Welcome to part 2 of Xue Wei’s article from Lifeweek magazine. Ever wondered how to brew good tea? Well, there’s plenty of advice from unexpected sources: none other than John Lennon, the writers George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, and the scientist and author Mark Miodownik.
Behind the modest simplicity of a “cuppa” lies the extremely complex science of tea and the rules and rituals that have developed around our enjoyment of it, which even extend to how tall a teapot should be. The choice is yours, of course.
More Than Meets the Eye
The British consume 165 million cups of tea and 70 million cups of coffee per day. But experts say that although brewing tea is straightforward, it’s easy to get it wrong, and a lot of people in Britain do get it wrong. Surveys show that the majority of British people steep their tea for just 2 minutes.
British materials scientist Mark Miodownik says that tea should be brewed a bit longer (6 or more minutes):
Tea leaves contain more than 30,000 different chemical substances; it’s an extremely complicated thing. Those elements need time to emerge and play off each other. The people who grow and harvest the tea leaves are supplying you with this complex drink, but at the last moment, the British end up brewing it poorly and throwing it out.
Yoko Ono recalls that whenever she was making tea with John Lennon, he would always tell her off for doing it the wrong way; to first put the tea bag in the cup, and then add hot water. But one night Lennon also said that according to his aunt, you should pour hot water first, before the tea bag goes in.
British author Christopher Hitchens said that Lennon’s method is correct. “Tea is a dried herb. To free up what’s inside, you need to immerse it. Immersion by definition means that when you pour water onto tea leaves, the leaves will open up.”
Using the Right Stuff to Brew Good Tea
Tea utensils are also an art form. In his book Stuff Matters, Miodownick says:
Practicality aside, it’s almost sacrilegious to use a vessel made from anything other than ceramic, no matter whether it’s a paper cup, a plastic cup or a metallic cup. Drinking tea is not just a matter of imbibing a liquid: it’s a social ceremony, and ceramic cups are an indispensable part of it.
Miodownick adds: “Mugs are made from relatively inferior glazed porcelain or ceramic. Mugs are very thick because the material is very soft. They need to be thick enough to support the contents. They’re cheap and cheerful. Their informality and dimensions are what make them so cosy. The British drink tea bags filled with the cheapest blends. This tea tastes pretty basic, funky and humble, and drinking from a mug is equally so.”
In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay outlining 11 rules to observe when making a good cuppa. Rule 8 stresses the need to use a cylindrical-shaped mug, and not a shallow, wide cup because the former maintains water temperature and flavour.
As for the diameter of teacups, in 1980 the British Standards Institute laid down extremely specific guidelines to help you brew good tea: the pot for brewing should be white porcelain or glazed stoneware; use 100 ml of hot water for every 2 g of tea leaves; a big teapot should be 74 to 78 mm wide and 83 to 87 mm high; the ideal width of a small teapot is 64 mm and its height, 61 to 65 mm; the diameter of a big teacup should be between 49 and 55 mm and its height 57 to 63 mm.
Source: Lifeweek (Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan), April 25, 2016, p. 79. Translated by Damien Kinney