How not to make a cup of tea

This is an emotive topic.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “My 7 rules for remote-work sanity“. This was wildly successful, caused at least one email storm on our company servers, and caused a number of readers to ask me to tackle the question of how to make a cup of tea. Because that isn’t contentious at all.

I’ve resisted that, partly because this is (supposed to be) mainly a security blog, and partly because it would be too easy. Instead, I’ve written this article, which is full of advice and guidance about how not to make a cup of tea or, more accurately, how to make a bad cup of tea. This isn’t hugely related to security either, but as I’ve been writing it, it’s reminded me of how strong the idea of “anti-patterns” is, particularly in security. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people how they should apply security controls to system, and it’s easier to explain what not to do, so that people can learn from that. This is my (very tenuous) link to security in this article. I hope it (and the rest of the article) serve you well.

I am British, but I travel quite frequently to the United States and to Canada. During my travels, I have been privileged to witness many, many attempts to make tea which have been catastrophic failures. This article is an attempt to celebrate these failures so that people, like me, who have learned over many years how to make tea properly, can celebrate the multitude of incorrect ways in which tea can be ruined.

This is an emotive topic. There are shades of opinion across many issues (upon some of which we will touch during this article), across class lines, geographical lines and even moral lines (I’m thinking here in particular of the question of whether to use cow’s milk – an ethical point for vegans). And, so you understand that I’m not overstating the divides that can occur over this important skill, I’d point out that an entire war was started solely over the belief of a certain group of people who believed that the correct way to make tea was to dump an entire shipment of leaves into a salt-water harbour[1] in a small settlement named after a town in Lincolnshire[2].

Without further ado, let us launch into our set of instructions for how not to make tea (by which I mean “hot black tea” in this context), but with a brief (yet important) digression.

De minimis

There are certain activities associated with the making of tea which I am going to declare “de minimis” – in other words, of minimal importance to the aim of creating a decent cup of tea. These may be areas of conflict within the tea drinking community, but I would argue that the majority of Real Tea Drinkers[tm] would accept that a cup of tea would not be ruined by following any of the options for any of the practices noted below. As this article aims to provide a beginner’s guide to how not to make tea, I contend that your choice of any of the options below will not (at least on its own) cause you to be making not-Tea.

  • Milk, not milk or lemon: I drink my tea with milk. Some drink it without, and some with lemon. Tea can be tea in any of these states.
  • Sugar or not sugar: I used to drink my tea with sugar, but now do not. Tea can be tea with or without sugar.
  • Cup or mug: I prefer a mug for most tea drinking opportunities, but a cup (with saucer) can make a nice change.
  • Bag or loose leaf: we’re getting into contentious territory here. I have recently moved to a strong preference for loose leaf, partly because it tends to be higher quality than bags, but if bags are what you’ve got, then you can make a decent cup of tea with them.
  • In the pot or in the mug: if you’re using loose leaf tea, then it’s in the pot. If it’s in a mug, then it’s a bag. You can, however, make tea in a pot with a bag.
  • Milk first or afterwards: there’s evidence to suggest that putting the milk in first means that it won’t scald, but I’m with George Orwell[3] on this: if you put the tea in first, you can add milk slowly to ensure the perfect strength.
  • Warming the pot: you only need to warm the pot if you’re using bone china. End of.

You might think that I’ve just covered all the important issues of contention above, and that there’s not much point in continuing with this article, but please remember: this article is not aimed at those who wish to make an acceptable cup of tea, but to those who do not wish to make the same. Those who wish to make a cup of non-tea will not be swayed by the points above, and neither should they be. If you belong in this group: whether (for example) a person of North American descent looking to cement your inability to make a cup of tea, or (again, for example) a person of British descent looking for guidance in how to be accepted into North American society by creating a representative cup of non-tea, then, dear reader, please read on.

Instructions

Tea (actual)

The easiest way to fail to make a cup of tea is to choose something which isn’t tea. I’m going to admit to a strong preference to black tea here, and this article is based on how to make a cup of black tea, but I admit to the existence of various other tea types (yellow, white, green, oolong). All of them, however, come from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t tea. Retailers and manufacturers can label it “herbal tea”[4]. Anything which doesn’t come from from the tea plant is an infusion or a tisane.

To be clear, I absolutely include Rooibos or “Red Bush” tea. I tried this once, under the mistaken belief that it was actual tea. The experience did not end well. I’m sure there’s a place for it, but not in my mug (or cup), and it’s not tea. I mean: really.

There are some teas which are made from the tea plant, and have flavourings added. I’m thinking in particular of Earl Grey tea, which has oil of bergamot added to it. I’m not a fan, but that’s partly due to a very bad experience one morning after the imbibing of a significant amount of beverages which definitely weren’t ever pretending to be tea, the results of which also lead to my not drinking gin and tonic anymore[5].

To clarify, then:

  • tea: yes, tea.
  • Earl Grey: yes, tea.
  • rooibos: not tea.
  • fruit tea: not tea.
  • lemon tea: not tea.
  • rhubarb and orange tea: not tea
  • raspberry and old sticks tea: not tea.
  • vanilla tea: not tea.
  • etc., etc.

The very easiest way not to make tea, then, is to choose something which isn’t derived directly from the Camellia sinensis plant. If you’re looking for more adventurous or expert ways not to make tea, however, carry on.

Use non-boiling water

Beyond the obvious “not actually using tea” covered above, the easiest way to fail to make a cup of tea is to use water which is not sufficiently hot. And by “sufficiently hot”, I mean “has just come off the boil”. There’s actual science[6] showing that lots of the important tea-making processes cannot take place at temperatures below 90°C (194°F). To be sure that you’re going to make a cup of bad tea, just be sure not to go with boiling water.

I’ve recently visited a number of establishments in the USA where they offered to make tea with water designed for coffee-making at temperatures of 175°F and 183°F. That’s 79.4°C and 83.9°C. A member of staff at one of these establishments explained that it would be “dangerous” to use water at a higher temperature. I kid you not. They knew that they didn’t need to aim for just off the boil: well under 99°C should do nicely for something almost but not quite like a cup of tea. A warning: many (but not all) outlets of Peet’s Coffee do provide water which is hot enough (often 211-212°F) , if you ask them. You are in significant danger of getting a proper cup of tea if you’re not very careful. This, in my experience, is entirely unique for a coffee chain anywhere in the USA.

Many US hotels will offer to make you a cup of tea in the morning, if you ask nicely enough and sound (passive-aggressively) British enough. You might think that you would be guaranteed a proper cup, but worry not: they will almost certainly use really bad tea, the water will be insufficiently hot and they will definitely not bother to pour it directly over the tea-bag anyway. Hotels are great places to find a really bad cup of tea in the USA.

As a minor corollary of this, another way to fail to make a cup of tea is to boil the water at altitude (e.g. up a mountain) or in an airplane. Because air pressure is reduced in both cases, the boiling point of water is reduced, and so you’re not likely to be able to get the water hot enough, so that’s another great option.

Boil the water incorrectly

What: you didn’t know that you could boil water incorrectly? Oh, but you can. Proper tea is made from water boiled once in a kettle, because if you boil it more than once, something happens: you’ve removed oxygen that was originally dissolved in the water, and this turns out to make it taste bad.

Use the wrong type(s) of milk

The easy way out is to use 2% (semi-skimmed) or 4% (whole fat) cow’s milk, but you don’t want to do that: that’ll give you proper tea. In order not to make tea properly, try UHT milk, almond milk, soy milk or similar. I haven’t tried ewe’s or goat’s milk, but I’m sure it’s easy to mess up a good cup of tea with those.

Condensed milk is an interesting option. I’ve had this in India – where I think they add it instead of sugar – and, well, it didn’t taste like tea to me.

Let it go cold

I’m not even talking about so called “iced tea” here. I’m just talking about tea which has been brewed, then poured, then left to go cold. Yuck.

Brew for too long

Quite apart from the fact that it may go cold, it’s possible to make tea just too strong. There’s a range that most people will accept as proper tea, but you can leave most tea too long, and it will be too strong when you pour it. How long that is will depend partly on preference, and partly on the type of tea you’re using. If you want to ensure you make a bad cup of tea, tune these carefully.

Don’t brew for long enough

Again, it’s easy to get this wrong. Some types of tea brew very quickly, and you’re in danger, for these types, of pouring a decent cup despite your best interests. Use this technique with care, and preferably in conjunction with others of the approaches listed.

Use a little strainer

It is possible to make a decent cuppa with one of those little strainers into which you place your tea leaves, but it’s difficult. The problem seems to be that in order to make a properly strong cup of tea, you’re going to need to put quite a lot of tea leaves into the strainer. This means that the water won’t be able to interact with most of them, as they’ll be stuffed in, and not able to circulate properly. You can try swishing it around a bit, but by the time you’ve got to this, the water will probably be too cold (see above).

Microwave

Microwave your water. This is wrong on so many levels (do a search online).

Use bad tea

Mainly, I think, because most US citizens have no idea how to make a cup of tea properly, they are willing to accept the stuff that passes for “tea bags” in the US as actual tea. There are exceptions, but the standard fare that you’ll find on supermarket shelves isn’t anything like actual tea, so it’s very simple to make a bad cup even if you’ve done everything else right.

My preferred cup of tea

After all of the above, you may be wondering what my preferred cup of tea looks like. Here’s a brief algorithm, which I’m happy to open source:

  1. freshly drawn water in the kettle
  2. kettle boiled
  3. a teaspoon of tea into a small pot (how heaped depends on the type), current favourites include:
  4. pour the boiling water into pot (I tend to use pots with built-in strainers)
  5. allow to brew (how long depends on the type of tea)
  6. pour from the pot into a large mug (not too large, or the tea will get too cold to drink before you get to the bottom)
  7. add semi-skimmed (2%) milk (not UHT)
  8. drink as soon as its cooled enough not to blister the inside of the mouth
  9. leave the bottom few millimetres to avoid ingesting any leaves which may have made their way into the mug.

So there you have it. That’s how I make a cup of tea.


1 – yes, that’s how to spell it.

2 – I’m assuming this was the sole reason. I’m a little hazy on the details, but it all seems to have turned out OK for both sides.

3 – who, given that he wrote both the books Animal Farm and 1984, knew a thing or two about how not to do things.

4 – yes, there’s an “h”, yes it’s aspirated. “‘erbal?” Not unless dropping aitches is part of your general dialect and accent, in which case, fine.

5 – I still drink gin, only not with tonic. It’s the tonic water that I’ve managed to convince my taste buds was the cause of the resulting … problem.

6 – Really, look!

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

4 thoughts on “How not to make a cup of tea”

  1. As an Ex-pat sourcing tea for consumption in quantity has become somewhat of an obsession. Our household is particularly keen on Yorkshire Tea or Twinnings Everyday. Although I must say that I think the quality of Yorkshire has been waning in recent years. As a backstop I can offer Trader Joe’s Irish Breakfast Tea as a good sturdy brew.

    I would like to offer up a few suggestions for a follow-on or amendment to your post.

    The use of TeaBags vs loose leaf.
    Teapot or Single cup Brew – should the pot be warmed first? surprisingly Target stock a good teapot here in the US. Also when using a pot I pour tea into milk, but if making a single cup with a bag milk MUST be added post brew.

    Finally one point… never, ever, ever try to make tea with Half’n’half it is possibly the best way not to make a cup of tea.

    Like

  2. What a delightful read! I too prefer black tea as opposed to fruit and/or herbal infusions, although I am fairly adventurous with different flavours thereof. I actually enjoy Earl Grey. I cannot imagine making tea with water that has not boiled – how awful!

    Like

  3. In my North American house, we use “tisane” for warm herbal beverages masquerading as tea. Though, I *am* married to a librarian with a penchant for Agatha Christie…

    Liked by 1 person

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