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In U.K., making, drinking tea sacred art

By Jason Offutt

Americans love tea. Just don’t say this in front of someone from the U.K. or you may receive a sound scolding.
We consume 1.42 million pounds of tea every day. We drink more than 65 billion servings of tea every year, and since 2011 the United States has imported more tea than the U.K. Half our population, 156.9 million people, drinks tea each day.
Despite the size of the U.K. compared to the United States (it is slightly smaller than Colorado, with far fewer unemployed hipsters), people there consume roughly the same amount of tea as we do, which is a hell of a lot for 62.7 million people. But their love for tea has never been in question. Ours has, and frankly, still is. The problem lies in what Americans call tea.
About 85 percent of the tea we drink is iced tea, but you won’t find any of that in the U.K. London native and professed tea lover Sally Harrild told me chilled tea is an American thing. “No one here drinks it iced,” she said. As comfortable as I’ve become in London, at that moment I felt particularly foreign.
People in the United Kingdom drink their tea hot, and although many Americans do as well, we apparently don’t do it right.
Walk into any U.S. restaurant and ask for hot tea, and you’ll get a cup, a tea bag and a small metal pitcher of hot water. Pour the water into the cup, wait for the water to turn brown and drink. This is, of course, wrong.
“The water should be boiling,” Harrild said, then paused and shook her head. “The water has to be boiling.”
British author George Orwell, when he wasn’t busy writing books junior high school students would one day be forced to read, created a list of rules on making proper tea.
The list – which includes using a ceramic teapot, boiling over direct heat, drinking from a teacup, and avoiding sugar unless you’re a wimp – had two big rules:
1. Only use tea from India or Sri Lanka. not Chinese tea. “There is not much stimulation in it,” he wrote in his essay, A Nice Cup of Tea. “One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”
2. Make it strong. The tea needs to be as volatile as acid. “It’s too weak, damn it. I’m trying to lay the groundwork for democratic socialism here; I don’t have time for sleep – ever. Seriously, I’m tripping. Has anyone seen my car keys?” Orwell didn’t write this, I just assumed.
The second reason Americans can’t fix proper tea is that we don’t know what to put in it. Sugar? Lemon? Whiskey? Sure, but we hardly ever add milk. The British do and, like everything else, they enjoy arguing about it. “There’s some debate on the best way to put milk in tea,” Harrild said.
Does the milk go in the cup before the tea, or after? How did Orwell do it? Like Harrild, he added milk after.
When it comes to tea, I listen to the British. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan once conquered “the known world,” but that was like pushing the wimpy kid out of the sandbox compared to the British Empire’s colonial period. For 346 years the British owned a quarter of the entire world’s landmass and not only taught a lot of countries how to play cricket, they discovered every single thing there is to know about brewing a cup of tea.
I can’t tell you a thing about cricket, but I can now make a proper cup of Earl Grey.

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