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February 2016



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Alexia Tea

How To Make Proper Pot of Tea

Being an Essay based on Hearsay, Family Tradition, and Opinionated Preferences

Let us talk about tea, Gentle Reader. That great and fateful, that wonder of all wonders, that calmest and most civilized of drinks. I have been pleased to note, of late, it is making a comeback at steampunk events in particular. At Nova Albion the ConSuite consisted of nothing but tea and biscuits – as it should. In Seattle the steampunk convention greenroom boasted some of the best loose leaf I have ever had. Private stock, of course, but there it is.

Let us not discuss the travesty that is iced tea, the mockery that is Long Island iced tea, or that Thing that they do will all the sugar in the South (you can't see it, but I shudder at the very idea). Let us not delve in to the wondrous exoticism of those foreign notions, primordial and progenitive as they may be: white, green, oolong. Lets us not even think about decaf, for oh it really does taste every-so-slightly of fish. Oh no, let us discuss the truth in tea, the tea of my people, the dark, the honest, the black.

My mother is a British ex-pat, who brought with her very little, stayed for 40 odd years, and retains even less. However, she still has her accent and she still has her tea – every day at 4 pm, sometimes 5 – rain or shine. She has done this my whole life. When I was little, I was permitted milk and a dash. Now I take it stronger than she, and I have to reminder her, every time, to let it sit a bit longer for her strangely evolved daughter.

I dabbled briefly in coffee during my rebellious college years and I have, upon occasion, tested my own will power by giving tea up entirely, but I always returned to it. My safe haven. It is the taste and the peace and the joy that draws me ever back, but it is also the ritual.

I brought a gentleman caller home to my mother's several years ago. A fine upstanding young man, large and Greek in appearance but very American in sensibilities. In an effort to impress, after the tea was finished he began to wash the dishes. My mother and I, chatting away, almost missed it. Almost. I saw him out of the corner of my eye. Mum must have guessed, from the horror on my face, what he was about to do.

He was going to wash the teapot!

It was like one of those slow motion cartoon moments. Mum and I, arms pin wheeling out, agonized drawn out cries of "Noooooooo!" as we dove towards him.

He didn't drop the pot in surprise at our behavior, but it was a very near thing. Fortunately, the soap covered scrubbing brush never touched the vaunted and scared interior of that well cured teapot. Thank goodness, for it was the work of decades.

A teapot should never be washed. You may swish it out with boiling water. But it should never ever be washed. This is a teapot, by the way, that is only used for black tea. You want to drink that appalling herbal tisane stuff, use a different pot.

So how, many have asked, do I brew a perfect cuppa?

My training is specific to my mother, as hers was to her grandmother, and so forth back as far as any of us can remember. It is not the training of every tea drinker. And there have been, dare I say it, studies showing that not all the steps are necessary for taste, but who would trust scientists on such a religious matter as tea?

Here is how I do it.

Select a pot, a good china one, with a spout that does not drip, and a lid that stays on. Most pots these days produce four mugs worth of tea, but one should measure to see how many it takes.

Boil enough water for the pot and then some. Boil it! Boil. Swish a dollop of the boiled water around inside the pot to heat it. Dump this out, let the water cool slightly while you scoop the loose leaf in.

Choose a good quality loose leaf black tea. I prefer Twinings English Breakfast Gold Label from England (not the red box American swill). The quality of a tea can be determined by the smell (not too spicy) and the taste (not too bitter) and the color (for EB a rich dark chocolate brown with hints of rust when seeped) and the size and shape of the leaf (generally larger is better).

Place a heaped tablespoon into the pot, one for each mug. If the pot is a 6-er or larger, also include "one for the pot." One will soon learn the quirks of each tea and each teapot and what relationship works best.

Add the recently boiled water. Fill the pot all the way, but not so far it will spill when poured. Do not use one of those teapots with the immersion cages. They do not allow for proper blending. Stick a spoon in and give it a good couple stirs. Cap and cover with a tea cozy.

Those who are too immersed in the culture of green teas will allow only a three minute seeping. Those fancy tea timers are equally precipitous. I have even had proprietors of tea shops, who should know better, try to poor for me ahead of schedule. Oh, no no. I prefer a five minute seep at least, but I take my tea strong.

Now, we move on to teacups instead of mugs. Tea always tastes better out of a teacup, I feel, and a smaller portion allows one to drink it entirely before it gets cold. Choose your cups and saucers with care, you want a nice delicate rim, it makes sipping much more enjoyable and prevents dribbles.

Put the milk in first.* Good quality whole milk, organic if possible, un-pasteurized if risk is appealing. Lemon is only for the truly quirky. Poor the tea in after through a strainer. No sugar please. A tea that requires sugar is not a very good tea. A person who requires sugar is not a true tea drinker, they should be excused onto something more banal. Raspberry cordial, perhaps?

A few words on etiquette.

The hostess always pours the tea for herself first, unlike most other endeavors. This is because she should test the strength and quality upon her own pallet, and not subject her guest to weak tea, over-brewed tea, or spoiled milk.

To drink, one picks up both the cup and saucer, then raises the cup to drink with the free hand. No, the pinky is not stuck out. The cup is returned to the saucer without clinking.

Never dunk anything into your tea. All you end up with is crummy tea.

And one last moment of comedy. Should you over-brew your tea, my friends and I refer to this as: strong enough for a mouse to run across.

* Speaking as an archaeologist I'd like to put an end to the sorry insult to porcelain that suggests this most high tech of ceramics cannot survive boiling water without cracking! Porcelain can take it! It was designed to do so. In fact only very cheap glazes such as those on mugs from Ross, or Medieval purple and green wares can't take direct boiling water. This has to do with the clay paste to glaze interactions layers. But, I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, there is probably no actual reason behind putting the milk in first versus second, humans are seldom so logical. It's lower class to put milk in first, upper to put it in second.

That said, the most likely explanation I've found is that you milk first if your milk was close to spoiling. Since the wealthy could afford to throw away a cup of tea tainted by adding expired milk (which curdles on contact with hot water) they put the milk in second. However, the poor could not afford to waste tea, so the milk went in first, that way if it was close to turning it would not curdle. (Incidentally, this is the same principle for mixing acids and milks: if you're making a piccata sauce, for example, cream into the rue, then slowly add the lemon juice. Never add cream to an already acid sauce, it will curdle.)


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I love this post, and I actually did not know that good teapots are not to be scrubbed. Thanks for the most excellent read!
This brings back a lot of memories from all the times I was instructed about tea pots etc. by my mother. Thanks! :)
This post makes me incredibly sad that I am allergic to black tea. Thank you, however, for the excellent information!
Oh, that was lovely information. Thank you.

Almost makes me want to buy one of those 2-cup teapots(I'm pretty much the only tea drinker in the house) to keep unwashed. It makes me sad that I can no longer find my favourite black tea (Licungo from the Zambezia province of Mozambique) in the market anymore - it would be perfect for this kind of brewing.
coming from a long line of tea bellies I'd recommend not using a china tea pot, it doesn't hold the tannin very well, it comes away, and therefore loses that special something, earthenware is better, it gives a richer cup of tea. You shouldn't use boiling water but instead when the kettle boils you put a splash of water inside the pot, rinse it out and throw it out, this also catches any lingering loose tea from last time, then add the tea and water (which has cooled a touch) as it stops the tea scalding.
George Orwell wrote a very long essay explaining what he considered the proper way to make tea and I must admit I was swayed to the darkside simply by how much better it could make cheap nasty tea (but still not liptons - nothing can work on that) taste.

Personally I like Taylors of Harrogate teas, especially their Christmas spiced China black tea, but for plain I have co-op Indian Prince, it's just a wonderful cup of tea.
The Japanese tea ceremony is not about the tea, it is about the ceremony. When you comtemplate Japanese green tea keep that in mind.
I always wondered how to make a proper pot of tea :) Definitely gonna bookmark this.

(I switched to decaf of my favourite tea only to avoid aggravating my insomnia, so I can still enjoy a cup late in the day and attempt to get to sleep at a decent hour.)
I collect tea cups, so I loved this article... especially the beautiful pictures! Thanks for linking to my blog!
Thank you very much for elaborating on your way of brewing tea!
However, I do like to take my tea with a sprinkle of sugar. Since I prefer an organic FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling, I usually find that adding a hint of sugar compliments the flowery quality of my tea quite nicely.
Ha! Sweet tea was like "WTF" for me when I first moved to Arkansas for college. I didn't even know people did that to tea. I don't mind a little sweetness every now and then; however, my southern friends like to pour a jar of sugar in their pitchers of tea. Way too sweet. :p
Thank you so very much for this post!

I had always thought it was the clay pots I was never allowed to do this with, growing up in a Chinese family, but I never knew it was the same with china ones too.

Now I must christen a new teapot.

A Perfect Cup of Tea

Aunt Isabella always insisted on the silver tea pot. Not porcelain, ceramic or earthenware, silver only, thank you.
Thank-you for this very interesting look into your tea process. The ritual of tea is very important to me and I love finding out how other people take their tea. However, I think you would have vapors if you ever saw my tea collection, because I have every single one of the teas you said you didn't like on top of the necessary plain black tea. Except sweet tea. I don't have sugar in my tea and the concept of sweet tea sounds simply awful.

I definitely agree with you about not dunking anything into one's tea! Crummy tea is simply horrid. And I cringed so badly when reading the story about your former gentleman caller almost washing the pot! I had a similar near miss when one of my sisters almost washed the tea pot in the soapy sink. Thankfully I caught her time!