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Who makes the best cup of tea: George Orwell or Douglas Adams?

The Covered Market in Oxford is simultaneously cheap shoe shop gaudy, and hipsterific. I’m swathed in a gamey fug of meat smells, contained by the low ceiling. Each turn around a corner brings me a fresh sight of hanging flesh; that is, if I’m lucky enough not to to be blinded by a swinging rabbit carcass. If it weren’t for the prices, and the bubbling pockets of tourists, you could be stepping into almost any England of the last 100 years.

Cardews tea merchants opened in 1948 and moved into the market just under 20 years later, and the layout can hardly have changed: tins of tea and jars of coffee beans sit on the dark wood shelves, the shelves sit behind a counter and scales sit on it. I’m here to buy tea, and I have very little idea what I’m doing.

Luckily, on the wall near my head as I queue, there is a tariff that gives prices for different weights of tea. I pick the lowest unembarrassing order and, after embarrassing myself anyway by having to ask for an explanation of the different grades of tea leaf (finer grades make stronger tea, the young assistant told me), tuck two folded and taped white bags into my bag.

Buying a packet of tea, across a counter, in a market feels properly English somehow. Or that may just be the uncomfortable feeling from having to have any encounter where you aren’t totally sure of your exact rank in society. I’m here because I’m doing what George Orwell told me to do. Orwell, in his 1946 essay A Nice Cup of Tea, is very firm on using leaves and is very firm that these leaves must be free to be shaken around the pot (an earthenware pot, firm of course) - and he’s equally clear on the provenance: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea”, he says. So that’s what I got, along with a bag containing his second choice - Ceylonese leaves, which in the tea world didn’t change to being Sri Lankan until 1972.

Tea in Britain has been a tale of empire and class, ever since the 17 century when Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, popularised it and the East India Company began to import tea into Britain. Doctor Johnson loved the stuff and was reported to drink up to 16 cups in a session, but his contemporary Jonas Hanway published an essay that called on tea drinking to be “considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation”.

So, while it might surprise us that Orwell thought it necessary to give us his “eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden”, he was following both a grand literary tradition and also a British tradition of thinking it necessary to codify and control such a simple action. In 1941, the Empire Tea Bureau paid for a short film called Tea Making Tips in which one stilted and prim lady of indeterminate age tells another: “There’s no great secret to making good tea, but some people get careless.” It has six golden rules and finishes by throwing to a comedy working class lady, “And what do you say, mum?” That film was aimed at those who needed to keep the wartime effort stoked with hot wet refreshment on an industrial scale; George and I are after something more homely. But do I follow the Orwell method, or should I take a more modern approach and take the advice of Hitchhiker’s Guide genius Douglas Adams, who set out a similar, but crucially different, set of rules in the 1990s?

Where Orwell is traditional and talks about loose leaves and country of origin, Adams is much more rooted in his time - the 1950s, at least when tea bags were first released in the UK by Tetley. “Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea”, is his predictably quotidian, upper middle class solution. I got mine from Tesco in the end, as the only M&S near me is attached to a petrol station in Didcot, but most people who say they shop at Marks or Waitrose really sneak to Lidl when you’re not looking.

Suitably armed, I repaired to my kitchen, which was to become my laboratory. And I was to stay there until the end of the experiment: there and in the lounge drinking cup after cup, and also popping to the toilet (yes, it turns out that the 17th cup of tea is a diuretic). As well as the rigours of science and all forms of confirmation bias I was battling one great problem: that the 17th cup of tea never tastes as good as the first.

The first was made to Orwell’s recipe: pot warmed on the hob, six teaspoons of Indian tea directly into the pot, pot taken to kettle and water at boiling point poured in, a shake and you’re ready to pour. It’s strong, chewy, you can feel it coating your teeth as you drink. The earthy leaves that I spooned into the pot leave an infusion that is tangy and fortified without being stewed.

Adam’s Earl Grey (three bags, boiling water as quickly as you can into the pre-warmed pot, stand for two or three minutes and then pour it into a cup) fills the mouth with a taste of lemons. I don’t really like it. In any real sense the experiment can declare a winner.

The pot is a crucial stage in both of these methods: the mixing of the brew in a separate place to the cup (and as there was no other advice here I chose Orwell’s “cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type” for all tests) does seem to make a difference. The Indian tea is nicer, to my thoughts, than the Ceylon; it seems to produce fewer leaves in the mouth (George is against tea strainers). With milk is preferable to without.

Leaves versus bags, and blends can all be a matter of time and taste but we do find one fundamental difference: Douglas says milk in first, George has a very good reason why it should be last. “My own argument is unanswerable […] by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk”.

Both are aware of the societal pressure to put milk in last; Adams notes that “social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics” and, as he would probably have considered himself an iconoclast, it’s no surprise that he wants to go against the old order.

In one of the later series of 50s-set British sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, the well-to-do parents of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster referred to his sometime intended bride Gladys as “milk in first”, meaning that she wasn’t of sufficient breeding to marry into the family. I’d never heard the phrase and didn’t have a clue what it meant, I don’t think at the age of 10 I’d given any thought to tea production and class. I’ve made up for that now.

It seems that the question is the ultimate “U and non-U” signifier, and one that doesn’t need language to define it. Alan SC Ross, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, coined the terms U and non-U in a 1954 article on the differences that social class makes in English language usage - U standing for upper class and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes. As a working class lad I wasn’t at the forefront of this battleground, but living in Oxford one can see these interplays everywhere. Should I become a “milk in last”?

Nancy Mitford (one of the nice Mitfords) took up the usage in an essay, The English Aristocracy, and in a letter to Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather milk in first” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Mitford, it seems, rather meant the whole thing as a joke, but others - including the family of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster - obviously did not.

If I were to find an answer, the Dorchester hotel seemed to be the place to get it. One can book a champagne afternoon tea for two on the balcony for a little over £100, so I did.

We sat on an interior balcony, overlooking the reception where wealthy Russians flow as they check in and out. A little unsure of what to do, we were shown the menu of “specially selected grand and rare teas served in our vintage Minton china set”. I chose an Assam tea after Orwell, while my partner plumped for the blend that Samuel Johnson was a 16-cup fan of. Our waiter was every bit his part in the empire charade: prim, neat, knowledgeable and a foreign national led to kowtow to traditions of Englishness thanks to the still-existing economic hegemony.

At the Dorchester, they put the milk in last. But maybe, like a stopped clock, the U were right on this one. I needed more help, and luckily I found some: back in Oxfordshire. Ross Meredith is a physicist who has studied the science of tea making. He told me: “As the milk makes contact with the hot fluid, isolated pockets of milk would reach a local equilibrium temperature above scalding point — the milk proteins will become denatured — before being cooled to the net temperature in the cup. This leads to a cup with a noticeably heavier taste.”

OK.

“This effect can be avoided by pouring the milk in first, as rather than causing parts of the milk to reach the final temperature of the mix ‘from above’, the milk is warmed to the final temperature from below, as the hot tea is gradually added.”

Brilliant, an answer.

“But whether that affects the taste is up to the individual.”

Damn.

Ross, perhaps sensing my disappointment, alerts me to ISO Standard 3103: Tea — Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests. Last reviewed in 2013, this sets out the internationally recognised method for making a cuppa. He tells me: “It’s intended to standardise the material ‘tea’ for scientific/nutritional research rather than, say, for cafés to be judged, but you can be sure that any café I run conforms to it.”

And it says: “If the test involves milk, then it is added before pouring the infused tea”. It feels wonderful to be right, even if I’m never going to be considered socially correct.

Tea, as the Empire Tea Board would tell you, is ‘the cup that cheers”. Orwell said we should “feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it”. Douglas Adams thought it worth educating Americans that the British were not “generally clueless about hot stimulants”. It’s wonderful.

Fancy a brew? Orwell-style, with the addition of a tea strainer? Of course you do.

References:

Orwell (1942, Evening Standard) A Nice Cup of Tea

Adams (1999, H2G2) Tea

Empire Tea Board (1941) Tea Making Tips

ISO 3103: Tea - Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests

Hi de Hi! “Wedding Bells” (1987)

Picture (c) Ari Moore

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