Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The three dimensions of tea

Many people erroneously assume that there is only one dimension to tea: WEAK -> STRONG

They think that weak tea can be made stronger by leaving it to brew for longer, and that strong tea can be made weaker by adding more milk. This is incorrect.

There are in fact three dimensions to making tea:

How weak or strong a cup of tea is is determined by the ratio of tea to water. I like a ratio of one standard (i.e. not 'one-cup') Yorkshire teabag to 9 fluid ounces of water. This fits nicely in a standard sized mug with room for milk.

This dimension is determined by how long you leave the tea to brew. If you hoick the bag out (or pour from the pot) straight away it won't have any flavour at all. If it doesn't brew properly - most likely because the water wasn't hot enough - then the flavour will never develop right, and it'll taste 'raw'. The longer the tea is left to stand, the more the tannins will develop, giving the distinctive tea - and ultimately bitter - flavour. This process is arrested by adding milk, but not by removing the leaves/bag. Tea that is left to stand (or stored in a thermos) without milk in, even after the teabag has been removed, will still become bitter. Some people like their tea stewed, which is a perfectly legitimate choice, particularly favoured by people who grew up in 1950s transport cafes. However, if you start off with too little tea in your water, no amount of brewing will make it strong. It will just be stewed and weak, which as everyone knows, is the urine of the devil. I like my tea brewed for about two minutes, with a good stir at either end of the process and a thorough squeeze at the end. There's quite a lot of tolerance in that though.

The final dimension is another matter of personal taste. Some people like no milk at all, some an almost imperceptible amount (looking at you, Kath of Herbie :-), while some like it so milky that if it's left to stand for a week or so it goes solid, and you can turn it out like a blancmange, although I don't advise this. There's also the choice of full cream, semi-skimmed or skimmed. This, I suspect, rather like whether you like shaving foam on top of your beer, is a question of what you're used to. I like a medium amount of semi-skimmed - enough to smooth off the edges, but not enough to actually taste the milk. I prefer semi-skimmed to full cream because it won't form a skin (which revolts me), and to skimmed because that doesn't seem to have the same effect on the tannin, which must be down to the fat. Maybe.

Here is my perfect cup of tea:
Ten bonus points for identifying the source of the souvenir tray - without Googling!

A word about bags versus loose leaf: yes, there is a difference, but a lot of nonsense is talked about it. Tea purists poseurs will wax lyrical about loose leaves, then cram them so tightly into one of those little in-pot strainer things that the middle doesn't even get wet. If you're using loose leaf, then it has to float freely around the pot. A good teabag - by which I mean a full size Yorkshire teabag - will make a perfectly good cup of tea, and three or four of them will make a perfectly good pot, if made and brewed correctly.

And finally, when to add the milk? If pouring from a pot, milk in first makes sense. Firstly, because then you don't need to stir it in, and secondly - the now obsolete historic reason - it stops the hot tea from cracking your delicate china. But if making in the cup, then the water absolutely has to be first, because otherwise the liquid the tea steeps in won't be boiling. Pouring milk onto a teabag before the water is possibly the greatest offence against teamaking of all. However, I will freely admit to adding my milk before removing the teabag, once it has brewed, again largely to avoid a separate final milk-stir, but also to see the colour and give it another squish or too if needed.

Finally, why can only one person in every 313 squeeze the bag out with a spoon against the side of the cup rather than carrying it dripping across the floor to the bin?

Yes, I know this is a very dogmatic post. Before anyone asks what right I have to tell you how to make tea, the answer is that this is my blog, and you can tell people your method on your blog. In fact, I think I have invented a new word for this approach: blogmatic.


  1. I'm definitely a loose-leaf man. What really annoys me is cafes that serve you a mug of tea with the tea-bag still in the mug. Just what are you supposed to do with the wet bag once the tea is to the required strength and the bag needs to be removed?
    But apart from the leaf/bag issue I think your approach to tea-making is spot on!

    1. You squeeze it out against the side of the cup, and leave it sitting in the spoon on the table until you've finished drinking the tea, then just pop spoon and bag back into the empty cup. This does of course depend on being able to do the spoon/cup squeeze effectively. I could offer practical demonstrations at a reasonable price.

  2. I don't drink tea, I doubt I've had a cup since I was a child (about 50 years ago). So why do I find this post so interesting? No idea but I do - perhaps I should give it some thought over a cup of tea.

  3. I like black Lapsang Souchong, brewed from a bag in a pot for about 5 seconds.
    That makes it a light golden colour and gets all the smokiness without the bitterness.
    My partner likes Yorkshire made like you, which we (like many) call "Builder's".

  4. Well I like mine a similar colour to yours which means I like the tea not so strong but, as you said, with far less milk. I also mix my own blend, an old lady I knew had a beautiful old wooden double caddy and mixed 2 spoons of main tea with 1 spoon of Earl Grey in the glass bowl in the centre. I use a similar mix, the ‘main’ tea used to be orange pekoe but nowadays I use Yorkshire tea - you’ll be pleased to know.
    Kath (nb Herbie)

  5. Great post! And one which will probably end in revolution!!!
    Yorkshire tea - yes. (But a mix of Yorkshire and Lapsang would be even better if I were sufficiently organised)
    Medium amount of semi-skimmed - yes.
    Made in the cup - NO, Never, Never!!! Tea must be made in a pot if it is to be able to breathe and allow the flavours to fully develop.
    Told you there could be a revolution.