Uncertain-tea?

James Vines

In Britain, 165 million cups of tea are consumed every single day, with English Breakfast tea being the most common. The matter of a perfect cup of tea is a highly contentious topic. There are so many variables. Do you add sugar? What’s the perfect amount of milk? And maybe the most contentious of them all, how long do you brew for?

98% of us take our tea with milk, but one of the first to scientifically investigate the effects of adding milk to tea was statistician Ronald A. Fisher in 1935, who was interested in the effects of adding milk before or after the water. His study was only conducted upon one participant, Muriel Bristol, who claimed she could taste the difference. While the finer intricacies of Fishers experiments were really concerned with statistical probabilities, he also concluded that Bristol could, most probably, tell the difference between the two different types of tea.

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Image Credit: Flickr

There are many arguments both for and against pouring the milk in first. Tradition dictates that milk is added first. One theory for this concerns the delicate nature of early teacups, which were prone to cracking under a sudden influx of recently-boiled water. Another theory suggests that milk which is creamy or warm may rise to the surface of a cup of tea as globules of fat. This was also thought to kill bacteria by boiling them, which may be lurking in questionable milk.

While these arguments all seem reasonable, in 1946, George Orwell argued “by putting the tea in first and then stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is liable to put in too much milk the other way round”. In 2008, the Royal Society of Chemistry also got involved suggesting that adding milk second could ‘cook’ the milk, giving it a boiled taste due to greater denaturing of the proteins. Whether this ‘boiled’ taste is preferable however, was not mentioned. Of course it is important to mention, that the above only concerns tea poured from a pot; milk must be added second if brewing in the cup, or else the tea bag will not reach a hot enough temperature to infuse properly.

Another hot topic in the tea drinking debate is whether to add sugar. 41% of tea drinkers take sugar; as a result the issue of sugar is somewhat down to personal preference. For certain however, sugar should be added in the cup, and only once the tea bag has been removed. This prevents any sugar getting caught up and wasted inside the tea bag.

A less contentious area is the question of loose tea versus tea bags;  most tea lovers will agree that loose tea leaves make for a better brew. The tea in teabags is normally made from the “dust and fannings” from broken tea leaves, rather than the leaves themselves. This affects the quality of the tea. Finely broken leaves loose their oils and aroma, resulting in a more bitter taste. While tea bags are somewhat inferior, their cost and convenience make them more desirable for millions of us, with loose tea making up just 1% of all tea purchases.

It is almost without question among tea connoisseurs, tea should be made in the pot, not in the cup, but how long should you brew for? Studies from 1981, by Prof. Michael Spiro showed tea needs to brew in the pot for a minimum of 2 minutes. However even after 2 minutes, only 64% of caffeine has been removed from the leaves. In fact, it will take a whole 15 minutes of brewing to remove 100% of the caffeine. Further studies by Hicks et al. in 1996 shows it’s even worse for tea bags, with only 33% of caffeine being removed after 2 minutes. It is worth noting, caffeine levels vary naturally in types of tea and levels in one type may overlap with another type. All the types of tea are produced from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, including including white, green and black teas. It is the differing processing methods which result in variations in tea type.
To conclude, there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on how to make the perfect cup of tea. There’s certainly areas where a cup of tea can be unquestioningly improved, such as by using tea leaves instead of a tea bag, but other areas are down to personal preference, such as whether to put milk or water in first, or whether to use sugar. But, however you take your tea, don’t take it from me, it’s mine.

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