It’s not that I don’t appreciate good coffee—I consider it a delicacy. But at the end and the beginning of the day, coffee mostly functions as a caffeine delivery system. But not tea. Tea must be savored, and it must be good. Americans’ enthusiasm for tea does not come naturally. What passes for tea in the U.S. is best described by Christopher Hitchens as “a cup or pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate.” (See his January 2011 piece in Slate called “How to Make a Decent Cup of Tea.”) If this doesn’t sound wrong, he elaborates, setting up his endorsement of George Orwell’s methodical instructions for proper tea:
Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter.
I like Jimmy Carter. I haven’t read his memoirs, and this does indeed sound awful. And before I had learned anything at all about drinking tea, it was all I knew. I tried. I cribbed a few notes here and there, wrote in tea shops, read the rough-hewn formalism of Sen no Rikyu, and looked to the East. I did not look to Britain and her former Commonwealth.
Perhaps I should. George Orwell would probably say so. Hitchens as well, though they don’t perfectly agree with each other. “Tea,” wrote Orwell in his famous 1946 essay “A Nice Cup of Tea,” “is one of the mainstays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but… the manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.” The only disagreement Hitchens musters against Orwell is that some of his rules, “(always use Indian or Ceylonese—i.e. Sri Lankan—tea; make tea only in small quantities; avoid silverware pots) may be considered optional or outmoded.”
Many old restraints may be loosened. But make no mistake, for Hitchens, as for Orwell, making a good cup of tea is not about mindfulness, patience, impermanence, or meditation. It is about rules. Orwell had 11. The “essential ones are easily committed to memory, and they are simple to put into practice.” What are they? Hitchens has his own succinct paraphrase, which you can read over at Slate. Orwell’s rather baroque list we reprint, in part, below for your edification. Read the complete essay here. Hitchens recommends you straighten out your next barista on some tea essentials. Imagine, however, presenting such an unfortunate person with this list of demands:
- First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it….
- Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot…. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse….
- Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
- 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…. I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes….
- Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea….
- Sixthly, one 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….
- 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….
- 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…
- 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 tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt….