Tea: the Perfect Friend for the End of the World
Grab a Mug and Turn on the News
**I originally wrote this article shortly after the events of January 6, 2021.
I'm not sure if you have been watching the news or not, but things have been a bit hairy lately. After impeaching a president, dealing with a global pandemic, and the scene in Washington D.C. a few months ago which could have very easily been a flashback from a Mad Max movie, I think its high time the world just stood still for a minute and had some tea. I think that would be good for us. But there's one major obstacle: The Western World (aside from perhaps the UK) has almost entirely lost touch with the science of perfect tea preparation. And we're only drifting further away from our once beloved leaf water as time goes on. I've been watching this alarming trend for the past number of years but have never felt much need to speak up about it publicly until now.
I refuse to resort to melodrama to get this point across, but if we are to borrow the model of the international doomsday clock to act as a unit of measurement, we can say without hyperbole that insofar as the dignity of tea in the western world stands, we are one minute to midnight and quickly counting down. The reason that tea is on my mind right now is that I feel like the world could use more tea these days. Watching the news this last week has made me think that there are a lot of people out there who really need some tea and maybe a nap. But, the unfortunate reality is that properly and respectably brewed tea has all but vanished from the public sphere. And please do not mistake my frustration for snobbery - When I make tea at home, I use teabags from the grocery store and water just like anyone else, but there is a science to the preparation of tea which is lost on most North Americans. And please note that it is a science rather than an art. If it was an art, the one would be encouraged to express themselves freely. In tea preparation, self-expression is not encouraged. In fact, it may be considered the root of all evil. Tea is about method and procedure - it is not the time to get post-modern. And this is not turning into some Jordan-Peterson-Cultural-Marxism-The-Liberals-Are-Ruining-Everything-Post-Modernity-Is-The-Enemy sort of rant. Believe me, I have danced with Derrida and Gadamer. I regard Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as old friends. I do not think post-modernity is the enemy, but it is tea's enemy (see what I did there?).
I hear you already asking yourself "why is Dryden so concerned with tea today?" or "does Dryden not know that there are bigger things happening in the world right now - much bigger issues to talk about - than the popular and rampant disrespect of the world's favourite leaf?" (Yes, I will argue that the tea leaf is the world's most popular and well-known leaf - your beloved jazz cabbage, or, worse yet, your precious Romaine Lettuce, have no place here). And to these naysayers I will reply that, yes, the foundations of Western democracy seem to be a tad bit wobblier than we would like these past few weeks. Yes, the world's amounts of plague, misinformation, and Jake Paul are running a wee bit high at the moment, and yes, we have recently seen a president inspire an unprecedented instance of civil unrest and subsequently embed himself in the world's memory both the first twice-impeached US President as well as history's orangest fascist. But do you know what has existed longer than the US of A? Tea. In fact, I seem to recall learning of a specific incident in 1773 which took place in the Boston Harbour and involved what is perhaps the most notable example of over-steeping tea leaves in human history. But tea did not fight back then, and it will not fight back now. Nor does it need to. Tea knows that it outlives the paltry comings and goings of men, the feeble and bloody business of human existence. In fact, a more talented historian than I may be able to plead a case for the British Empire being nothing more than the vehicle which tea used to spread itself - a mere inanimate body by which the "selfish gene" (this is the only time you will ever hear me directly quoting Richard Dawkins so please savour the moment) of Tea spread its leafy grasp both over the New World but also into the hearts and minds of humankind. Bottom line is, our political situation (as dark as it seems) is but a speck in the timeline of human woes - but Tea, and our enjoyment of it, is forever.
If you are tempted to consider this post as inappropriately making light of world events, I can assure you this is not my intent. My intent is not to diminish the severity or gravity of the world's collective situation, but more so to tell the entire world that now would be a good time for everyone to have a cup of tea. Whether you have just been impeached for the second friggin time in a twelve month period, or your Qanon-themed Buffalo Horns have been confiscated by the FBI, or you are just a befuddled Canadian thinking that Justin Trudeau's little Aladdin incident really doesn't seem like a big deal anymore, or none of the above and are just trying to survive the global pandemic like everyone else (think about that. In the first half of 2021, the most normal possible situation you can be in is trying to survive a global pandemic), a nice cup of tea may not particularly help your situation, but it cannot possibly make things worse.
This is my mission with this post: To bring the blessing of a properly brewed cup of tea to the masses through clear and precise instruction and thoroughly researched information. I have always believed in using education to empower the common man against corporate America (ironically enough, when I worked Davids Tea - more on that later - a number of years ago, I was once reprimanded for trying to get my coworkers to form a union with me. They should have known that when you let me drink free tea to my heart's content through my entire shift that I will get very revolutionary very quickly, but this is beside the point).
So, without further delay, to quote the queen mother on a recent episode of Netflix's the Crown as she downs a shot of whatever it is the royals drink: "Tippity toppity and down with the Nazis".
The first thing that I need to make clear in my effort of tea education (and if you get this concept down, you've already learned about 90% of what I have to offer) is what exactly tea is. I have found that a major obstacle between most people and enjoying tea is a bad definition (probably pushed by a major tea producer) of what tea actually is.
I will say this bluntly (if this doesn't make sense at first, just keep reading - I'll explain more). Tea is a beverage that is brewed by steeping the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant (pictured below). Any beverage that is made with a different plant is not tea. This may come as a shock to you, but allow me to explain. Several other plants, including herbs, flowers, and fruits, are used around the world to create hot beverages that are similar to tea. These include, but are not limited to:
These plants can all be brewed into great beverages - I drink them myself on a fairly regular basis and really enjoy them. But they are most definitely not tea. They are, in theory, as different from tea as coffee - which is another great drink that we get by steeping plant matter in hot water. When met with this definition, people sometimes think that it is merely arbitrary pretentiousness or gatekeeping. That is not at all the truth. If you were to try to convince me that a hot cup of rooibos was in fact a hot cup of coffee, you would be committing the same fallacy as you are if you try to label it as "tea". It is not a matter of one beverage being superior or more cultured than the other, it simply a matter of recognizing each beverage for what it is in its own right.
And so let me be clear - this is not some arbitrary rule that I've come up with in order to be exclusive or elitist. This is and always has been the governing definition of tea consumption around the world. Even the wikipedia article for "tea" makes this clear right from the first line. Bottom line: I have not made this up, and it is not my intention to be pretentious or elitist. As I said earlier, I also drink rooibos and yerba mate regularly, and I have no shame in doing so, because I respect them for the beverages that they are in their own right.
But for the purposes of this post - for the purposes of brewing a beautiful and universally applicable cup of tea, we will be brewing a genuine tea - a genuine Black tea. For those of us who were raised in the western world, Black tea is the tea variety to which most of our common tea knowledge and culture corresponds. Think about it this way - do you think Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey was sippin' on some Birthday Cake Rooibos from DavidsTea? Do you think CS Lewis was chugging back a Matcha Latte while he was writing about the Pevensies? Exactly. Do you think you know a good cup of tea better than Lord Grantham or CS Lewis? You don't. Rhetorical questions and such.
-At this point, if you wish to simply skip ahead to my time-tested and entirely reliable method for a flawless cup of tea, you may skip ahead to the last section - the next bit is some technical stuff that most people probably don't care about.-
So where does the confusion come from? Why do so many people, especially in the western world, get duped into drinking beverages which have nothing to do with tea but are being marketed as such? One factor is that many tea and beverage distributors have long been in the habit of using the term "Herbal Tea" to denote beverages which are made from different plants. This is, technically, a good way to market such beverages, but the problem is that people have long been hearing the word "tea" in the terminology and assuming that there is no meaningful distinction between their chamomile/peppermint/liquorice/etc. drinks and the Camellia Sinensis brews which humans have been enjoying for well over a thousand years. The truth is, however, that these beverages are in a completely different category and should not necessarily be handled the same way as true tea.
With that in mind, it's now time to dive into the wide variety of brews that we can obtain from our friend Camellia Sinensis. Because even within the realm of "true" tea there is a great deal of misinformation that floods supermarket shelves and the home lives of countless north american citizens.
The first thing to understand is the five main categories of tea. These categories of tea are all obtained from the Camellia Sinensis but they are made different from each other through a wide variety of factors. Picking the leaves at a different stage of the plant's growth, manipulating the plant's environment during its growth, processing the leave differently after picking it, picking leaves from different parts of the plant, exposing the leaf to different elements (such as smoke or the scent from certain flowers), etc. are all ways that humanity has found to manipulate the brew that we get from the tea leaf, and it is through the broad and diverse application of these techniques (as well as many others) that we can produce tea within the following five main categories (if we got super in-depth we could unpack a few more categories, but these are the main five that the average tea drinker will encounter regularly):
- White: White tea generally uses leaves that are quite young with minimal processing. White tea is primarily harvested in China, and produces a very light and delicate brew which (depending on the variety) has tasting notes which range from floral and citrusy to vegetal and earthy.
- Green: One of the better-known tea categories, tea leaves for Green tea are generally harvested at a later stage in their growth than white tea leaves, and do not undergo the oxidization process that Oolong or Black tea leaves would generally undergo. The result is a brew that is darker than white tea but lighter and more delicate than teas which have undergone an oxidization process.
- Oolong: A very diverse category, Oolong teas that have undergone less processing can be close in flavour and profile to green teas while it is also possible to produce oolongs which are quite dark (you may hear people talk about "greener" or "darker" oolongs). Flavour profiles are, naturally, quite diverse. Some have the grassy notes of a green tea, though roasty, vegetal flavours are quite common. Milk oolong is in a flavour note category of its own, and it's magnificent. A common trait amongst oolongs is for the leaves to be rolled into small balls or rolls which unravel as the leaf steeps.
- Black: Easily one of the most (if not the most) popular tea categories in the western world. Black tea leaves have undergone a lengthy oxidization process (y'know how when you bite into an apple the inside turns brown? That's basically what happens to the tea leaf in its own oxidization process, and thats why teas which oxidize longer produce darker brews) and as a result have a much stronger flavour profile than the previous categories. Most of the tea blends that we are used to drinking, such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, (pretty any blend that has "breakfast" in the name) are black tea blends. Black tea is produced in many parts of the world but the black tea we drink in the western world is usually from the Indian provinces of Assam or Ceylon.
- Fermented Tea: This is where stuff gets weird, and honestly, this category is a bit beyond my knowledge. You may not have heard of "fermented tea" but you may have heard of "Pu'er", one of the more common varieties of fermented tea. I've tried Pu'er a handful of times and honestly can't stomach it. The "good" Pu'er that I've tried tastes like fish to me, and the "cheap" stuff tastes like cardboard. I respect the Pu'er enthusiasts out there and I genuinely wish I had what it took, but I don't. With that in mind, take my opinion in this category with a grain of salt, but also be aware that you will almost never encounter Pu'er or other fermented teas unless you specifically seek them out. They're an acquired taste.
Now that you've understood those main categories, you're well on your way to becoming a regular tea snob! I'm very proud of anyone who's made it this far.
In writing about those five categories, I remembered a few things that I want to cover about tea varieties before I start talking about brewing methods. Here's a few random tidbits and definitions:
- Scenting: A common element in the processing of many varieties of tea is exposing the leaves to some scented element as the leaf oxidizes. A common example of this would be exposing the leaves to a flower such as Jasmine, or even allowing the leaves to dry in a smokehouse to give them a strong smokey flavour (fun fact: Winston Churchill's favourite tea was said to be a Chinese variety called Lapsang Souchong - this is a Chinese black tea that is processed in a smoke house and roughly tastes like a drinkable campfire. Winston liked it because it paired well with his cigars).
- Estates and Blends: Similar to wine or coffee, tea is often identified by the specific farm, estate, or region that it comes from. High-quality tea sellers will often give you a wide variety of specific estates to purchase leaves from. Again, similar to coffee, tea is most commonly sold as a blend. This means that teas from various different regions or farms are being blended in a way that is deemed complimentary. When you buy a brand-name English breakfast off of a store shelf, for example, you are most likely buying a blend of black tea leaves from the Ceylon and Assam regions of India.
- Earl Grey is a black tea blend which is scented with bergamot oil and lavender.
- Irish Breakfast is usually almost identical to English Breakfast but usually has a higher proportion of Assam in its blend - Assam has a maltier flavour than Ceylon, and if we think really hard we may be able to figure out why a maltier tea has been marketed to the Irish demographic...
- Orange Pekoe is not a specific blend of tea, nor does it have anything to do with oranges. Orange Pekoe is a term that is often colloquially used to describe any generic black tea, but it is actually a very technical tea grading term that has crept into common tea vernacular and lost most of its meaning amongst the average tea drinker. In the technical world of tea purchasing and grading, pekoe (a word which is itself of unknown origin) is a measurement of tea quality which takes into account the brokenness, size, and purity of the leaves. There's a lot of factors in this grading process that I don't understand, but Orange Pekoe is generally considered a decent and acceptable quality of tea in this scale. But its debatable to what extent the countless brands that label their tea as "orange pekoe" for the store shelves are actually referring to this grading process.
So with all of this in mind, how do we go about brewing ourselves that flawless cup that we came here for? This is the question I shall now answer. Let me explain what we're going to be doing:
We are going to be brewing a perfect cup of black tea from a bag. You can (and should) absolutely follow this same method if your tea is looseleaf, but you will have to figure out your own measurements and proportions based on the tea and the size of the mug you are using.
What varieties of tea should be used? Literally any black tea can be brewed with this method (except Twinings. Abandon Twinings. You deserve better than Twinings. Love yourself. Don't drink Twinings). If you want to drink a green, white, or oolong tea, this method is not for you - don't waste your tea doing this! It will not go well. I promise.
You may use any of the following:
- any Earl Grey
- any English, Irish, or Scottish Breakfast (really any tea with "breakfast" in the name should work as long as it is a black tea blend)
- Any "orange pekoe" (see my point in the last section if you, like me, have always wondered what "orange pekoe" even means)
- PG tips
- Yorkshire Gold (my #2 favourite of all time - would strongly recommend trying this. Should be found at most grocery stores)
- Barry's Tea (my #1 favourite. Seriously just such a solid and reliable tea. But usually can't be found in North American grocery stores. Should be found in any British import store, however.)
- You may (I am saying this through gritted teeth) use a brand like Tetley, or Lipton, but if that is where your journey with tea ends, you are selling yourself short. I don't recommend spending money on those brands, but if you are going to drink them, you might as well brew them properly (except Twinings. Twinings doesn't deserve the privilege of being brewed properly. Don't even touch Twinings.)
Okay so you've got your teabag(s) ready to go. You're so close. We've just gotta cover some basic elements of brewing before we steep that puppy - I promise, if you take the time to pay attention to these little steps it will pay off. Famed chef Marco Pierre White once said "perfection is lots of little things done well". And Toto once said "I bless the rains down in Africa / Gonna take some time to do the things we never had (ooh, ooh)" Bottom line - the little details matter.
If you do not read every word of this guide, I cannot guarantee the perfection of your tea, and believe me, I want to guarantee this for you.
1. Water: If you brew this tea with tap water, I will be forced to think less of you as a person. Allow me to explain. Tea must be brewed with water that contains a healthy balance of minerals – the minerals in water act as little vehicles that the natural oils of the tea leaf can get into and drive around. If you use distilled water or filtered water, there will be a far too low mineral content and the flavours of the tea leaf will have no way to travel around and get to know each other. Your tea will taste flat and lifeless. If, on the other hand, you use tap water, your water may or may not contain many things that will not get along with the natural flavours of the tea. These things may include metals from the pipes, or any additives or treatments that are put in by your municipal government (municipal water treatment is right up there with self-expression in being the natural enemies of tea preparation: please learn to think of it as such). In order to avoid these woes and treacheries, I must request that you brew this tea (and indeed, all tea in the future) with a natural spring water or glacier water. I am not asking you to use bottled water, as indeed there are sources of these natural drinking waters that do not require one-use plastics, but bottled waters are the most practical option. My personal favourite brand to use for tea is Dasani, but Aquafina will work in a pinch. Regardless of which brand you choose or where your water comes from, just promise me that you will not brew this tea with tap water or distilled water. If you use tap water, you might as well be brewing Twinings. A natural spring or glacier water must be used. This is the water that God gave us and he wants us to brew tea with it. (I know that this may seem horribly nitpicky and useless, but trust me, I have had several friends who have tried my water recommendations for tea or coffee and they have, without fail, admitted to me that their beverages have been greatly improved by the use of proper water. Just give it a chance.)
2. Teaware: I have been told that many people in North America don’t own teapots. I sincerely hope that you all own a teapot. And please do not mix up a kettle and a pot – a kettle is used to boil water, a pot is used to brew and serve tea. I feel the need to clarify this just in case anyone among my readers has had their experiences of tea this deeply tainted, and I apologize if this instruction is unnecessary , I’m just trying to cover all of our bases. If you own a proper teapot, it may be used to brew this tea. You will probably want to use two or three teabags per pot depending on the size of the pot.
If you do not own a pot, or if you just want one cup of tea, that’s fine – you may use a mug to brew the tea as opposed to a pot. If you use a mug, use one teabag per mug. But no matter which method you use, you must warm up your teaware prior to brewing. You may do this by running the pot or mug under hot water prior to putting the teabag in. You must do this in order to keep your tea hot for as long as possible. If you brew tea in cold teaware, your tea will get cold very quickly. Don’t do that.
3. Temperature. This is a black tea, so the water used to brew it must be at an absolute rolling boil. If it was green, white, or oolong tea you would decrease your water temperature, to protect the more delicate leaves, but should be a blend of good Indian black tea leaves – it needs a very high brewing temperature in order for all of the leaf’s oils to be released. (Unrelated water joke: You know how you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it. Lol)
Also – please, for the love of all that is holy, do not use water that has already been boiled once. Once water has been boiled, its oxygen content quickly vanishes and your tea will be flat as a result. Once you have boiled your water, quickly poor it over the teabag(s), and if there is any water left over, do not attempt to reuse it for future tea. Water can be boiled once and once only.
4. Time. This tea should be brewed for at least four or five minutes. Up to six or seven minutes if you prefer it stronger (I would recommend stronger, but it's up to you). I have seen countless people throughout my life drink tea while the bag is still in it. Let me be clear: If you did this in front of the queen, you would be promptly and swiftly put to death. If you have brewed your tea in a pot, it should be poured and served as soon as it is done brewing. If you have brewed it in a mug, you should remove the teabag once its steeping time is reached and prior to drinking it.
5. Additions. It would be entirely appropriate to drink this tea with milk, sugar, or both, as one would do with coffee. But please, for the love of all that is holy, do not use a milk substitute like soy or almond milk – this substitutes will overpower the tea with its own flavours and will not give you the authentic experience of this tea. Remember how I said earlier that self-expression is not encouraged during tea preparation? I am standing by that. I would recommend trying the tea without anything in it, and then adding sugar to your preferred sweetness. If you choose to add milk, it must be an actual dairy product.
Once you have understood the above concepts, the following brewing instructions will be extremely simple to follow. Please follow them to the best of your ability – I have full faith in you.
1. Boil your water to a full rolling boil.
2. Warm up your teaware.
3. Place the teabag(s) in the teaware.
4. Pour your water OVER the teabag(s) (NEVER. NEVER put the teabag INTO hot water. YOU MUST POUR THE HOT WATER OVER THE TEABAG. I’m just trying to protect you from being charged with high tea crimes by the secret tea police).
5. LEAVE THE TEABAG ALONE WHILE IT STEEPS. DO NOT TOUCH IT. If you move or touch the teabags during the brewing process, you risk releasing a disproportionately high amount of tannins into your tea – tannins are the chemical compounds that make a tea slightly bitter or astringent. Too many of them and your tea will be much more bitter than necessary.
6. Remove the teabag once the brewing time has been reached (no less than 4 minutes, no more that 7 minutes)
7. Add milk or sugar to taste (if you do add milk, please be conservative. Only enough to just change the colour of the tea – this is all you need. Any more and you risk overwhelming the tea itself. If you want to add more than this, I would recommend at least trying your tea with minimal to no milk before adding more. You may just end up liking it).
8. Congratulations. If you have heeded my instructions, you have brewed the perfect cup of tea
I hope this guide has been useful, and if you made it all the way to the end I'd say you have well earned this beverage you are about to enjoy. But, then again, its been an incredibly odd 10 months and the world doesn't show any signs of getting less odd within the near future, so I'd say most people in the world have deserved at least one decent brew. Even, as I said earlier, if taking a tea break does not make your situation any easier, it cannot possibly make it any worse. So please, especially now, apply tea generously to all of your mental wounds as often as is needed.