The Midwest, and other parts of America, are in for a heck of a winter. It’s been cold, below freezing and steady snow for weeks. And, it isn’t winter even yet. Months like these require a constant kettle of water boiling, to keep my tea cup filled to the brim. Many have strong opinions about tea, and the British seem to have the strongest of them all. This has always stricken me as odd, in that the Brits merely appropriated tea as part of their acquisition of Empire. Knowledge of tea is not innate within them, but what seems to be in their genes is a mastery of the prose required to write about tea. Two such Brits come to mind.
The genius behind the dystopias 1984 and Animal Farm was also known in his time as a prolific essayist. Some years ago, George Orwell’s entire canon was available, should you wish to read the man’s thoughts on every subject. One of my particular favorites include his brief work, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a celebration of the cast iron house plant–a plant that served its owner to signal to others that they have attained middle class-hood. (Think about it, for whom would keep a plant that wasn’t food unless one could afford such excess?) Orwell also expounded on every Englishman’s favorite past-time, the consumption of black tea. In his 1942 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, Orwell attempts to lay down the rules of proper brewing, in 11 steps:
“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea…Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.
Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware…
Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand…
Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right….
Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot….
Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about….
Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is,the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.
The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”
History is harsh to the essayist. Moderns will forever appreciate Orwell’s literary masterworks, but his essays may fall to the wayside in a hundred years. Few essayists can expect their work to survive their lifetime–Mencken, Thurber, and Twain come to mind, but who is reading say, Mike Royko nowadays (aside from your author?) As for contemporary essayists, time will tell if Christopher Hitchens will join Twain or perhaps fade into the ether of the late 20th century. Hitchens, the late Anglo-American essayist and polemicist, idolized Orwell for many reasons–the economy of his pen, his opposition to fascism, and his exposition on the balance every British citizen must take with their heritage–pride and shame. When it comes to tea, Hitchens tried to rescue Orwell’s advice, in his own words. Hitchens made a point to mediate upon Orwell’s sixth rule:
“Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter…
If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: ‘[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.’ This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.”
It is entirely possible that in fact, Americans never, ever learned how to make a proper tea correctly. And if we did know, the knowledge has been lost over the decades, a victim of the mass production of everything. There is hope though, as tea purists and the nerdy predilections of those with “first world problems” are perhaps seeking out quality over quantity. And perhaps then, we will not need reminders from British essayists on how to brew tea, as the practice will become innate within the population.
One last note from Orwell, worth repeating here. While I wholeheartedly disagree that tea should be bitter and enjoyed like a warmed over British IPA, sugar in tea is pointless. You’d be better off drinking sugar water and sparing yourself the cost of the tea leaves:
“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. 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.”
Orwell, always the gentleman, ended on that illustrative note. Hitchens, always maintaining his elan and sardonic humor, ends his exposition differently:
“Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don’t trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.”
What is your favorite tea? Do you have your own way of brewing your favorite cuppa?
Christopher Hitchens Photo Credit: Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com