George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens’ Ironclad Rules for Making a Good Cup of Tea


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.…

Relat­ed Con­tent

10 Gold­en Rules for Mak­ing the Per­fect Cup of Tea (1941)

10 Essen­tial Tips for Mak­ing Great Cof­fee at Home

Hon­oré de Balzac Writes About “The Plea­sures and Pains of Cof­fee,” and His Epic Cof­fee Addic­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Van says:

    I just recent­ly read this arti­cle:

    So, does any­one do it right?

    I love my tea (and cof­fee) strong (it may be a Maine thing), so I prob­a­bly steep the tea longer than even Mr. Hitchens or Mr. Orwell would rec­om­mend.

  • Van says:

    And no sug­ar, no cream, please!

  • carolesue says:

    Dump tea in Boston Har­bor. Stir until sat­u­rat­ed.

  • Andrew says:

    A tiny, tiny pinch of salt can coun­ter­act the bit­ter­ness and astrin­gency of tea tan­nins. Try it with cof­fee and fruits like water­mel­on. Though, one might avoid telling the din­ner guests. I’d rather dis­cuss pol­i­tics, reli­gion, abor­tion, and the stock mar­ket than tell my guests what blas­phe­my I’ve done with their tea.

  • perry says:

    Tea should be strong enough so with milk its colour is brick red- and it always tastes bet­ter out of a porce­lain cup.

  • JZ says:

    I like this, but I dis­agree with the “first­ly” because I’ve been liv­ing in Asia (Chi­na & Tai­wan) for 1.5 yrs and there are many enjoy­able teas.

    Peo­ple out here also use earth­en­ware pots, but there are dif­fer­ent rou­tines that at times are equal­ly valid. Here’s a cou­ple exam­ples of what I’ve expe­ri­enced at “tea hous­es” (not chain-stores):

    1. Boil­ing water is kept on-tap to add to small pots of tea
    2. A small pot is used with small cups that stay hot because of the small amount pre­pared
    3. New tea is rinsed out with hot water before drink­ing
    3. On rare occa­sions, water that is cool­er than boil­ing water is used for spe­cial types of tea
    4. I’ve nev­er seen Asians use milk or sug­ar


  • James Higham says:

    He has it wrong about Rus­sia. Tea is drunk there minus milk [unless, say, Tatar] and with “con­feti” or sweets to one side. The oth­er vari­ant is “varenye” on the tea­spoon. It’s very fruity jam but jam is seen as some­thing else.

  • Tom H says:

    My recent update of Orwell’s rules can be found here —

    Feel free to pitch in.

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