The British are really serious about their tea

While Australians seem to really care about their beer, the British love their tea. I have commented before that you cannot watch British TV shows without being impressed by the major role that tea plays in them. People are always either drinking or making tea and as soon as anyone enters someone else’s home, even if it is a police officer investigating a crime, the first question is whether they would like a cup of tea. They seem to drink it by the gallon.

I asked a colleague of mine who hails from England if that portrayal was an exaggeration with writers exploiting a cultural trait for effect, and he said absolutely not. He said that this is exactly what happens and that although he is now in the US, he has at least ten cups a day and makes it in his office.

Here is a clip from 1941 during World War II that carefully describes the steps that must be taken to make a good cup of tea, especially if one has to make large amounts of it for offices or troops or people in shelters. The man who gives the instructions is impressive for the seriousness with which he outlines the steps, as if he were describing what one needs to do in the wake of a nuclear attack or a bombing raid. Clearly making tea is not something to take lightheartedly.


  1. says

    Tea’s a great way of boiling your water to kill all the bacteria and whatnot living in it. Another great way of getting similar results is to add wine to it, or make it into beer.

  2. says

    So… I’m kind of a tea snob, and I find it hilarious that the British are so big on tea when, as an employee at my favorite little Chinese tea shop in NYC, Tea Drunk, said, they’ve “perfected the art of drinking terrible tea”. English Breakfast is fine (I actually like it), but there’s a reason people want it with cream/milk and/or sugar.

    A good tea shouldn’t need either. I’m big fan of greens, myself, and Dragonwell (a famous Chinese green) is amazing when brewed correctly; you don’t need cream or sugar to enjoy it. And if you’ve never had a good pu-erh (pu-erh is an aged tea… it’s what the Chinese call “black tea”… what we call “black tea” is actually called “red tea” over there), you’re missing out… and you still don’t need milk or sugar as long as it’s brewed correctly.

    The reality is that boiling tea burns it, which is why bagged tea usually tastes so bitter. Camelia sinensus (the plant tea comes from) is a fragile plant, with fragile leaves. It can’t actually take boiling water. So even pu-erh is usually steeped at, at most, 205 degrees F (boiling is 212). And it’s not steeped for that long, either; usually 3 to 5 minutes.

    On top of that, if you are using a tea bag, once a tea is steeped, and you take the bag out, just put it aside. If you squeeze the bag, you aren’t actually getting anymore tea. All you’re squeezing into the cup are tannins, which only serve to heighten the bitter taste.

    Now, if you like overly-bitter stuff, then fine. Enjoy. Just realize that what you’re drinking is burnt-to-hell and you’re not going to get any more good steeps out of it (unlike using, say, a Chinese method, which can get you as many as 10 good steeps out of a few grams of leaves).

  3. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    The video is wonderful.
    We are a tea-drinking household and don’t follow all of those rules.

  4. says

    which is why bagged tea usually tastes so bitter.

    Twining’s innovation was that, if you use bags, you can buy the floor-sweepings from a tea factory, and sell them in a way that they don’t make a mess. It allowed the sale of lower quality teas to the masses, which gratefully accepted the opportunity to engage in a wealth social-signal at a discounted cost. Now, of course, that tea-drinking has become a mass phenomenon, the wealth social-signal is to use a $16,000 espresso machine to press steam through over-roasted coffee.*

    (* Starbucks’ innovation is to use the worst beans that everyone else would reject but over-roast them to get all the full boiled dog flavor out of them, then sell that with loads of sugary addons to Americans who’d be perfectly happy just drinking the soy milk with sugar in it. In other words, Starbucks repeated Twinings’ hack.)

  5. says

    Oh I’m not shitting on bagged tea, Marcus, just on the use of boiling water to steep it. I actually support not wasting anything. I’ve even made Lipton Green Tea taste decent steeping it in 175*F water for about 2 minutes. Loose leaf is definitely more expensive in the short term (believe me… first-timers at Teavana make that observation every damn time). It’s just that you get more mileage out of loose leaf tea then you do out of bagged tea. But you can get more mileage out of bagged tea if you lower your water temperature…

    I can’t speak to coffee because I haven’t come across a coffee I can drink without cream and sugar (I’m really sensitive to bitter), and that’s not for lack of trying (I’ve got many friends and even had a roommate who are obsessed with coffee, so I’ve had some of the “best” coffee brewed all the “proper” ways).

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    While Australians seem to really care about their beer, the British love their tea.

    Aussies I’ve known love their tea, and Brits I’ve known (excluding myself, who only likes beer after a strenuous workout) love their beer. I doubt there’s much difference between the two.

  7. Milton says

    I don’t drink tea, but as a Brit I keep a supply of tea bags in the house and any visitor (relative, friend or complete stranger) is offered tea or coffee within minutes of crossing the threshold.

    Nathan (@2 & @5) may be missing the point a little. I don’t doubt his expertise and knowledge in the art of a good cuppa, but mainly what we take seriously is the social custom of offering, and sharing, a hot drink.

    The offer signifies hospitality: I am welcoming you into my home. You are my guest and while you are here I will provide refreshments when required.

    The sharing facilitates social interaction: by their late teens, the vast majority of British people will have spent countless hours conversing in pairs or small groups while drinking tea (or, for a growing minority, coffee). This is a setting they (we) are familiar with and which gives them (us) an underlying sense of comfort and security.

    Outside the home the same functions can, depending on circumstances, be centred around alcoholic drinks. This involves similar traditions/rituals (e.g. getting your round in).

    I think we do all this less for the taste, or even for refreshment, and more because we are (in general) a fairly reserved lot who often need a social lubricant of some kind.

  8. says

    Milton @ #8:

    That is a fair point. I was more railing on the tea itself as opposed to the social customs surrounding it. I hadn’t thought about that, so I apologize. And I support that very much.

  9. Brian English says

    As an adult of the species Boganus Australianus, I drink a cup or two of tea a day, with or without milk. With milk makes it smooth, but without has a nice taste too. Not bitter, perhaps I don’t boil the water, or more likely, I put on the kettle, go to work for a while, then remember I’ve got a cup with a bag waiting and pour the not so recently boild kettle water over it…who knows? But as a true Boganus Australianus, I like my beer too. 🙂

  10. cartomancer says

    The constant need for tea in this country is something that we plan our infrastructure around. We tend to have much more powerful kettles than most places in order to boil up the water quickly, and the National Grid makes more energy available during the breaks in major football events, popular TV programmes and other big communal events because it knows that thousands of people will take the opportunity for a quick cup of tea. Since the First World War our tanks and other military vehicles have all come equipped with a boiling vessel for making tea as standard equipment, and the RAF has been known to abort missions if someone forgot to pack the teapot. (

    In fact one driver of our Opium Wars with China was the fact that we wanted their tea in vast quantity, but they didn’t really want anything we had (except silver, but we weren’t exactly swimming in that). So we decided to get them addicted to opium, which we grew elsewhere in the Empire, in order to facilitate the trade.

  11. cartomancer says

    Also, pretty much any hotel room in Britain -- be it in an expensive four-star hotel, a cheap chain hotel or a family guest house -- will have tea-making facilities as standard. If you get nothing else but a bed and a nightstand, that nightstand will have a kettle and some cups and teabags on top. Even in hotels where there is an expensive room service option you will get the facilities to make tea on your own (because the making of tea for the family and guests is a very personal affair, and you wouldn’t want to get someone else to interrupt their day to do it for you -- that would just feel wrong. Also you might want a cup in the middle of the night when nobody is about).

    Since I’ve never been outside the UK I just assumed that’s what hotel rooms are like everywhere. But I’m guessing they’re not, are they?

  12. Mano Singham says

    Mobius @#16,

    I have a coffee press and it had never occurred to me to use it for tea! I shall try it today. Thanks!

  13. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer @#14

    Tea and coffee making items are definitely extras in hotels in the US and can only be found in the more upscale hotels.

  14. Mano Singham says

    I have to wonder if the most commonly used sentence in the UK is “I’ll put the kettle on”.

  15. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer @#13,

    Thanks for that information. Fascinating! The focus on tea is stronger than I had suspected.

  16. sonofrojblake says

    Cartomancer @13 only hints at the case, mentioning “planning our infrastructure around” the need for tea. See the Wikipedia page for Dinorwig Power Station for more on this:

    A work colleague was seconded to the US for a few years (he arrived on September 4th 2001 and moved into a lovely apartment overlooking the statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan, so you can imagine how that felt for him…). He told me one of the oddest things was when equipping his apartment, he had tried to buy a kettle. To a British person this would seem to be about as controversial a potential purchase as, say, a toaster or a mug. And he had real trouble finding one. He could buy a hundred varieties of coffee machine, but requests for a kettle drew a blank, again and again. It’s almost as though the USA is a foreign country or something. I’d be interested to know if Mano’s colleague had similar difficulty.

    Right, I’m off for a brew.

  17. sonofrojblake says

    Also: Nathan @9: don’t feel bad about being a tea snob. A *lot* of people like to be snobby about tea -- it’s such a useful social signifier. You can see it as a moral failing if someone takes sugar, or puts the milk in first, or whatever. It’s an excellent adjunct to our labyrinthine class system. I used to design chocolate factories for a major manufacturer, and chocolate snobs are almost as bad as tea snobs -- “VEGETABLE OIL???? Oh no” and “nothing less than 70% solids and NO MILK!” and similar are common. Ultimately, people like what they’re used to, and if they like it, who is anyone else to call it wrong?

  18. jrkrideau says

    @ 22 sonofrojblake

    A cousin of mine who lives in the Detroit suburbs bought a teamaker . No idea what that might be but she could not find any loose tea. I made up a care package of roughly a dozen teas and dispatched it to her from the more civilized envrions of Canada while she continued her search.

  19. Vicki says

    Nathan definitely has the snobbery down, telling people they are enjoying themselves wrong. I’ve had a good pu-erh, and it’s drinkable, but I’ll take the Irish breakfast or a good Assam, and I’ll leave the white teas to people who enjoy barely flavored hot water.

  20. Vicki says

    Also, most US hotel rooms have coffee set-ups. Some of them think they are also providing tea, but running hot water through the coffee-maker onto a teabag produces something that tastes of old coffee. Also, the water isn’t really hot enough for black tea (which should be brewed at 95°C); it’s hot enough for green tea, but the flavor of green tea would be completely overwhelmed by the coffee remnants. A friend of mine, in extremis, runs the machine six or seven times with just water, throwing the heated water away, and then makes tea.

  21. Mano Singham says

    jkrideau @#24,

    Tell your friend in Detroit to go to any Indian/Pakistani or other South Asian store. However small it may be, it will sell loose leaf black tea. There are also South Asian stores in the US that you can order from online.

    I don’t know what a teamaker is, either. Could she mean a kettle?

  22. Mano Singham says

    sonofrojblake @#22,

    I have a tea kettle. I forget where I got it but I think you can find them at most large department stores or specialty stores that sell kitchen items.

  23. says

    The offer signifies hospitality: I am welcoming you into my home. You are my guest and while you are here I will provide refreshments when required.

    I can testify to having been offered a cup of tea on a campsite from the people in the next pitch…

  24. Mano Singham says

    david @#15,

    I just read Orwell’s essay. He has eleven (!) rules for making tea! I follow only about seven. I also commit the cardinal sin, in his eyes, of adding sugar.

  25. sonofrojblake says

    @Mano, 28: What you have (if your later posting is anything to go by) and describe as a “tea kettle” is little more than an oddly shaped saucepan. As an English person I’d expect to make tea on a stove if I was in either (a) a campsite or other backwater without modern conveniences or (b) a power cut or (c) the 1950s. Or the USA, it seems.

    My colleague was looking for a kettle, a simple electric kettle. It is (to someone British) such a ludicrously mundane device that a typical UK online retailer has just short of 200 such items on sale here:|category_root|Home+and+garden|33005908/c_2/2|33005908|Kitchen+electricals|33007917/c_3/3|cat_33007917|Kettles|33017080/fs/0/p/1/pp/150/s/Relevance.htm

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