Making a Proper Cup of Tea*

Americans love tea. Just don’t say this in front of someone from the United Kingdom or you may receive a sound scowling.


This is correct. Take notes if you need to.

We consume 1.42 million pounds of tea every day. We drink more than 65 billion servings of tea every year (you read that right, billion), and since 2011 the United States has imported more tea than the UK. Half our population, 156.9 million people, drinks tea each day.

Despite the size of the UK compared to the United States (the United Kingdom is slightly smaller than Colorado, with far fewer unemployed hipsters), people there consume roughly the same amount of tea as we do, which is a hell of a lot for 62.7 million people. But their love for tea has never been in question. Ours has, and frankly, still is.

The problem lies in what Americans call tea.

About 85 percent of the tea Americans consume is iced tea, but you won’t find any of that in the UK. London native and professed tea lover Sally Harrild told me chilled tea is an American thing. “No one here drinks it iced,” she said. As comfortable as I’ve become in London, at that moment I felt particularly foreign; I had a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge back at my flat.

People in the United Kingdom drink their tea hot, and although many Americans do as well, we apparently don’t do it right.

Iced tea. The British put people in prison for less than this.

Iced tea. The British put people in prison for less than this.

Walk into any restaurant in the United States and ask for hot tea, you’ll get a cup containing a Lipton tea bag, and a small metal pitcher of hot water. Pour the water into the cup, wait for the water to turn brown, and drink.

This is, of course, completely wrong.

“The water should be boiling,” Harrild said, then paused and shook her head. “The water has to be boiling.”

British author George Orwell, when he wasn’t busy writing politically-charged books American junior high school students would one day be forced to read, created a list of rules about making proper tea.

On the list, which includes using a ceramic teapot, boiling over direct heat, drinking from a teacup, and avoiding sugar unless you’re a Sissy Mary (not a direct quote), he had two big rules:

George Orwell, author of "Animal Farm" and "1984." The original Mr. Tea.

George Orwell, author of “Animal Farm” and “1984.” The original Mr. Tea.

1. Only use tea from India or Sri Lanka. Stay as far away from China tea as casting directors stay from Lindsay Lohan. Seems like Orwell didn’t think much of tea from China. “There is not much stimulation in it,” he wrote in his 1946 essay, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea.’ “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.”

2. Make it strong. The tea needs to be as volatile as the acid blood from the movie “Alien” (1979). “It’s too weak, goddamnit. I’m trying to lay the groundwork for democratic socialism here; I don’t have time for sleep – ever. Seriously, I’m tripping. Has anyone seen my car keys?” Orwell didn’t write this, I just assumed.

The second reason Americans can’t fix a proper cup of tea is that we don’t know what to put in it. We may add sugar, we may add lemon, and we may add whisky, but we hardly ever add milk. The British add milk all the time and, like everything else, they enjoy arguing about it.

“There’s some debate on the best way to put milk in tea,” Harrild said.

Does the milk go in the cup before the tea, or after? Before gradually warms the milk. After helps sugar dissolve. Harrild is an after person because it’s “easier to put in the right amount of milk.”

How did Orwell do it? Like Harrild, he added milk after.

When it comes to tea, I listen to the British. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan once conquered “the known world,” but that was like pushing the wimpy kid out of the sandbox compared to the British Empire’s colonial period. For 346 years the British owned a quarter of the entire world’s landmass and not only taught a lot of countries how to play cricket, they discovered every single thing there is to know about brewing a cup of tea.

I can’t tell you a thing about cricket, but I can now make a proper cup of Earl Grey.

*By “tea,” I’m referring to leaf tea in bags (even the British use bags nowadays). I’m not referring to the prepackaged refrigerated tea bottles in brands such as Snapple and Lipton in flavors such as mint and peach. If those are “tea,” Kim Kardashian became a celebrity because she has talent. They’re all rubbish, especially Kim. And Snapple. And Lipton.


About sjasonoffutt

Jason Offutt is a syndicated columnist, author, and college journalism instructor. His books are available at Jason is available for interviews, speaking engagements and beer festivals. E-mail all serious inquiries to:
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2 Responses to Making a Proper Cup of Tea*

  1. zdickson says:

    This is funny; I was talking to Tawney about that essay two days ago.

  2. sjasonoffutt says:

    I don’t agree with everything Orwell wrote. The strength of his tea was, well, dangerous.

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