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The correct way to make tea

Top London hotels show how it’s made to perfection

By George Hobica, Tribune News Service
Published: April 13, 2024, 6:02am
3 Photos
Afternoon tea at London;s Savoy Hotel begins at &uml;&pound;80 ($100) per person. The tea is as good as the scones and crustless sandwiches.
Afternoon tea at London;s Savoy Hotel begins at ¨£80 ($100) per person. The tea is as good as the scones and crustless sandwiches. (The Savoy Hotel) Photo Gallery

Afternoon tea in London — whether at a posh hotel such as the Ritz or the Savoy or in a department store like Harrods or Fortnum & Mason — is a special occasion treat for visitors and locals alike. It’s not an inexpensive affair, as you’ll be sitting in elegant surroundings, perhaps dressed up a bit. The freshly baked scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, the traditional dainty crustless sandwiches, the cakes and pastries are so popular at some venues that you’ll need to book well in advance.

But what about the tea itself?

Claire Ptak, a Californian now living in London where she writes cookbooks and owns a celebrity-endorsed cake shop, has this to say about afternoon tea at one of London’s luxury hotels: “I will always associate England with tea. The Ritz is a magical experience, having all these little things brought to you. The tea itself is not the most ‘flavour-forward.’”

Amen to that. Most people who brew tea, whether at home or as part of their job, don’t know how to extract full flavor from tea leaves. Indeed, tea has been neglected compared to other popular beverages. We have craft beer, craft coffee and craft cocktails — but where’s the craft tea?

Perhaps it’s due to bad tea advice, which can be found wherever you look.

Here’s an example from Yorkshire Tea, a popular supermarket brand in the U.K.: “Treat your water kindly. Run the tap a little so the water’s nicely aerated, and only boil it once to keep the oxygen level up. Add tea and water. Pop a tea bag into your mug, pour over the hot water and stir briefly. Wait patiently.”

Or this top entry from Reddit, the social news forum: “Teabag in cup. Pour hot water over. Leave for 2 minutes. Remove tea bag.”

Or this from Siri, Apple’s voice-activated digital assistant, quoting the Food Network: “Pour one tablespoon of tea leaves into a teapot for two six-ounce servings. Pour boiling water over the tea leaves and allow to brew 3-5 minutes.”

Much of this is simply wrong if you want a great cup of tea.

How to make tea perfect

The good news: Several London hotels that serve afternoon tea recognized that their tea did not match the quality of the scones and fancy sandwiches and decided to do something about it.

Let’s start with the basics. Traditionally, when you order black tea in London, several items will come to your table: a teapot with tea leaves already brewing, sugar and milk, a tea strainer sitting in its holder, and a second pot of hot water for a second or third infusion. You have no idea how long the tea has been in contact with the water by the time it reaches you (it matters). You pour a cup through the strainer and the rest of the water sits in the pot getting stronger and more bitter by the minute. Meanwhile the water in the second pot has gone cold, so it’s useless.

Recently, I went back to London and ordered a pot of tea at my hotel, the new 199-room BoTree in the Marlyebone neighborhood.

The only thing that arrived at my table was a perfectly brewed pot of tea, with the brewing already stopped in the pantry. No tea leaves in sight, no straining.

I went back to the pantry and saw a barista making pots of tea, timing each brew precisely to two minutes. He made the tea in one pot and transferred the brew into a second one, the one that arrived at table.

That’s how you make a decent cup of tea.

But it’s not the whole story.

To find out more, I visited several London hotels I had heard were improving their tea service. I spoke to staff and to their tea purveyors.

One hotel with good tea, the boutique Milestone in Kensington, referred me to their tea guy, Dananjaya Silva, who is 36 and the third-generation proprietor of Ceylon- and London-based PMD Tea. I pumped him with questions about what makes a good cup of tea.

“Tea is king,” he told me when we met, “but water is god. A cup of our tea served in Edinburgh will not taste the same in London, all else being equal. That’s because London water is very hard while Edinburgh’s is softer. The softer the water, the better the tea.”

  • First tip: Use soft water or filter it

If your tap water has a lot of chlorine or minerals such as calcium, or just isn’t that great, use a neutral-tasting bottled water or filter it.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that we are talking about making only black tea here, not green, blue or herbal. Different rules apply for those.

  • Second tip: Do not boil the water

Claridge’s and several other top London hotels, I soon discovered, get their tea from London’s Rare Tea Company, so I reached out to founder and tea expert Henrietta Lovell. Contrary to the “BS” advice online, she told me, “Whatever water you choose, do not boil tea water. Heat it to just boiling, around 95 C (203 F).” That’s because boiling removes oxygen and oxygen is part of what makes water taste good. As Lovell explained, “Ever wonder what those bubbles are when you boil water? It’s oxygen escaping.”

  • Third tip: Time the brewing to the minute. No “waiting patiently” nonsense

Lovell advises that most of the best flavor from black tea is extracted in the first 90 seconds, and one should never let the leaves steep for more than 3 minutes. “After that you get bitter tannins, although if you’re adding milk it’s OK to brew up a bit longer.” Set a timer because it’s easy to get distracted while you wait.

But do time it please. The tea connoisseurs I interviewed agreed that overbrewing is a sin. PMD’s Silva: “Steeping time must be monitored by the minute and the tea leaves must be removed after they’ve done their job!”

Just before the COVID shutdowns, the famous Savoy Hotel sent staff to “tea school,” a four-hour training program offered by its tea merchant, Jing Tea, and committed to delivering tea with all brewing finished in the pantry rather than at the table. Manager Thomas Wickens told me when I sat down with him in the hotel’s Thames Foyer that overbrewing tea “is not acceptable. It’s like serving a burnt steak. It’s insulting to the palate.”

Today, however, the Savoy has gone back to the traditional way of serving tea. I imagine that it’s more labor-intensive to have staff time the brewing rather than leaving it to guests to monitor. Mr. Wickens is no longer with the Savoy.

  • Fourth tip: Carefully measure the tea leaves and the water

I also learned that the ideal ratio of black tea to volume of water is about 2 to 3 grams of tea, basically a level teaspoon, to about ²/3 cup of water—or what the average tea cup holds Because the leaf size can vary between types of tea, true believers use a scale to weigh the leaves.

  • Fifth tip: The type of teapot and cup matters

Cast iron? Silver-plate? Bone china? At the Conrad, where servers are encouraged to do a taste test before delivering the finished product, only glass tea pots (from Bodum) are now used. “Silver might look posh, but the metal might react with the tea’s flavor,” Manager Luigi Volpe told me. “Plus glass shows the tea’s color.”

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PMD’s Silva advises against using a teapot with a built-in mesh strainer. Tea wants to be free, he insists, so he recommends putting the leaves directly in the pot and stirring both immediately when adding water and then just before pouring. Some experts even think the cup you drink from matters. According to Mariage Frères, a Paris-based tea merchant with an outpost in London’s Covent Garden, in the 8th sentury the celebrated Chinese poet Lu Yu wrote that to enjoy really delicious tea a porcelain cup should be used, preferably beside a lily pond in the company of desirable women or gentlemen.

Tastes do vary, but just as a fine wine may not live up to its full potential when drunk from a mug, the same can be said of fine teas.

  • Sixth tip: Let’s not forget the tea leaves

Start with good-quality loose leaf tea, not “industrial” tea bags, from a reputable source such as those already mentioned, all of which do international mail order. Store it in a cool, dry place in a sealed container. At the Savoy, leaves are kept in the fridge.

“Tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation and the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea.” The author of “1984” and “Animal Farm” exaggerates, but clearly there is a right way and lots of wrong ways to make good tea. I took what I learned in London and put it into practice when I returned to New York. Finally, a good cup of tea at home.

How to make black tea

  • 1. Heat water to about 203 degrees, preferably a soft pH neutral water like Evian. You can also filter tap water. Never boil the water. Use a kitchen thermometer, a temperature-adjustable electric tea kettle or just boil to where the water starts to simmer.
  • 2. Add one teaspoon of tea for every 2/3 cup of water into a preheated pot.
  • 3. Set a timer. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the brewing time; anywhere from 90 seconds to 3 minutes will do.
  • 4. Strain don’t contain. Do not use a tea ball or other mesh device to hold the leaves. Give them a stir. Strain the tea into cups or another vessel to stop the brewing. But definitely stop the brewing process at 3 minutes unless you prefer tannins or are using milk and sugar, which can counteract any bitterness.
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