Although tea appears to be simple, it is not. One bush, Camelia sinensis, gets put in hot water and then we drink it. Not so! Which is why we are travelling with the side mission of all things tea. And the best place to start our tea-tasting travels? The United Kingdom. The colonialists. The people who smuggled a bush out of China and named it (in Latin) Camelia from China. The most famous tea drinkers in the world (not to be confused with growers, we should be clear).
Let's start with the standard way to make a cuppa. This is the way a textbook would describe it if there were a textbook on such things.
The Classic British Cup of Tea:
Pour boiling water over the tea bag in your mug. If the water has already boiled, you're lost - the oxygen has left the water and you'll be drinking something terrible. No one can taste a difference, but you'll know that what you've made is unacceptable and this dark secret will forever live inside you.
If you're using a tea pot, rinse the tea pot with some of the boiling water and then quickly dump it down the drain. Each second you waste doing this is more lost oxygen from your already-boiled water - hurry man! Quickly add a tea bag for each drinker plus one for the pot. Add your water. Put on the lid. Put on the tea cosy.* Exhale.
* On the topic of tea cosies, they are a thing: an insulated envelope specially designed to insulate a teapot, and quite often knitted. Ours is of the quilted variety and says ‘London 2012’ on it.
If you are using a mug, stir the bag until it seems like the right colour. Remove said bag. Add milk to varying degrees. In the pot, good luck - you have to hope you have judged the colour correctly, because weak, watery tea will result in silent disappointment from your fellow tea drinkers, as you will have let them down quite irrevocably.
What tea should you use? This now becomes a class and regional variation. Don't jump ahead - I'll get to it.
The Foxhollow Brew:
This is the tea to keep you going out in the cold when selling Christmas trees to a shivering public. There are two variations:
Black tea: Use ASDA own-brand black tea, preferably purchased in bulk. PG Tips, Tetley or other powdered black tea will also suffice, though they are costlier and, when making 10+ cups a day, cost is a significant factor. This tea is always made in a mug and is always strong strong strong. With only a drop of milk, the tannins will sit in your mouth for hours after drinking. Ideally, the tea bag will be squeezed out and left on the counter, to be later put in the compost bucket. There is no time and the counter is sturdy! A delicious cup.
Green tea: The most common variants are Tetley green with mango, green with lemon, green with mint and simply green. Pour boiling water over bag, stir, never remove. Preferably drink tepid when the liquor is strong enough to be smelled across the room. The author has never tasted this due to an instinctual aversion, but the author’s husband is a fan.
The Glenrothes Cuppa:
A mug of this will keep you going for a few hours before crushing deadlines require another cup. Must be made from Scottish Breakfast Blend, bags of which can be purchased by the 1000 in black and gold boxes. Likewise, must be a strong liquor with minimal milk and zero room for weak flavour. Flavour is full-on and unapologetic.
Note: Do not replace the SBB with Darjeeling; this can lead friends to question one’s reliability.
The Grey Hereford:
Only Earl Grey will do, and the kettle will dole out mug-size doses of just-boiled water. Milk is added, to the chagrin of some observers.* Brand is also critical - Twinings is the go-to, Tesco's is rubbish (even their ‘finest’ selection), Waitrose will do in a pinch. Do not reuse bags, obviously, and a teapot is recommended for more than two cups. There is a back-up kettle for these gatherings of three or more. Beware, though – the tea pot is made entirely of metal, so the designated tea-maker will end up with scalds post-brewing. There are two large ceramic pots on the shelf, but they are technically coffee pots and so their usage is out of the question. (And this is a question only an American would blunderingly ask.)
* The author’s husband being one of them.
The Glen View Art Form:
This is where things get technical. This is where people study for years before completing their apprenticeship. This is serious.*
Step 1: Boil full, 1.7 litre kettle. Whilst boiling, prepare mugs (i.e. get them out of the cupboard). Open containers holding tea bags (note plural). Let's assume four drinkers.
Step 2: Pour some boiled water in kettle. Swish it about, dump it out. Add two Twinings Earl Grey tea bags, add one PG Tips tea bag. Pour in hot water. Stir counter-clockwise two times and immediately put on lid. Face the teapot northwest.
Step 3: Cover with tea cosy (or tea towel in a pinch). Fetch milk from fridge, pour a little-finger-depth of milk into each mug. Return milk to fridge. Once three minutes from initial stirring has passed...
Step 4: Remove tea cosy. Carry teapot in one hand and two mugs in the other hand over to the sink, pour until each mug is 3/4 full. Tea will drip into the sink as teapot is not designed for its secondary function (pouring). Repeat until all mugs are 3/4 full. Liquor should be quite dark and teapot should be empty.
Step 5: Top up all mugs with remaining hot water from kettle. Add sugar to the cups of those unusual guests who do not treat their bodies as temples, and remember which mugs are which.
*Do not attempt if you require tea in under ten minutes.
The St Albans:
Decaf black tea is the name of the game here. Assam is the type, and it gives a deep brown colour with less of a punch. Make it strong, then add soy, almond or hazelnut 'milk' to change the flavour and create a new drink. Still definitely functions as 'tea', but does not tick the traditional boxes.
Bonus round: Brew very strong black tea (not decaf), let cool to warm or room temperature. Pour into mason jar or large plastic container that you can seal, and that also already contains a scobi.** Wait seven days, then drink and feel healthy. Alternatively, wait ten days and discard.
** Don’t Google this immediately before or after a meal.
The Aldershot Alternative:
Visit friends who have other friends who like tea. When this other friend is invited, they will bring a nice packet of loose leaf Assam, and then all that is required is teapot and strainer. Fill strainer with around four teaspoons of tea leaves, pour over boiling water. This tea may of course be consumed with milk, but has enough lightness and complexity that milk is not required for palatability. Ensure friend forgets packet when they leave and then finish packet. If enough leaves are used for the original pot, a second brewing is suggested (preferably served sans milk).
Allocate space in your carry-on bags to packets of own tea, and two metal strainers ideally suited for light travelling. Although bullying and harassment will occur, the flavour and self-satisfaction make this technique worthwhile. Personally tested; highly recommended despite the risk to personal safety.