A Nice Cup of Tea

I came across “A Nice Cup of Tea”—an article from the January 12th, 1946 edition of the Evening Standard—in which George Orwell gives “no fewer than eleven outstanding points” on the topic of how to make a cup of tea.

I’m no George Orwell, but I do have opinions about tea. So let’s go through them.

Rule 1: Indian Tea

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays—it is economical, and one can drink it without milk—but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

I would strongly agree that Chinese tea is “not to be despised”, though I would say something a bit more positive than that.

This is an interesting observation, because of course the English started out drinking Chinese tea! But the tea trade broke down during the Opium Wars, and the British East India Company started producing tea in India and Ceylon. These new teas gradually took over as the dominant teas.

I can see where Orwell is coming from, Chinese and Indian teas are pretty different in style. Especially if you’re comparing an Indian black tea with a Chinese green tea. Furthermore, Indian black teas often have their leaves broken intentionally, which makes the tea brew more quickly and become more bitter. Orwell is a fan of bitterness (mentioned later), so it’s no surprise likes the Indian style.

However, I think this opinion of his is largely an accident of history: if he’d been born earlier, perhaps he would be arguing just as strongly in favour of Chinese tea.

Rules 2 and 3: The Teapot

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities—that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

I agree, the teapot is the superior thing to make tea in. If you make tea in a cup, you end up having to strain leaves out with your teeth (unless you use barely any leaves, but that makes weak tea!). If you make tea in something large like an urn, unless you’re constantly stirring it and taste-testing it, it’s hard—if not impossible—to get the balance of leaves to water right.

If you want to serve tea out of an urn, maybe brew many teapots and pour them all into the urn.

I can’t really comment on teapot material, mine are all metal. Though I know that clay teapots, specifically Yixing clay teapots, are held to be the best sort. They suck up some of the liquid, and so impact the flavour of the brew when they’ve been in use for a while.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Not something I generally bother with, but it’s in almost every piece of “how to make better tea” advice.

Different teas need steeping at different temperatures. If you heat your water to the right temperature, but pour it into a cold teapot, it’ll instantly cool down a few degrees and no longer be optimal.

Rule 4: Strength

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes—a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Yes, tea should be strong. That’s not to say it should be oversteeped: leaving the leaves stewing until the only flavour remaining is bitterness doesn’t give good tea. But what flavour there is should be impactful.

In the traditional Chinese tea-making technique, a very small teapot is used, and it is almost totally filled with leaves. This produces tea which is very strong, and it hardly needs any time at all to steep.

Rule 5: Free the Tea!

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

I somewhat agree with this. Tea brews better if the leaves are free to expand in the water, that’s not in question. But I’m not sure having a strainer to catch the leaves as you pour the tea is bad.

Yes, you can eat tea leaves. No, I don’t want to.

Rule 6: Water Temperature

Sixthly, one 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. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Needing actually boiling water seems like the mark of poor quality black tea to me. Every type of tea has its temperature, but I don’t think I’ve seen a good quality tea where that temperature is spot-on 100C.

Rule 7: Steeping

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

I’ve never tried this, but I can see how it could help. The more spread out the leaves are the more evenly the water becomes flavoured. It’s kind of like making tea in an urn.

Though I can’t imagine this being a problem unless you have a large teapot and only use a small amount of leaves.

Rule 8: Serving

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup—that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

I don’t know what the “flat, shallow type” of cup is. Maybe a proper teacup? The point makes sense though. If you’re going to savour your tea, you need a smaller surface area, so it remains warm for longer.

Rules 9 and 10: Milk

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

This seems incredibly hypocritical of him given what he goes on to say in rule 11.

Though when I do make tea for people who take milk, I put the milk in second for exactly that reason.

Rule 11: Sugar

Lastly, tea—unless one is drinking it in the Russian style—should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

I wasn’t really sure what Russian-style tea was, so I looked it up, and found a recipe which involved adding jam to the tea. So I guess Russian-style tea is sweet, very sweet.

I completely agree with his point that if you sweeten the tea, you’re not really tasting the tea any more. But that’s exactly the case with milk too! A good Indian black tea doesn’t need milk.

George, George, you were so close to enlightenment…

The only times I’ve felt milk is necessary was with bagged tea, which is really the worst of the worst.