Circa 200AD, the Chinese medical pioneer Hua Tuo declared: ‘To drink bitter tea constantly makes one think better.’ Sadly, in 2019, our appreciation of tea has lost that clarity. The 21st century brew is regularly abused in ways that make my blood boil like a faulty electric kettle.
This month, as National Tea Day approaches (21 April), let us explore the 10 Worst Things That Can Happen To A Cuppa..
1. UHT milk
The cursed staple of every hotel bedroom, ultra high temperature-treated milk casts a dark shadow over even the brightest teas. It cloaks your cuppa in flavour notes of plastic, stale cream and wet cardboard.
2. Tired water
Tea needs oxygen and nitrogen to breathe. Reboiling the same H2O will lead to it losing its O and a flat, lifeless brew. Draw fresh water!
As George Orwell, a stalwart comrade in the struggle for a strong brew, put it in his 1946 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea: ‘Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.’
Even the slickest, most expensive method of caffeine removal (using liquid CO2) leads to some flavour deterioration. The more common industrial technique, which uses solvents including ethyl acetate, inevitably strips-out flavour compounds and, some argue, leaves a discernible chemical residue.
5. Dainty cups
This zippy, earthy restorative should be drunk, lustily, from mugs – pint-sized, ceramic monsters, ideally. Note: steel, plastic or cardboard beakers muddy the flavour of any tea.
6. Bergamot oil
According to the fascinating foodsofengland.co.uk, Earl Grey tea may have started as a con job, an attempt by 19th century merchants to mimic fine Chinese teas by adding bergamot oil to lesser leaves – sometimes passing them off as the real deal. It is a fittingly murky start for a citrussy, scented tea that, arguably, paved the way for hundreds of horrendous blends that smell like the perfume counter at Boots. (See no.9.)
You cannot ping a satisfying brew into life (think: uneven, unmeasurable heat), nor revive a stewed, cold brew in a microwave. It will lack richness, depth, oomph.
8. Putting the milk in first
The science world is split. The boffins against milk-first insist that if you add hot water to chilled milk the teabag will not reach its optimum brewing temperature. Meanwhile, the milk-first camp say adding milk to hot tea causes its proteins to denature, impairing its flavour. Personally, my empirical research concludes that this is poppycock. Moreover, unless you add the milk last, how else can you judge the amount correctly and avoid producing a pale, insipid brew?
Do not get bogged down in the semantics of whether or not herbal, fruit and floral blends of ginger, hibiscus, cranberries, camomile and verbena, should be allowed to call themselves teas. These fragrant, caffeine-free monstrosities are established. That clipper ship has sailed. Instead, as standard teabag sales fall (51% of Brits aged 25-34 drink fruit or herbal and spiced tea, according to Mintel), stay strong.
Do not be bullied. Do not be diverted by the novelty of rooibos or valerian root. Be vocal about your belief that tea derived from the camellia sinensis plant is the only one that can offer genuine satisfaction. Tea can be white, black or green, but it should never be made with blueberries.
10. Cold water
Yes, diluting your fresh brew with cold tap water because you cannot wait 98 seconds for it to cool to a drinkable temperature. It is astonishing behaviour, which I will never ever understand.
Read more articles by Tony Naylor
Why I’ll be ignoring Valentine’s Day
10 big foodie don’ts for 2019
10 ways to support your local restaurant
10 processed foods we secretly love
For eats’ sake, stop the music
A grumpy man’s guide to eating overseas
My top 10 food waste crimes
What would ruin your ideal uppa? Leave a comment below…
Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian