There are many different stereotypes about British people. For Americans, it’s bad teeth and polite understatement. For Europeans, it’s drunken debauchery and bizarre political decisions and, for any country that was unfortunate enough to be part of the British Empire, it’s undoubtedly pompousness and unfathomable cruelty. However, there is one stereotype that’s common wherever you go in the world: our love of tea.
In Britain, it’s the first thing you’ll be offered when you arrive at someone’s home. It’s what you’ll be offered as a response to any kind of trauma, any kind of revelation, or any time something needs thinking about. You’ll be offered it when there’s a potentially uncomfortable break in conversation or when you’ve been sitting quietly for any longer than 30 seconds – you might even be offered a second tea while you’re still drinking the first. It’s a kind of social punctuation mark that gives us something to do to avoid awkwardness.
Although most countries drink tea in some form, a British version of a cup of tea isn’t what you might expect – and for this definition of tea, I’m including countries such as Ireland, Australia and New Zealand who drink it the same way as we do.
First of all, forget about green tea or mint tea or any of those fruity mixes that smell great but end up tasting like lightly flavoured hot water – they’re not what we’re talking about. Also disregard things like Earl Grey and Lapsang Soushong and Ooolong. These are drunk by people in Britain, but only those people who went to private school. What normal British people mean when they say: ‘a cup of tea’ is what we might call ‘builder’s tea’ which is a blended mixture of black teas.
The great thing about tea is the almost infinite number of ways you can make it, all geared towards your own personal tastes. For this reason, whenever possible, you should make your own tea or at least give the responsibility to someone who knows you well and that you can trust. When you say yes to a cup of tea, if they don’t at least reply: ‘how do you like it?’ then back out of the transaction immediately. Also avoid ordering tea in cafés as it’s alarmingly common for them to deliver a ready-made cup with the tea and milk already added. This is an insult to both you and the tea and all they’ve done is wasted their time and your money.
To make a cup of British tea, here’s what you’ll need:
Traditionally, you would use loose leaf tea and a teapot. You may still get a teapot in a fancy café or tea party, but even then, they will probably put teabags in it – one for each drinker plus one extra ‘for the pot’. Making tea in a teapot has a different taste and a different set of considerations so we’ll concentrate instead on how most people make tea: by putting the teabag directly into the cup.
Some of the most common brands are: Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, Typhoo and Tetley, so try and get hold of a box of one of those. Avoid anything that says English Breakfast Tea as this is meant for foreigners and not commonly drunk by British people who tend to know their own country’s preference for hot liquids and what time of day they like to drink them.
You don’t need one of those bags with string and a branded square bit of paper attached, all they do is unravel into the cup and make your tea taste cardboardy. Don’t worry about the shape of the teabags either – square, round, pyramid or whatever other shape they’re peddling at the moment – this is just marketing and whatever ‘enhanced infusion’ properties they profess are obliterated as soon as you put it in a regular sized cup and pour water on it.
Powdered milk doesn’t work. Long-life UHT milk isn’t great either. Whole milk, semi-skimmed or skimmed are all fine but you’ll have to vary the amount you use accordingly: less for whole milk, more for semi-skimmed, and a lot more for skimmed.
Before Brexit, British people used to argue about lots of other things instead. Nice things, harmless things, things that didn’t result in family members never speaking to each other again. Things like whether a Jaffa Cake is a cake or a biscuit (cake because goes hard when it gets stale), the correct pronunciation of scone (so it rhymes with cone) and whether the jam or clotted cream should be dolloped on it first (jam). Probably the most hotly debated topic was the order in which you add the milk to the cup. Should you put the milk in first and then add the tea, or should you pour the tea and then add the milk? I’m firmly in the adding milk to the tea camp for one pretty compelling reason: by adding the milk, you can more easily regulate the amount. This is significant as the quantity of the milk is the most important variable in the whole tea making process – especially if, like me, you don’t like the taste of milk very much.
Say this to a milk-first person and their response will undoubtedly be: ‘ah, but you’ll scald the milk!’ This makes no sense. I’ll admit that my knowledge of thermodynamics is sketchy at best, but it seems to me that whichever order you do it, a hot liquid is still going to be combined with a cold one so the milk could just as easily be scalded when it’s already sitting there in the cup.
I haven’t read anything about the correct type of water to use for making tea, which is surprising as the hardness of the water has a huge effect on the taste. You don’t really have a lot of choice in the matter anyway – wherever you are in the world, you’ll have to use the water that’s available. I grew up in a hard water area so for me, that taste seems more natural, but I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest sprinkling limescale into the kettle for authenticity.
This is down to personal preference and, although there’s an argument to say that if you add sugar, you’re tasting that rather than the tea itself, everyone is different and should be allowed to flavour it however they want. I take sugar. I like my tea very strong with only a few drops of milk, so it helps take some of the bitterness off.
I’d suggest trying your tea without sugar at first and, if you don’t like it, you can add half a teaspoon at a time until it tastes right to you.
As long as it’s not cardboard, Styrofoam or metal, it doesn’t really matter if you use a cup or a mug. I prefer a mug because it holds more and I like to drink my tea in three or four gulps rather than sipping it politely. The only really important consideration about the drinking vessel is that it should be white or light coloured on the inside. The reason for this will become clear shortly.
This doesn’t have any bearing on the tea. As long as you have a way to make the water hot, the method is irrelevant. The accepted rule is that the water should be boiling rather than boiled when you take it off the heat, but I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed the difference either way so do whatever time and your level of attention allows.
A spoon for tea. The standard capacity is 5ml.
Making the tea
You’ll need several goes at this to find the method that suits your taste so the first few cups will be experimental. These are my own personal instructions but you can use them as the foundation for developing your own technique.
1. Start the water boiling, then put one of your teabags into your cup and pin it to the bottom with the teaspoon.
2. When the kettle’s boiled, pour the water directly onto the teabag at the bottom of the cup.
3. Leave it to stand for at least two minutes, stirring occasionally so that the tea infuses with the water.
4. It’s ready when the liquid is so dark that you can no longer see the teabag at the bottom. This is why the colour of the inside of the cup is so important – you need a light background to judge the correct opacity.
5. Fish for the teabag with the teaspoon and then slowly lift it out. The displacement of liquid will result in a gap between the tea and the rim of the cup. Use this gap to squash the teabag against the cup with the back of the spoon to get the last few drops out. Afterwards, the teabag should be desiccated enough for you to take it to the bin without it dripping.
6. Add a splash of milk to the tea, stir, then taste. If it’s still too bitter for you, add another splash then taste again. Keep doing this until the taste is right for you.
7. Make a note of the colour. This will provide a useful visual reference point for the strength of future cups – I like mine about the colour of wet sand, for example. Obviously, this step is impossible for those people who put the milk in the cup first.
8. Using the same method as the milk, this is where you can gradually add your sugar; half a teaspoon at a time.
9. Let your tea cool for a while. The more milk you’ve used, the less time this will take. Before you test to see if it’s ready, it’s a good idea to blow down the inside edge of the cup in a manner that suggests you’re just about to start playing a flute.
When you drink your tea, I can’t guarantee that you’ll feel wiser or braver or ready to colonise and oppress most of the globe. However, it might give you the opportunity to spend a few minutes of quiet contemplation away from your phone and the troubles of the world. Even better, if you’re in company, you’ll have a harmless, non-controversial topic of conversation to stave off the social awkwardness that British people fear so much.