How to make a proper cup of tea

In my favorite book of all time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (yes, I am a card-carrying geek), the protagonist is obsessed with obtaining a proper cup of tea after the earth is destroyed. Even the most advanced shipboard computers cannot seem to produce anything beyond a substance that tastes “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”  When Arthur Dent finally succeeds in explaining to the computer the entire process involved in producing the perfect cup (complete with a history of India and cows), all of the spaceship’s resources go to work. The perfect pot of tea is produced just in the knick of time; with all its energy dedicated to tea-making, the disabled spaceship is very nearly decimated by a missile.

As a dedicated anglophile well before I met my husband, I knew that tea was important to the British, but I couldn’t fathom why. I had grown up drinking tea regularly, but to me it was a tepid cup of water with a faint hint of herbal or fruit flavor. Nice, but not crucial. The thought of adding milk to the mix was utterly revolting! Then, I read an article in which an exasperated Briton ranted about the impossibility of obtaining a proper cup of tea in even the finest of American hotels. Now that I have actually lived in England and have visited plenty of nice tea shops in America, I have concluded that the author of the article must not have experienced either country very thoroughly–most Brits wouldn’t meet her stringent standards. Still, the article intrigued and challenged me. I set about to make tea “properly”, and it was a revelation.

Tea Dont’s

Of course the “perfect” cup of tea is highly subjective. But if you want to experience tea the British way, don’t commit these tea sins:

Boiling the same water repeatedly. Use fresh water every time you make a pot of tea.

Leaving the tea bags in too long, or never taking them out. If you brew it too long, you’ll end up with a very bitter drink!

Re-using tea bags. It’s common for restaurants to serve up more hot water for the same bag of tea, but once brewed it will lose much of its strength.

My Favorite Tea

In my opinion, Earl Grey tea is one of the most supremely satisfying scents in the world, and Twining’s is the best brand by far. Not surprisingly, it’s Queen Elizabeth’s brand of choice. Unlike other black teas, Earl Grey is very smooth, fairly light, and not bitter. The slight hint of citrus flavor from bergamot sets it apart.

Just about any other black tea will also produce a good British-style cup, but the strength and taste varies wildly. Tetley’s British Blend tea is another favorite of mine that is widely available on store shelves here in America. The round, stringless tea bags are common in the UK.

What You Need

A tea kettle. Either electric or stovetop will do. In the UK most households have an electric kettle, which is quick and convenient. They have now become commonplace on US store shelves as well.

A tea pot. This is what you will actually brew the tea in. Select a size that accommodates the number of cups you wish to make–they come in all sizes

One tea bag per cup, plus one additional


Tea cup or mug

The Proper Way

1. Begin by filling a kettle with water to boil.

2. While your water is boiling, fill the tea pot with hot tap water to keep it warm.

3. Once the water has boiled, empty the tea pot and place the tea bags inside. Use one tea bag for each cup, plus an extra one. Fill the tea pot with water from the kettle.

4. Allow the tea to steep (brew) for 3 to 4 minutes.

5. Add about 1/2 inch of milk (the exact amount is a matter of preference) to each tea cup. There is much debate about whether milk should be added before or after the tea. When making tea “the long way”, I am firmly in the camp of adding the milk first–everything blends together nicely without the need for a spoon. Of course it will take a bit of practice to determine just how much milk you will want to add in advance. If in doubt, start with a little – you can always add more, but you can’t take any out.

6. Fill cups with tea.

7. Enjoy!

A tea cozy may be used to keep your pot of tea warm until you enjoy a second cup.

The Quicker Way

If the extra fuss of a tea pot isn’t practical, you can brew perfectly fine tea right in the cup. Here’s how:

1. Boil water in a kettle.

2. Place a tea bag in your cup.

3. Fill the cup with the boiled water (allowing a little extra space for added milk).

4. Allow to steep for 3 to 4 minutes.

5. Stir in milk to taste.*

6. Enjoy!

*When using this method you cannot add the milk to the cup first. It will prevent the tea from diffusing from the tea bag!

Whichever method you use, the perfect cup of tea with milk should have a nice, opaque caramel color. If it looks watery, you haven’t brewed your tea long enough.

One Lump or Two?

I often drink my Earl Grey without milk, but I never ever add sugar–it would completely throw off the wonderful delicate flavor in my opinion. There are people who do love sugar in their tea, though. If you’re new to tea, do me a favor and try it without the sugar first so you can really taste the tea itself.

Tea still is not a daily necessity for me, but now I understand what all the fuss is about. Properly made, it is a wonderfully soothing and flavorful beverage. I hope you’ll give it a go!

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