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How to Make a Proper (British) Cup of Tea


One of my Chinese teapots with a one-person Czechoslovakian tea service

In the Australian movie, “Muriel’s Wedding,” there is a small scene meant to hint to the audience that the bullied, insecure mother of the dysfunctional family is also incompetent. The loud-mouthed husband bellows at her, “Betty, make us a cuppa, wouldja?” and she obediently shuffles into the kitchen.  There she pulls out a teabag, fills a mug with water, puts it in the microwave and waits.  The camera pulls in tight on the mug circling forlornly in the machine.

This point of this scene is lost on most Americans, many of whom make tea in just this way.

So that you don’t get a movie scene focused on your own incompetence, I will assist you with the benefit of my upbringing in a British colony where, in the time of my childhood, people stopped for tea six times a day.  (That would be breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, tea – otherwise known as dinner – and supper, a snack right before retiring.)

Now, notice I am teaching you specifically about British tea.  Tea, as a worldwide beverage, has many other “proper” ways to make it in China, India, Japan, throughout Africa and elsewhere.  But this is the drink that I enjoy, the drink that poor Arthur Dent was gasping for throughout the galaxy in The Hitchhiker’s Guide.  So here goes:

  1. Choose a good strong brand of black tea.  This is the most important step.  It used to be difficult, both in the US and in continental Europe, to find tea that didn’t taste like it was eked out with grass clippings or the sweepings from the tea warehouse floor.  But nowadays there is more choice!  I can find PG Tips in my Brussels supermarket.  And Tetley has recently begun marketing its “British Blend” in America (cutting down the need to send relief packages to my poor deprived parents in Pennsylvania).  I love Assam and Kenyan teas, which brew up dark and malty.  And if you ever have the chance to try Barry’s Tea from Ireland, jump on it!  It is to continental tea as whiskey is to lager.
  2. Warm the pot.  It is not necessary to use a pot for a merely good cup of tea, but for a perfect cup of tea, it is indispensable.  Why this is, I don’t really know – my guess is that it has something to do with the way it brews in an enclosed space. (It may also have to do with pouring in the milk first, which you cannot do if you make it in a mug.)  In any case, let the kettle heat to almost boiling, pour some water into the pot, and let it sit for a minute or so.  Then pour the water back into the kettle to bring it to the boil for the tea.  Why waste water?
  3. Looseleaf or bags? Your preference.  Looseleaf tea has the advantage of being able to swirl around in the pot as you pour in the water and has more flavor.  But it is a disadvantage if you do not own a tea strainer, and you have to do something with all the dregs afterwards. I usually use sachets that I can spoon the tea into and make my own tea bags.  If you use looseleaf tea, put in a coffee-spoon’s worth per cup in the pot; if you use bags, use one per each 2-3 cups.
  4. Pour the boiling water over the tea. This is the crucial step in the whole process.  The water must be boiling, and it must be poured over the tea.  This is as true when you are making a mug as when you brew a pot.  This is what poor Betty did so wrong when she made tea in the microwave – there was very little chance of the water boiling, and she put the bag in afterwards.  My family once bet me that I couldn’t really tell the difference, and made me three cups to taste test, of which at least one was brewed wrongly.  I correctly identified them all.  Tea people speculate that it has to do with air, both from the boiling and from the pouring.  
  5. Let steep a few minutes.  This is one reason why it is good to warm the pot, otherwise all the heat goes into the pot instead of the tea as it is steeping.
  6. Pour the milk in first.  Real British tea is usually taken with milk, which tames the strong tannins of the brew.  But a few hardy souls (like my father) like this tannic quality, and drink it black.  Before pouring the tea, put “a spot of milk” in the bottom of the cup.  Some say this order was originally to keep the boiling beverage from shattering the fine porcelain, but most Brits just think it tastes better this way.  And notice I said milk, not cream – cream is for coffee.  (I am shuddering just thinking about cream in tea…)
  7. If you want to be really British, leave out the sugar.  Forget what you have seen on Downton Abbey.  Following WWII, the Brits changed their tea habits when sugar was rationed and not generally available.  This did not happen in Australia, and I still take my tea with sugar.  But I can’t tell you the number of times I have been at a British friend’s house, only to be embarrassed as they dug around the back of the darkest closet in their kitchen trying to find Grandma’s sugar bowl for me.  (And I think I sometimes detected a hint of smugness, too…)

That’s it!  It doesn’t really take any longer than doing it in the microwave.  Which implement, like Arthur Dent’s Nutri-Matic, only provides you with “a cup filled with a liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

Categories: Cultural Relevance Tea & Tidbits

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3 replies

  1. One – my absolute favorite tea is Lapsang Souchong (apologies if I botched the spelling. Two – when I lived in Wales, I wanted to treat my friends in the dorm to a cream tea, which I of course thought meant tea with real cream. They were very sweet, and I only found out much later my mistake!

    1. Ah, Lapsang, one of my favorite teas too! Though my husband has said it like drinking cigars. As a lighter Chinese tea, I don’t let it steep as long or put milk in it. There is nothing nicer than sitting in the garden in summer with a fine cup of Lapsang Souchong!

  2. Making tea in the microwave is just too sad for words. I always use a teapot now even if it’s just for me.
    Also, you have a blog! Great stuff!

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