How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea
Ignore Yoko Ono and John Lennon, and heed George Orwell's tea-making advice.
Take a look at a Magnum Photos gallery on British teatime.
Now that "the holidays"—at their new-style Ramadan length, with the addition of Hanukkah plus the spur and lash of commerce—are safely over, I can bear to confront the moment at their very beginning when my heart took its first dip. It was Dec. 8, and Yoko Ono had written a tribute to mark the 30th anniversary of the murder of her husband. In her New York Times op-ed, she recalled how the two of them would sometimes make tea together. He used to correct her method of doing so, saying, "Yoko, Yoko, you're supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water." (This she represented as his Englishness speaking, in two senses, though I am sure he would actually have varied the word order and said "put the tea bags in first.") This was fine, indeed excellent, and I was nodding appreciatively, but then the blow fell. One evening, he told her that an aunt had corrected him. The water should indeed precede the bags. "So all this time, we were doing it wrong?" she inquired. "Yeah," replied our hero, becoming in that moment a turncoat to more than a century of sturdy Liverpool tradition.
I simply hate to think of the harm that might result from this. It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to. 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.
Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter.
Just after World War II, during a period of acute food rationing in England, George Orwell wrote an article on the making of a decent cup of tea that insisted on the observing of 11 different "golden" rules. Some of these (always use Indian or Ceylonese—i.e., Sri Lankan—tea; make tea only in small quantities; avoid silverware pots) may be considered optional or outmoded. But the essential ones are easily committed to memory, and they are simple to put into practice.
If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: "[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.
It's not quite over yet. If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour. Finally, a decent cylindrical mug will preserve the needful heat and flavor for longer than will a shallow and wide-mouthed—how often those attributes seem to go together—teacup. Orwell thought that sugar overwhelmed the taste, but brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary.
Until relatively few years ago, practically anything hot and blackish or brackish could be sold in America under the name of coffee. It managed both to be extremely weak and extremely bitter, and it was frequently at boiling point, though it had no call to be. (I use the past tense, though there are many places where this is still true, and it explains why free refills can be offered without compunction.) At least in major cities, consumers now have a better idea how to stick up for themselves, often to an irksome degree, as we know from standing behind people who are too precise about their latte, or whatever it's called.
Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don't be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It's not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don't trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph by Burke/Triolo Productions/Getty Images.