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Thursday, 13 January 2011

How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea

Whatever kind of tea you like, whatever method you choose, making the perfect cup of tea should always start with these two steps:
1)    Use freshly drawn water, discarding any previously boiled water already in the kettle
2)    Make the tea the moment the water comes to the boil

These steps are crucial; the water must be boiling, or the flavours won’t develop properly, yet boiling removes the oxygen in the water.  You need the oxygen to give you a fresh, lively tea, so don’t let it boil out.  If you remember nothing else from this little article, remember “fresh water, at the point of boil” and your tea will improve immeasurably. It always amazes me how many people neglect these simple points, and yet they affect the finished brew perhaps more than anything else.

The choice of tea is up to you.  There are so many alternatives; black tea, green tea, white tea.  Darjeeling, Ceylon, Assam.  Then there are the blends such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Afternoon Tea…  And then there are the teas that aren’t really teas at all, such as Redbush, Camomile, Peppermint etc.

I’m going to talk about typical “everyday” teas here, and you can use the same methods for whichever you choose.

So, how to brew tea?  Here’s the thing; most people don’t brew their tea for long enough, thinking that it’s going to be stewed or over-strong.  In fact, the correct brewing time is essential – different levels of flavour and complexity are released at different points of the process.  The colour tends to release first, and, if you go by colour alone, your tea will not have developed properly if you pour it when it “looks right”.

So, what is the correct brewing time for tea?  The easy answer is to look on the side of the packet.  It will tell you.  Three minutes, five minutes, even seven minutes.  These teas are concocted by Master Tea Blenders who know what they’re doing.  If they have told you that this particular tea needs to brew for four minutes, then give it four minutes; no more, and no less.  If you have gone to a posh emporium, and are having your loose tea weighed out for you, then ask them in the shop how long it should brew: if they don’t know, you’re in the wrong place.

Which brings us to the thorny question of loose tea v. teabags.  Back in the “old days” it used to be said that teabags were filled with the sweepings from the floor where the loose teas were blended.  Whether or not this was so, nowadays teabags outsell loose tea by a huge multiple, so, if anything, the converse is more likely to be true.  Not that I’m suggesting it is, of course.

Generally, the tea in teabags is cut finer than the tea sold loose, so it can develop its colour and flavour more quickly, hence, probably, the “dust from the floor” story.  Remembering that the Tea Blenders know what they’re doing, you should therefore be able to get a perfectly decent cuppa from teabags.  However, the tea aficionados are probably correct in that loose tea will ultimately give you a finer (in the other sense of the word) brew, plus of course, you have more control over the amount you use, which will also influence strength, colour and flavour.

Personally, I like the tea I make from my favourite brand of teabags.  However, I also use loose tea when I’m in the mood for something perhaps a little more “refined”.  There is something immensely soothing about the ritual of making tea in the pot.

With either type of tea, there is one further point: do not stir, squeeze or otherwise agitate your tea, be it loose or in a bag, until just before pouring, or just before pulling the bag from the mug.  Stirring too early will release those “overbrewed and stewed” flavours that we want to avoid.

Teabag tea:

Often called “builder’s tea,” and usually made directly in the mug, it should be simplicity itself.  As long as you follow the rules I have given you above, it will produce a good, satisfying brew.

You will need, per person:
One nice big mug
One tea bag of your choice
Freshly drawn water at the point of boil
Milk and sugar to personal preference

Place the bag in the mug, pour on the boiling water, leave to brew for the time given in the instructions on the packet.  One quick stir and squeeze, then remove the bag from the mug, and add sugar and milk as you like.

Note: do not put the milk in the mug until the tea has brewed.  It would cool the water, and therefore negate the benefit of using it freshly boiled.

Tea in the pot: (we’re being civilised here, so why not get out your nice china or porcelain cups?)

You will need:
A nice teapot (and maybe a tea cosy or towel to keep it warm while the tea brews)
A tea strainer
One spoon of loose tea of your choice per person, plus the famous “one for the pot”.
Freshly drawn water at the point of boil
Milk and sugar to personal preference

Warm the pot; as you don’t want to delay pouring the freshly boiling water onto your tea, either use a good splash of water before the kettle has quite come to the boil, or use water from the hot tap.  Swirl it around in the pot, then discard.

Measure your loose tea into the warmed pot; as mentioned above, one spoon per person and one for the pot is the tried and tested quantity.  You are free, of course, to adjust this quantity to your own taste.  Pour in the freshly drawn water as it comes to full boil.  Leave the tea to brew for the time given on the packet, or as recommended by your “purveyor of fine teas”.  Once brewed fully, pour through a strainer into your cups.

Now comes the question of the milk, and it’s another thorny one.  Milk or tea into the cup first?  And full fat, semi skimmed, or skimmed (or no milk at all, of course).

The arguments are that if you put the milk in last, the temperature of the tea will scald it, producing a cooked milk taste that just isn’t right in tea.  On the other hand, if you put the milk in first, it is more gradually introduced to the hot tea, and therefore will not scald, but how can you be sure to get the colour right?

And some say that full fat milk is too creamy, therefore skimmed or semi skimmed produces a fresher cup of tea.  Others say that you have to use more of the skimmed or semi skimmed milk to get the right colour, so you may as well use the full fat milk in the first place.

For the record, I tend to put the milk in last, and usually use full fat, but I’m truly not that bothered one way or the other.

A note on teabag strength.  The large teabags sold in Britain and Ireland can produce a tea that is too strong for some if brewed in a mug.  Conversely, the small “teabags on a string” sold elsewhere in the world can be too weak.  One solution is to combine the two methods, and use teabags in a teapot.  You can use more of the little bags to get the strength you like, or use a bit more water for the bigger ones.

Finally, if you follow the guide above, you’ll come up with a great cup of tea, but at the end of it all, making perfect tea is down to personal taste.  A friend of mine puts a teabag in a mug, pours on the water, and immediately removes the bag without squeezing or stirring.  Taken without milk, it’s right for her.  Say no more.

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