Tea is better than coffee. Let’s just get that out of the way before we start. ManyMost ALL British people think this. Even those who say the exact opposite agree really, they’re just trying to be provocative and confrontational due to consuming too much caffeine. Yes, it may look like pretty much every other building you come across these days is a Starbucks, but tea is still more popular. Tea doesn’t need a global empire shoving it in people’s faces. Not after the last one, anyway.
The above paragraph is obviously exaggerated for comic effect (but only slightly), but it can’t be underestimated how important tea is to many people in Britain (and beyond of course). And because it’s so important, how it’s made becomes a serious issue. How long you leave the tea to brew, whether to put sugar in, what type of tea to use, and perhaps the biggest cause of disputes: if you put milk in your tea (which you should) do you put it in the cup before or after the boiling water?
Many arguments have been had about this. If anything is going to kick off another civil war in the UK, it is probably going to be this.
What most people don’t know is that, over 11 years ago, scientists settled this debate. Supposedly.
To test the recipe for the perfect cup of tea put forward in 1946 by George Orwell himself, Dr Stapley of Loughborough University established that putting the milk in after the boiling water is incorrect, as it causes the milk to heat unevenly (as opposed to pouring the water on top of it). This uneven heating of the milk causes the proteins in it to denature, meaning they lose their structure and “clump”, affecting the taste and contributing to that skin you get on the top. So when someone says they can tell if you put the milk in first or second in the tea you’ve made for them just by tasting it, turns out they probably can.
So that settles it then. Milk before water in tea. End of discussion. Science has spoken!
Except it hasn’t. As is always the case when you get science involved, it’s not that simple. For instance, if the tea bag is in the milk before the water, this will cool the water too quickly, affecting the brewing. So if you make the tea in a pot, fine. If you don’t, then that’s a whole other issue
As an aside, having been to America and sampling the weak tea made there, it must be stressed that the teabag should either be in a pot or the mug itself; it is not sufficient just for it to be in the same room.
Also, Stapley in his study said the denatured milk resulted in a less pleasant taste. But that’s a subjective opinion, not a measurable fact. Taste is incredibly subjective, to the point where even professionals like wine tasters can’t demonstrate any consistency under scientific scrutiny. So who’s to say this is any different? Why are denatured proteins automatically less delicious than intact ones? A fried mushroom is typically more enjoyable than a raw one, why should tea be any different?
[DISCLAIMER: The previous sentence refers to processes that cause edible proteins to denature. Please don’t try frying your tea; that makes no sense at all and will probably be awful.]
Other scientific pieces have weighed in on the correct way to make a cup of tea. Some are likely just PR guff, others are wonderfully rigorous. But, quite tellingly, they often differ significantly in their findings, because making tea has a lot more variables than many would think, given that it’s such a common behaviour.
And that’s another point: it’s not just the physical and chemical properties of the tea itself that influence our perception of it, but the procedure of making the tea can have an important role.
Wine tasting was previously mentioned, and how studies show the supposed experts are actually very inconsistent. But this isn’t to say they’re consciously making things up when they describe the wines they taste; they likely genuinely believe they can taste such subtle differences. But it’s the external factors (the appearance, the pouring, the consistency, the environment) that are very influential in determining the perception of it.
From the more pretentious end of the scale to the exact opposite, heroin addicts often develop needle fixation, whereby the very act of injecting causes a high-like response, as the act is directly linked to the effects of the drug. It can be so potent that those on methadone treatment (methadone being an oral substitute for heroin) sometimes spit out their dose in order to inject it and achieve a desirable high.
This isn’t to suggest that tea is as potent as wine or heroin (definitely not in the case of the latter), but it does emphasise how our preference for something is strongly influenced by the delivery, not just the biochemical effects it has.
People often drink tea at specific times or in specific contexts (eg the office tea break) and we quickly grow to expect these, especially if we’re the ones making it and develop our own pattern of doing so, based on our preferences. When someone deviates from this, it can explain the seemingly excessive reaction it provokes.
So, what’s the scientifically “correct” way to make tea? Well, if by correct you mean “method that makes it taste best”, then that’s actually something that incorporates a fantastic number of variables in order to produce a highly subjective result. So, scientifically speaking, the correct way to make tea is “however you like it best”.
Not that this will stop anyone from arguing about it, of course. Just read the inevitable comments.
Dean Burnett sat down with a cup of tea to write a different article but completely forgot what it was going to be about, so wrote about the first thing he saw. His lack of imagination is apparent on Twitter, @garwboy