cup of tea – at this stage the tea temperature should have fallen to 75C. Then as regards sugar, this depends on 2 factors: (i) the tea you are drinking as some tea blends are much more bitter than others; (ii) taste as in the end it is your brew and your taste buds, so Dr Stapley suggests adding some sugar moderates the natural astringency of tea (the milk also dampens the natural bitterness of tea). Dr Stapley, also, explains that what you are seeking is to balance the polyphenolic compounds being extracted during the brewing process as these give the colour and some of the flavour in the cup, however longer brewing brings out the higher molecular tannins that have a bitter aftertaste; the caffeine infusion is largely complete in the first minute.

Finally, James May mentions that soft water is best, which I agree with and it is also the best for brewing beer, so this is why brewers used to clump together around good sources of soft water, e.g. Tadcaster. He also goes for a 3 minute brew, which is the minimum and I reckon should be increased to 5 minutes, but that is a matter of taste again. Then, there is milk in first, and drink at 60 – 65C which agrees with the Cravendale-Northumbria research (he actually writes 60C but I think he means to follow the Dr Stapley method of 60 – 65C). As for sugar, the suggestion is for white sugar only and not other types, which I guess is to keep the extra flavours being added reduced, but I use a natural caster sugar and that does not have too many molasses tastes coming through, so for me that is also fine.

My way of making tea will be explained in my next blog post.



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4 Responses to “The Perfect Cuppa”

  1. [...] Axel and Sophie Steenbergs Blog: News, Views and Chat about Spices, Tea, Recipes and the Environment « The Perfect Cuppa [...]

  2. IAN BROWN says:

    I note your comments on my perfect cup of tea and like yourself I agree with much of what you say but disagree with the words “spurious” and “silly”
    It was done as a fun project, not to be taken too seriously, but to use the most popular drink in the UK [after water] to promote Cravendale milk…yes it was a very successful and effective marketing strategy.
    Of course there’s no perfect cup of tea. How could there there be when every single one of us has different sensory and organoletptic tastes.As a food retailer in a niche market I’m sure that you know that.
    However, thank you so much for including me in your blog along with such famous people as Mrs Beeton,and George Orwell. I feel humble and honoured at the same time and don’t use teabags myself!!!
    Keep flogging all that good stuff on your website
    Cheers
    Ian

  3. When i notice ones reviews with the great goblet connected with herbal tea in addition to including by yourself When i go along with much of whatever you claim although take issue while using the text “spurious” in addition to “silly”
    It had been performed to be a enjoyment challenge, not to ever be studied far too severely, although make use of the favorite take in in great Brittan [after water] to enhance Craven dale milk…yes ıt had been an exceptionally effective in addition to useful marketing strategy.

  4. Axel says:

    I have changed “silly” and “spurious” to “fun piece of research”, although I do still believe it to be veering towards frivolity, but acknowledge that “spurious” was not fair.

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