After water, the world’s second most consumed beverage isn’t cola, wine or beer — it’s tea. Yet, surprisingly, not many people know how to make it properly. Two famous English authors, Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell, tried their hand at educating the masses in their respective articles, How to Make a Decent Cup of Tea and A Nice Cup of Tea. While both made good points (use loose tea instead of bags), they also made some mistakes (boiling water isn’t always ideal) and left out some key information to help best understand what makes good tea good. We all agree that the first place to start, though, is by killing the tea bag.
The origin of the industrially processed tea found in most bags today can be traced back to England, where they’ve always had a strong affinity for the stuff. Before WWII the English “spent more of their incomes on [high-quality tea] than alcohol”, says Henrietta Lovell, founder of London’s Rare Tea Company, which provides tea to high-end hotels and restaurants in the US and Europe, including Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, Del Posto in New York and London’s Ace Hotel. World War II came and England, surrounded by a German blockade, rationed their supplies. According to Lovell, tea was one of the only government-rationed commodity, alongside food and fuel, since it was so vital to national morale. “Beer wasn’t rationed”, she says. “Whiskey wasn’t rationed. Wine wasn’t rationed. Tea was rationed.” But as its scarcity increased, its quality suffered drastically. Thus England was introduced to cheap, industrialized tea.
Today, industrialized tea is the norm. It’s convenient and affordable. But there’s better tea to be sipped, so in the tradition of Orwell and Hitchens we’ve worked with Lovell to better understand how to drink a good cup of tea, starting with choosing great-tasting loose teas over bags. This is how it’s done.
1Kill the tea bag. The tea bag is essentially an outdated convenience. Lovell equates making tea with a tea bag to instant coffee: compromising taste for efficiency. It’s time to forget the tea bag and invest in actual loose leaves.
The first reason why tea bags make crap teas is their leaves, which are industrialized and lower quality. According to Lovell, this industrial process destroys all the leaf’s amino acids, polyphenols and other flavorful ingredients. The only flavorful asset left are the tannins, which are essentially bitters, and only dissolve in boiling water. On the other hand, high-quality loose teas are filled with amino acids and polyphenols, which dissolve at lower temperatures, so they don’t require boiling water.
The second problem is the actual tea bag. In order for its leaves to properly unfurl and expand, the tea needs room to float freely. A tea bag stifles this. But it doesn’t end there. Back in the mid 20th century, “silken pyramids” (which Lovell calls “posh” teabags) were made of plastic, which were then steeped in boiling water — not something you’d want to drink. Although today, according to Lovell, most premium tea bags are made of nylon, they’re still bleached white, along with their string, and held together by glue. Those chemicals are then steeped and consumed.
“A tea bag is never going to make good tea because the person who makes it doesn’t give a fuck about you.”
Despite all these demerits, tea bags still exist today because of convenience — and, more importantly, money. Tea is huge business (Starbucks bought Teavana for $620 million in 2012), relying heavily on the tea bag’s ability to be mass produced. And since the industry of cheap tea needs to fuel a dollar-a-day economy, they produce a very low-quality tea. “The thing I would really like to say”, adds Lovell, “is a tea bag is never going to make good tea because the person who makes it doesn’t give a fuck about you.”
2Buy high-quality loose tea. Loose teas cost more than a Lipton tea bag, but their taste is much more complex. Different teas can be grown or blended together in a variety of ways. And because they’re not contaminated by any industrial process (or added sugars or flavorings), these teas can express themselves in flavors that are just not possible for cheap teas.
Like wine or craft beer, a tea’s flavor varies depending on the way it’s served, but also by the way it’s grown. Many factors can impact the flavor of the tea: the pH levels of the soil that the tea plant is grown in, the amount of sun and rain each plant receives, when and how the leaves were picked and more. Lovell sources her teas from small farmers all over the world: Japan, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Africa, England, India. Even though all these teas taste different, the real beauty is that even two leaves, picked from the same plant but at different times, can also vary significantly in taste.
3Buy a good teapot. “A good teapot should have either mesh or a plate behind the spout”, says Lovell, “to capture the leaves from being poured out.” If it doesn’t, you should have a strainer. It’s also helpful if a teapot is clear, so you can see the infusion — but it’s not vital. They can be made of china or stainless steel, but not silver. “Silver is a very active metal and will give some subtle teas (green teas and white teas) a silvery taste.”
4Learn the three variables of tea. Making loose tea isn’t complicated; all that’s required is a teapot, leaves, a kettle and a little knowledge. “To make a really good cup of tea, you’ve got to control three variables”, says Lovell. “The leaf-to-water ratio (how much tea, how much water), the temperature of the water and how long you infuse it for. And if you vary those things, you can get amazing flavors out of good tea.” So it’s true that making good tea isn’t as straightforward as boiling water and steeping a bag — but not much more.
5Brew loose tea correctly. You want to make just enough tea for one cup at a time. First, take a pinch of loose tea and drop it into a teapot. Lovell says a good rule to brew by is one teaspoon of tea for one cup of water. Pour the hot water into a teapot. Ideally, the water should never be boiled. Water that’s been boiled has lower oxygen levels than water not never reaches a boil, which makes for less flavorful tea. That being said, it’s not a game-changer if the water has been boiled — just don’t pour that water directly over the leaves until it’s cooled slightly.
“To make a really good cup of tea, you’ve got to control three variables: the leaf-to-water ratio (how much tea, how much water), the temperature of the water and how long you infuse it for.”
When making tea, water temperature is vital. So, depending on the desired temperature, there are a few ways to control water temperature. First, you can use a kettle with a thermometer. If that’s not an option, you can cool water by leaving it out and then checking the temperature with a thermometer. Simply adding small amounts of cool water to the already heated water is another way to control water temperature. Remember: try not to allow your water to reach a boil. Then let the tea steep for the recommended time (see next step).
Finally, pour the tea into a tea cup. Your teapot (ideally) should have a built-in strainer to prevent the tea leaves from entering your cup. If not, pour through a separate strainer. After pouring, make sure every last drop of liquid is removed from the teapot. If even a small amount of water is left in the teapot, the leaves will continue to infuse. “It’s a bit like cooking a steak“, says Lovell. “If you leave it in the frying pan after you’re finished cooking, it’ll continue to cook. The same is true with teas. You need to remove the leaf from the water.” To keep the tea warm after steeping, pour into a preheated teapot.
The reason why it’s so important to remove all the water from the teapot, and why loose teas as so great, is because the same leaves can be re-infused several times. In fact Lovell believes that the second and third infusions are often the best. And no two infusions taste exactly alike.
6Understand steep times and temperatures. A good tea doesn’t take very long to steep, but most do take longer than a tea bag. Lovell says the tea bag is “the floozy of the tea world”: it gives its flavor very easily and quickly, but it only has a little flavor to give. “A good tea takes a little longer, but it gives you so much more, so it’s more of a lady.”
While there’s no golden rule regarding steep times and water temperature for each different tea (there’s too many variations and blends of white, green, oolong and black teas), know this: the more tannic teas, such as black and oolong, need high-temperature water (176°F to 195°F) to dissolve the tannins. White and green teas need lower-temperature waters (158°F and 175°F). As for steep time, it can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. It all depends on how subtle or flavorful you prefer your tea. And know that you’ll need to steep ensuing infusions a little longer than the first infusion.
7Don’t break the leaves when steeping. Before steeping, you can stir the leaves if you want. Just make sure the leaf is wet and be careful not to break the leaf. Breaking the leaf would allow the oils in the leaf to be exposed and change the flavor of the tea. “You want to keep it whole and let the water penetrate in without exposing it”, says Lovell. So you can stir it, but once submerged, the leaves will naturally move with currents of the water and unfurl properly. As long as there’s enough space for the tea to naturally move in the water (this is in a teapot), your leaves will steep properly.
As a general rule, follow the guidelines that accompany each loose tea you purchase. They’ll tell you exactly how much tea to use, the correct water temperature, and how long to steep. It’s not rocket science. If you can use a French press, Lovell says you can use a teapot.
Henrietta Lovell is the founder and owner of London’s Rare Tea Company. Known as the Tea Lady, Ms. Lovell travels the world (Japan, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Africa, England) and sources her teas from small farms, all of which are run in a sustainable, humane fashion. In her quest to reacquaint the world with “good tea”, she supplies teas for some of the world’s most prestigious hotels and restaurants: Crosby Street Hotel, Del Posto, Chateau Marmont, ACE Hotel London and more.