Loose leaves or tea bag, milk or lemon? And was George Orwell right? The arguments over the making of the perfect cup of tea

Time for Tea: it's always time for a cuppa. Illustration: Harry Mottram
Time for Tea: it’s always time for a cuppa. Illustration: Harry Mottram

Is George Orwell right about making tea or does the University of Nottingham have the know how? Aunt Agatha has a brew up in search of the perfect cuppa.

It has led to family arguments, marital bust-ups and even war. How to make a perfect cuppa has exercised the minds of the great, the good and countless maiden aunts since the leaf-based beverage was first sipped in England in the 17th century. George Orwell identified the reason in his essay on the subject in 1942. The author of 1984 said there were 11 rules – but only two were universally agreed and a further four were highly controversial.

Having read his article I suggest none of his 11 points are widely accepted – and some could lead to legal action in the kitchen such are the passions raised. And that’s the point – nobody appears to agree on any of the main steps in making a perfect cup of cha, char, te, tai, herbata or tea. Ask anyone you know and they all have their own idiosyncracies and often family traditions. I’ve known people to throw away a cup of tea in front of the person who has made it and then declare they’ll make it themselves. It’s one of the most insulting things you can do – and yet who can honestly say they’ve never tipped away a cuppa made by someone and quietly made it again – their way

To start with there’s a variety of tea. My late husband (who would declare several times a day that he was dying for a cup of Greyer’s as he called it) would only drink Earl Grey – and sadly it was the reason for his untimely exit from life’s fragile existence. He was run over crossing the road to a café in London where he knew they served Earl Grey. Personally I only drink Builder’s – as I call it. Strong, Assam, with milk, from a tea bag and with four sugars. I know George Orwell wouldn’t have approved of that. He said tea should never be sweetened – something my occasional friend Mrs Pople would agree with. Builder’s of Earl Grey? A simple choice – but of course there are numerous others including black, oolong, green, yellow, white and pu-erh.

Next is tea bag or loose leaf? I never use tea bags – although the quality has improved and I admit you can get a decent cuppa from teabags – as long as the tea is good quality. Almost all cafes and tea rooms serve tea in tea bags – dropped into a small pot and provide you with all the necessities such as milk and sugar allowing you to serve yourself. Even some public houses serve tea these days – something which I think is a great improvement. By and large the standard of tea served in the tearooms of England these days is good to excellent – except for one exception and that are motorway service stations where a sort of luke warm stewed tannin is the order of the day sold at £2 a cup – the same price incidentally for they pass off as tea at Bristol City’s football ground.

So, having established the tea you want, you must decide on the temperature of the hot water. Boiling or 80C? Call me old fashioned but boiling soft water is best – and the tea pot should be warmed first – very important. Pour in the boiling water straight into the pot and allow it to stand for two minutes and fifty five seconds.

The University of Northumbria spent considerable time on researching the amount of time you should allow tea to brew. They reckoned on 17 minutes and 30 seconds. However after more research the boffins concluded that the best method was to add boiling water to a tea bag in a mug and leave for two minutes. You should they said then remove the bag and add the milk and leave for six minutes until it reaches optimal temperature of 60C. Leave too long and it drops below 45C and the flavours destroying the “all round sensory experience” – said the white coated ones.

Apparently the average time we allow it to brew is 40 seconds. A scandal – that allows for no real taste to emerge from the leaves. Two minutes and 12 seconds is my recommended time for brewing for a tea bag but for leaves, two minutes and 37 seconds is best.

If you use leaves then one rounded teaspoon per person and a half for the pot for every other person. It guarantees a second cup – as is testified by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

If there’s not a drought then always boil fresh water (even George Orwell agrees with that one) Dr Andrew Stapley of Loughborough University said: “Use freshly drawn water that has not previously been boiled. Previously boiled water will have lost some of its dissolved oxygen which is important to bring out the tea flavour.” So there.

One rule given by George Orwell which must be challenged is: “After making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.” Shake a tea pot? Give it a wiggle maybe – but don’t stir – leave nature to take its course.

I never pour in the tea first – always the milk. And yes, porcelain is best – but for years I use an old battered enamel mug for my so-called gardening cups – served in the shrubbery – and it tasted just as good. Although the author of Animal Farm begs to differ. He said: “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.”

So just to recap: instructions for the perfect cup of tea for two

1 Warm the pot

2 Put in two teaspoons of tea and one for the pot

3 Allow to brew for two minutes and 12 seconds

4 Add tea and milk to taste to your cup

5 Pour in the tea

6 Stir the tea and drink