Guest Post: How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea

Tea, being the magical all-purpose beverage that it is, has been an everyday part of my life since birth. In fact, I still have what I’ve always referred to as “my birth teapot,” purchased by my mother and her mother in honour of the blessed event. (Is that something all good Englishwomen do?) My mother drank a lot of tea, and I drink it a minimum of four times a day.

a proper cup of tea

A proper cup of tea

My grandmother Elizabeth (from the Lake District) drank tea around the clock, including once in the middle of every night. Her mother Mary Ann was, I’m told, constantly putting the kettle on. These are my basic qualifications for being The Resident Tea Snob!

Any self-respecting Britophile (not just Anglophile) needs to know how to make what my mum always called “a proper cup of tea.” It is nearly impossible to get such a thing in the U.S. without doing it yourself.

Most restaurants give you a tiny stainless steel pot of water that has been warmed, not boiled, on one of the burners of their coffee maker, along with a teabag of uncertain quality for you to dunk into the tepid water. The result is so insipid that people who have never had properly made tea think they don’t like tea.

a stainless steel teapot

A stainless steel teapot in an American restaurant

Though I enjoy many types of herbal infusions, they are not tea; they are tisanes. I sometimes enjoy a green tea or oolong or some of the specialty teas that have recently come to the fore. But when I say “a proper cup of tea,” that means a good black tea, such as Darjeeling, Earl Grey or English breakfast–organic, if possible. I usually prefer loose teas, but occasionally use teabags.

You will need a tea kettle and a ceramic teapot, both of a capacity to make the quantity you desire. I have a 4-quart kettle and a 3-quart teapot for large crowds, but I most often use a smaller kettle and one of my average-size teapots. One needs to know the precise capacity of one’s teapot to ensure that the tea is of the proper strength.

To make a proper pot of black tea, just before a kettle of freshly drawn water comes to the boil, warm the teapot with hot water, empty it, add one teaspoon of tea leaves for each 8 ounces of water. Immediately (that’s why the teapot is on the stove in the photo above) pour in the freshly boiling water, let it stand for 5 minutes, stir, and then strain into cups.

If you prefer to use a tea ball, be sure it is large enough to allow the tea leaves to unfurl. Serve with sugar or sugar cubes, thin slices (not wedges) of lemon and a small pitcher of milk (never cream).

tea infuser and tea leaves

A tea infuser and tea leaves

That’s all there is to it. I know there is a how-to video on this site in which we are directed to put just one little teabag into the teapot because “the tea’s strength comes from the length of the brew time, never extra tea bags.” Well, I say Piffle! Use one teaspoon of loose tea or one teabag for each 8 ounces of water.

If it’s a very strong tea, make that 10 ounces of water. But one teabag in a full-size teapot will not make proper tea no matter how long you brew it!

Jean at Delightful Repast is a freelance writer who writes mostly about food, tea, weddings and etiquette for numerous publications. A lifelong tea aficionado, Jean has proposed being The Resident Tea Snob at Smitten by Britain. Read her guest posts here.

(Copyright 2011 Jean at Delightful Repast delightfulrepast.com)

Comments

  1. says

    Gosh, I’ve been doing it wrong all these years! Actually, I know you’re supposed to warm the pot, (and use fresh water for that matter) but I can never be bothered.
    The one thing I don’t think you emphasized quite enough however is that the water MUST be properly boiled. That means NEVER ever put in a microwave for the purposes of tea-making. Yuck! That’s my pet peeve! DId I say that loudly enough? Can you tell it’s my pet peeve?

    • Jean | Delightful Repast says

      Yes, Expat Mum, I mentioned the “boiling” matter in paragraphs 2 and 5; but it cannot be overemphasized! Or said too loudly! :D Fresh water, in a kettle, electric or on the hob, definitely. And it will be emphasized in future posts as well. Thanks, and keep “shouting” about it!

  2. says

    This is wonderful, Jean! I have got to purchase some loose tea. All I have are boxes of tea bags, English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Yorkshire Gold, and Irish Breakfast. And I bet you’re right about the strength of tea. I love strong flavors, and yet I think I’ve always had weak tea. ICK.

    P.S. Your pal says hi. :-)

  3. Heatherfeather says

    Guess I’m working class since I use tea bags and a mug.:) I do use an electric kettle, which I love and can’t understand why they aren’t as popular in the states.

    My favorite part of going to the UK is getting a proper cuppa whilst at home I never order tea at restaurants.

    • Jean | Delightful Repast says

      Well, Heatherfeather, a teabag and a mug *can* work. If the water is actually boiling, it can “cover a multitude of sins”! Electric kettles are great–I bought one for an office I used to work in–but I don’t use one at home because I’m not willing to give over the counter space for it. Maybe that’s why they’re not as popular here, maybe we all need the counter space!

      • Chris says

        I’m an Englishman from a working class background – probably closer to lower-middle class now, which I think is the equivalent of the American middle class? You guys don’t have all of the underserving toffs hogging the “upper class” label!

        I make my tea with an electric kettle, PG Tips or Tetley tea bags, a splash of milk and two sugars! All in a mug. That’s how everyone I know makes it, but it may very well be a working class thing. I bet some of my posher countrymen would consider my builder’s brew a crime against tea!

        I’m a 21 year old student and I drink more tea than beer. Put it this way… If I drank as much beer as I do tea, I would be looking for a new liver. That really says something about the English and our tea.

        • Jean | Delightful Repast says

          Chris, I’m so glad to meet a 21-year-old student who drinks more tea than beer! :D I have on occasion used a tea infuser that’s made to fit in a mug (use a saucer as a lid for the mug), but I usually like to have a couple of cups so it just makes more sense to make a small pot. A couple of my English friends even–and I know this is shocking, and I can’t recommend it–heat a mug of water in the microwave! Do stay with the tea, Chris, and make your original liver last a lifetime!

  4. Jean | Delightful Repast says

    Judy, thanks for popping over to Smitten by Britain for my guest post. The Britophile is a hoot, isn’t she! So glad I could contribute to your tea education! I like Yorkshire Gold, too. It is a strong tea, one for which you’ll want to use 10 ounces of water per level teaspoon. I think you’ll find the loose teas are often better than the teabags from the same company. Not always the case–there are some high quality teabags out there–but often. Be sure to let me know when you get some loose tea.

    • Jean | Delightful Repast says

      That’s true, Louise. Those who like to add a lot of milk to their tea can definitely use that extra “one for the pot.” (I love Yorkshire! My grandfather is from there.)

  5. says

    Excellent article. In England most folks like a good strong cuppa. Real tea junkies often say they like to be able to stand the spoon up in it for it to be the right strength. This is, I hasten to add, metaphorically speaking. But it gives an idea of the colour it should be once brewed. Long live the great British cuppa. Oh, now that reminds me …

  6. Bobby D says

    There’s nothing better than a cuppa, (rosie lee to my Cockney mates) especially when it’s done properly. As a mancunian I’m bring all my own tea by to NY from home, TYphoo or Yorkshire Gold. One more tip to any American buying English branded tea in their local supermarket, always look to see where the tea was imported from, packaged or blended. If its say England or Canada you’re ok, but if it was blended or packaged anywhere else then stop right there. That stuff is the dregs from the floor, mainly dust with a dash of tea for flavour, don’t waste your money.
    Great article

  7. Roberta says

    I am an American who, unfortunately, has yet to visit England. I grew up in the south where we drink a lot of sweet iced tea (black and orange pekoe), and I was introduced to hot tea in Kuwait while on duty in the United States Air Force. I have just purchased my first tea set and would like to thank you for this informaton, as I would like to begin having tea with my two sons, and would like to introduce it to my friends as well. I feel that there is something special about enjoying a good cup of tea, alone or with others; to pause and enjoy life for a while, that is grossly lacking on this side of the pond. I’m looking forward to this becoming a tradition in my household! Thank you!

    • Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says

      How I wish I’d seen Roberta’s comment in time to respond–it’s impossible to keep up with comments on multiple guest posts. It warms my heart to hear of someone starting a tradition of tea in her household.

  8. Michelle says

    I have to serve tea to 25 British women tomorrow. What do I do?! I think the church only has PG tips bags. I’m starting to panic!

  9. Janet says

    As an Englishwoman abroad I would like to comment how tea should be made (IMHO)! A tea bag is hopeless, it contains far too much tea so you have to remove it too soon from the cup or pot, to stop it from getting too strong. Use an infuser with very few tea leaves in it in a cup and pour BOILING water over it and leave for five minutes. This way it will bring out the true flavor of the tea and not be too strong. A very small amount of milk or lemon can be added. If you are making a pot, do the same as above, with half the tea leaves you would expect to use. I don’t think that warming the pot makes much difference. (I Hate Tea Bags!!)

    • Bonglecat says

      Oh now that is a knotty problem. M.I.F. or M.I.L. according to Nancy Mitford in her U and Non-U artcle (U=UpperClass) this illustrates where you are Upper Class or Working Class. Milk in First is Working Class and Milk in Last is Upper Class, but I’m not sure why?!?!?

  10. Tara says

    I too fancy myself a tea snob (frankly I am a snob of tea, coffee, food, beer… pretty much anything for ingestion lol) and since I have been known to down a whole pot of tea myself in a sitting, I prefer to make mine in a gravity-strain brew pot and then strain it into my ceramic pot to keep warm as I drink.

    Best gadget I have ever purchased http://www.adagio.com/teaware/ingenuiTEA_teapot.html

  11. says

    Tea tastes different over in the UK. I made the trip for the first time last year and had a great time. I also loved the tea everywhere (except Shannon Airport in Ireland). Every place we ate had wonderful tea. I didn’t even drink coffee the entire time I was there. BTW over in Ireland and the UK they would bring a stainless steal tea pot to the table, but it was 2 cups worth of tea each time, not the smaller version in the picture.

    I should say that my father was first generation Irish American and I grew up drinking tea (he seldom drank coffee) but all we could afford back then was Lipton tea bags, so that’s what I knew. I personally love loose leaf Darjeeling tea and make it in a glass tea pot. It’s good, but still there is a mellowness to tea made over in the UK that I can’t seem to duplicate here. Must be the water :)

  12. Barbara says

    I understand from other British authorities, that you must always add the milk before pouring the tea into the cup. It has partly to do with using fine china and pouring boiling liquid into it but apparently affects the final taste of the tea, as well.

  13. Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says

    Michelle, Janet, Alice, Tara, Teresa, Marsha, Barbara — Thank you all for your comments! I’m having a cup of Earl Grey right now.

  14. Liam says

    My wife and I, since we have retired, always have elevenses and afternoon tea when we can. We have found that tea infusers work especially well, although without the ceremony of “pot to kettle” and the use of “Mum’s china.” We do use the tea pot when we get out the good china. English Breakfast tea is our favourite.

  15. Elizabeth Wolfe says

    As a fellow Brit, now living in the States, thank you for setting the record straight! There’s nothing I detest more than lukewarm water in those little stainless restaurant teapots with some perfumey tea bag of undetermined origin trying to act like “real tea”! I’ve drunk tea as far back as I can remember and now that my mum has passed away, I try to keep the tradition going with my daughters. Every Christmas evening we have a little tea ceremony in honor of my mother and grandmother, complete with the teacups from my great grandmother’s tea set.
    Cheers!

    • Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says

      Elizabeth, yes, we *must* keep the tradition alive! And your annual tea ceremony with your daughters is truly wonderful. Keep it up!

  16. QueenieFrancie says

    The best cuppa I ever had was in a little tea shop in Litchfield. The teapot was adorable, the cups were lovely and the tea was delicious and stayed hot throughout my visit. I am sorry I cannot recall the name of the shop. Once I returned home, with plenty of tea leaves in brightly colored tins and a brand new Brown Betty, I attempted to make tea “the proper way.” I even used my tea cozy to keep the pot warm but I must say, after all these years of treating myself to a nice afternoon cup of tea, the successive cups are too cool. I began by rinsing the pot with warm water but now I fill the teapot with hot water and let it sit a bit before filling with tea and fresh water. It still cools down so quickly, I don’t understand it. Help?

    • Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says

      QueenieFrancie, so sorry for the late reply. (It is impossible for a blogger to keep up with guest posts on other sites, I’m afraid; but I always respond quickly to comments on my own site.) To answer your question: There are little sterno-type warmers made to put under a teapot. But I can’t tell you how well they work because I never have this problem. You see, I finish a pot so quickly, it doesn’t have time to cool off! Everyone remarks that I must have an asbestos mouth because I can gulp that first blistering hot cup right down!

  17. says

    I have to say the art of getting a good glass of ice tea in England is close to impossible. Being from the South we like our ice tea. Any time I was in England and would ask for ice tea I would get a little silver container of hot tea and a glass with about two small ice cubes.

    • Melissa says

      Ha,ha. It was completely non-existent when I was in England 25 years ago but you can find it at the odd place now. If I remember correctly, Starbucks is one place.

    • Bonglecat says

      I think that’s because Ice-Tea is just so Un-English darling!?!?!?? LOL I did try a can of Lipton Ice Tea once and it made me gag, so I would love to try some homemade as I’m sure it would be better.

    • Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says

      Sue, many don’t, that’s for sure! So I try to educate them! Whenever tea served to me in a public place is not up to par, I like to offer “helpful hints.”

  18. Michael says

    I like my tea strong too and hate it when it’s weak. I always use either Yorkshire Gold or Twinings English Breakfast. I must drink at least eight mugs per day. I don’t use cups lol. The kettle never gets a chance to go cold where I am.

  19. Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says

    Michael, your comment could have been written by me! Though I *do* like a nice thin cup and saucer, I occasionally use an infuser basket in a mug.

  20. Bonglecat says

    In respect of water temperature for tea I read recently that it all depends on the colour of the tea, starting with white tea which needs the lowest temperature around 80c, the green tea 90c and finally black tea which should be as close to boiling as possible around 98c.

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