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I have been searching the internet and I am getting conflicting information about how to prepare a "proper" cup of English tea. Some sites state that you absolutely never use a tea bag. They state that you are to use loose tea only and serve while pouring through a strainer. Some sites state that you absolutely only use a tea bag.

I am really interested in how the traditional English cup of tea is prepared. For example: How would Buckingham Palace prepare and serve tea to the King and his guests?

What is the traditional and "proper" way to prepare a cup of English tea?

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    I can see you getting 5 answers to this, all correct in the opinion of the poster, with vociferous arguments developing beneath each ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 5, 2023 at 12:57
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    I would immediately discount the must-use-a-tea-bag sites, given how tea bags are a relatively recent innovation.
    – chepner
    Jun 5, 2023 at 20:40
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    @Tetsujin yes, there'll be some from George Orwell, Douglas Adams and the International Organization for Standardization orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/…
    – StuperUser
    Jun 5, 2023 at 22:45
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    @StuperUser The ISO methodology is particularly interesting because so many people seem to misinterpret it. It’s not meant to make a good cup of tea, it’s meant to make a consistent cup of tea to allow sensor studies involving taste or smell to be scientifically reproducible and comparable. That said, it actually produces a decent cup of tea if you have good quality tea leaves (speaking from experience because in my circle of friends, openly using ISO methodology usually silences any and all arguments about what I’m doing). Jun 6, 2023 at 1:07
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    Tom Scott making the ISO standard youtube.com/watch?v=nAsrsMPftOI
    – Brondahl
    Jun 6, 2023 at 8:13

7 Answers 7

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There is no definitive way to make tea, it isn't like Italy's Accademia Italiana della Cucina declaring one recipe to be the official classic Bolognese ragu or Neapolitan pizza having the art of its making included on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage.

The way most Britons make tea has changed over the years. It used to be that most people used leaf tea, and tea bags have become increasingly popular to the degree that many regard that as the default means of making tea now.

Tea making styles have always been stratified by class, so what was 'proper' for the working classes was not what was 'proper' for upper classes. Working people appreciated a strongly tannic brew that was relatively high in caffeine and could stand up flavourfully to the addition of milk and sugar, the leisured classes valued a delicate tea to sip as part of genteel social gatherings, thus the robust Indian teas are broadly seen as less classy than china teas.

Such stratification still exists, some people expressing what amounts to an inverse snobbery in their avowal of the superiority of 'builders tea' by which they just mean a strong dark one, likely based on tea grown in Kenya or other African tea producing countries.

Personally, if i am making tea just for myself, I chuck the teabag in the mug, pour on boiling water and that's it. I don't add milk and I don't remove the bag. This grosses my partner out.

But sometimes, If I'm drinking Lapsang Souchon for example, I make it in a pot with a mesh insert, so I can pour it straight to a mug with no need to strain it.

If I'm making tea for several people I might make it in a pot, but with tea bags, then I can top the pot up with water after the first pour. There have been times in my life where all my tea was leaf tea and I had a silver strainer and I made a right palaver over it. Then I got over myself.

Some people like to make it the fancy way, some people have staff to make it the fancy way for them, but there is one thing on which almost all Britons will agree, the water goes onto the tea when it is freshly boiled. Any weird foreign habits about serving one a cup of hot water with a tea-bag in a sachet on the side are definitively NOT 'proper' British tea.

So you can pretty much make it any way you like, with that one proviso, and someone somewhere will be happy to call it proper British tea.

And Charles III is

Charles III, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King

he has no title of 'King of England'.

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    Indeed, the last King of England died in 1702.
    – TRiG
    Jun 6, 2023 at 20:28
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I can see you getting 5 answers to this, all correct in the opinion of the poster, with vociferous arguments developing beneath each ;)
So, let me try pre-empt them all.

Traditional, traditional, historical origins.
Loose tea; tea pot.
First warm the pot with about a cupful of boiling water & discard. One teaspoon* of loose leaves per cup, plus 'one for the pot'.
Add boiling water sufficient for your cup count. Allow to steep for four minutes before serving.

Upper class variation
Pour through a strainer into each cup and serve, to which each guest adds milk & sugar to taste.

Middle class variation
Milk goes in the cup first, poured by the server not the guest.
This is because very expensive porcelain is really not subject to the disparities of heat expansion of cheaper porcelain [china] which could crack if very hot tea was added, so the server pre-empts the possibility. This is also the origin of the 'teaspoon in cup as you pour' affectation.
One of the sad and sorry lessons of the British middle classes of the 20s to 50s.

Working class variation.
Milk last, probably straight from the bottle.
No-one could afford china, and cheap pottery [stoneware, ironware, earthenware etc] is immune to being cracked by a bit of hot water.

Tea first or milk first has been a source of heated debate for a century or more, though actually it was only the middle classes who were initially afflicted/affected.

Modern version.
Tea bag in mug. Then either…
a) Add boiling water. Steep 4 minutes, squeeze & discard the bag. Add milk & sugar.
b) Add milk, then boiling water. Steep & keep stirring, squeezing the bag repeatedly against the side of the mug as long as you have patience for, or until it looks about right.
Modern pottery, of course, is far less affected by heat as its Victorian counterpart, so the choice is now one of education/upbringing rather than necessity.

This is subject to the historical prejudices of the generation before last's grandparents' version of any of the above choices.
The debate continues, milk first or last.
The answer, as it has always been… is last, unless you have cheap china or no patience.

Let the comments begin ;)

*One thing to note is that originally, the teaspoon used to measure the tea was larger than the one for used by guests for sugar & used to stir. This may be the origin of the 'one for the pot' as we tend to only own one size of teaspoon these days.

Note 2: I'm referring to Indian 'black' tea, which only became popular in the UK around the end of the 19th century. Assam/Ceylon tea was only grown commercially for the first time in around 1870. Before that, there was Chinese green tea - which had almost vanished by around 1900 in the UK. This cultural and socio/econmic structure was therefore almost entirely developed and engendered in the first half of the 20th century; along with the rise of the middle classes.

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    If one is not actually in the UK, "tea bag" may not be sufficient to get proper English tea. American Lipton or Red Rose black tea bags are very different - brighter and less robust. You can get PG Tipps and Teatley bags in the US which I’ve been told are much more accurate in flavor to black tea consumed in the UK. A Dubliner I once knew (so, not English) said hot water in first then "dip, dip, then out" with the bag. Obviously that’s a weaker tea than a four minute steep, but not by a huge amount, 90% of the flavor and not bitter. She also would use bags a second time to save money. Jun 6, 2023 at 2:28
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    I always wondered why my tea sometimes tasted bitter, until I realized that (a) you must not let it steep for too long (4 min is fine for Assam, but Darjeeling is more like 2 min) and (b) you must not squeeze the tea bag (if you use one). If the result tastes too "watery", use more tea instead of squeezing.
    – Heinzi
    Jun 6, 2023 at 6:20
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    @ToddWilcox ‘Tetley’, we may drink tea as though it was mothers milk, but we don’t name it as though it were. (Also PG Tips rather than ‘Tipps’).
    – Spagirl
    Jun 6, 2023 at 6:37
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    General comments on comments: I have never had tea in the US, so I have no clue what they make over there. I don't know of anyone who owns a teapot, other than as an ornament. Few people in the UK have any idea as to what type of tea is in a tea bag. The majors, PG, Tetley, Yorkshire, say little to nothing about the blend. Twinings, who do, are appealing to a completely different audience. Think… PG, chimps; Tetley, cartoon Yorkshiremen; Yorkshire, Sean Bean; Twinings, Steven Fry.
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 6, 2023 at 6:55
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    Never ocurred to me that Wikipedia might have a dedicated article Tea in the United Kingdom which I won't have time to read today; my end-of-working-day here, dinner to make ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 6, 2023 at 18:12
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Other answers cover well the issues of whether you should use teabags or loose leaves, what type of cup to use, how long to brew for, in what order to add the milk, etc. — and why some of those are a matter of tradition and don't necessarily have any significant impact on the resulting tea.

But one important principle applies in all cases: for black* tea the water must be boiling at the moment it contacts the tea.

No less luminaries than George Orwell, Douglas Adams, Maggie Smith, and Dave Gorman have made this point well.

In fact, some of the traditional practices, such as warming the pot first, and using a tea-cosy, exist because they ensure that the water is and remains as hot as possible while the tea ‘brews’ (infuses/steeps), in order to get the best result.

Conversely, the colder the water at the moment of impact, the worse the result. As Adams said: “Americans are all mystified about why the English make such a big thing out of tea because most Americans have never had a good cup of tea.” I don't know whether this is as true now as it was then, but I can well believe it — the last time I was in the USA I was horrified to be served a glass of warmish water with a teabag on the side. (I didn't complain — I'm English, after all — but the results were predictably dire. What were they thinking???)

So any method which doesn't involve combining tea with boiling (not boiled) water isn't a proper method!

(* For most black teas, anyway. Oolong, green, and white teas have different requirements for temperature and time.)

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    As an American, I can tell you that when you order a cup of tea in a restaurant in the U.S., the majority of the time you will be served a cup of hot water with a rack of tea bags to choose from. We have no clue how to prepare a cup of tea ;) Jun 6, 2023 at 0:24
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    American tea is very different. Probably the most popular way Americans serve tea is ice cold with enough sugar in it to cause instant type II diabetes. ("Sweet tea") An "Arnold Palmer" is another very popular way - again an iced drink consisting of 1-2 parts unsweetened iced tea and 1-2 parts lemonade. Hot black tea is not very popular here. As I mentioned in another comment, tea blends in American tea bags generally have a very different flavor from British blends. The first time I had a bag brought over from the UK it was like a whole new flavor I’d never experienced before. Jun 6, 2023 at 2:39
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    As to "what were they thinking?" - probably something like order coffee or a coke like a regular person - this is a diner in Des Moines, not parliament Jun 6, 2023 at 2:41
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    @ToddWilcox also that pot/cup probably has been 99% used for black tar coffee which imparts its own uniquely unsettling flavor.
    – lonstar
    Jun 6, 2023 at 11:20
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    @ToddWilcox Ironically, speaking as someone who semi-frequently gets cups of tea in Parliament's cafes, they're not very good...
    – ZsigE
    Jun 7, 2023 at 8:14
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I've seen a lot of silly answers out there (not any of the others here by the way), so I'm going to say that the proper way is the way most people do it here in the UK.

The vast majority of tea made in Britain is using bags, and there's no trick to it. You pour some boiling water in a cup, drop in a bag and let it steep for a bit, or you pour the water over the bag which is what most people do. Much of Britain has hard water, so rather than letting it steep it's better to stir it around for a few seconds and get the bag out right away, otherwise you can get hard water scum on top. Few people I know have loose tea in their houses, or strainers to use it. I have 10 varieties but that's pretty unusual. Traditionally people made tea loose because tea bags didn't exist, nowadays loose tea is a specialist item, smaller grocery stored often don't even stock it.

I know from a former royal protection officer that when the royals go to functions they often drink tea made from bags as it's what's there, however if I was serving the king I would make loose tea as it's generally better and there's some ceremony about it. I would ask him whether he wanted the milk added before or after the tea as it's a matter of personal preference, leading to the other definition of what's proper, which is to make tea how someone likes it.

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  • If you use a fork to stir it, that seems to make the scum disappear—maybe it breaks it up into small pieces that aren't so visible. Also, I think it's more effective than a spoon at squeezing the bag against the side of the mug. But each to their own, as you said. Jun 6, 2023 at 14:52
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Already some great answers covering the question in detail, but I believe they all miss a little of the minutiae surrounding the use of tea bags which I think could be visited. (I would however agree that using tea bags isn't really the 'proper' way to prepare tea [which would be to use leaf]).

When using tea bags, the length of steeping and how vigorously you agitate (and squeeze) the teabag can have a large alteration on the finished taste of the tea (when making black tea, this is more obvious). A shorter steep and gentle stir will release the more aromatic, lighter flavours whereas a longer steep time will release the darker, stronger and potentially more bitter flavours which is why different varieties of teas will have a suggested steep time to get a full-rounded flavour from each.

In my experience, a heavy-handed squeezing of the tea bag forces out the much heavier tannins from the leaves, so if you're getting a lot of scum/oil on the top of your tea you are probably over-squeezing your teabag. My preference is a gentle stir and once steeped, only squeeze enough so the bag can be removed to the waste bin without a spillage of excess tea across the kitchen floor.

Getting back to the question though, with making a 'proper' cup of tea, I am surprised no-one has yet mentioned the use of a slice of lemon (used in place of milk) and usually associated with Earl Grey (but can be used with many other teas).

Adding a slice of lemon, does more than just adding the flavour of lemon, as the slice will clarify the tea, gradually removing the heavier tannins; resulting in a lighter, cleaner, more aromatic drink. Indeed, you can see a dark tea gradually lighten in colour when a slice is added. Again, avoid over-massaging it where you would end up getting a much stronger lemon flavour than you may want.

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    Even though I’m American, I have been repeatedly served tea by a British expat that is exactly like this. One point of emphasis: when an American adds fresh lemon to tea, it’s a wedge on the rim. This Brit always served me a slice floating in the tea. Somehow it makes a very noticeable difference. Jun 6, 2023 at 2:44
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    Tea well-steeped & squeezed until every last bit of colour & flavour can be extracted is known in the UK as "builder's". It's supposed to be like that;) If you make someone a cup of thin, tasteless tea, they will tell you immediately, calling it "witch's piss". I've never known anyone to put lemon in tea as a habit; maybe when out at some posh establishment, but never at home.
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 6, 2023 at 6:46
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    @Tetsujin I’ve had phases where I used lemon slices regularly. I’ve never previously heard the term ‘witch’s piss’ used for anything, let alone tea. It’s the variety in the UK that confounds this sort of Q as there is no one true way to tea.
    – Spagirl
    Jun 6, 2023 at 11:47
  • Re: the clarifying & lightening effect of the lemon. Sometimes, I'll add a bit of ginger cordial to my tea. It has a similar effect on the colour.
    – Adeptus
    Jun 8, 2023 at 4:39
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If you want to make a cup of loose leaf tea as opposed to a pot, use a tea infuser. There are various designs. I prefer the ball with handle style as shown here, because

  • You can get it completely submerged. Some designs sit on the rim of the cup, to me this seems to float a lot of the tea to the top of the water so it won't infuse well.
  • It's easy to open with the handles, just squeeze them.

To use it you fill one half of the infuser with loose leaf tea (not both halves since the tea will expand and not all be free to infuse), put it in your mug, pour in the water, I then shake it to get excess air to bubble out.

This essentially makes your mug a very small tea pot, so read the other answers for general tips of making loose leaf tea with a tea pot, water temperature, etc.

You can use two infusers for a double sized mug.

enter image description here

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    I'm not sure why this has been downvoted, as it shows some effort and seems eminently sensible. (I've used infusers of that type and others, and they seem to work fairly well, though I suspect a little less well than letting the leaves spread throughout the water.) You could argue that it doesn't strictly answer the question, but then neither do some other upvoted answers (including mine!).
    – gidds
    Jun 7, 2023 at 14:42
  • @gidds you can gif ferment sized infusors, and if it’s not the same size as the cup, you can swish it around some to better expose the tea to the water. If you check Asian grocery stores, you may be able to find HUGE infusers that are meant for spices when making soup (I have one that’s long, so it can hold cinnamon sticks). You’re usually the hinged style with a chain, not the spring loaded ones, but that’s still better than the old tea balls that were two pieces that screwed together
    – Joe
    Jun 7, 2023 at 15:08
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    @Joe To follow up on this, I recently got a larger, basket-style infuser (like this one), and it works much better for me: less fiddly to fill, allows plenty of room for larger leaves to expand and circulate, infuses faster without needing any agitation, and much easier to clean afterward!  I'd definitely recommend that style over the ball-style infuser shown in this answer.
    – gidds
    Feb 1 at 22:54
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Hot, very strong and sweet with just a dash of milk. Tea should be able to support a teaspoon vertically unaided. OK, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but such is the definition of "Builders tea" and I have never had any complaints about my tea making so far.

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    The question isn’t asking for personal tea preferences.
    – Sneftel
    Jun 7, 2023 at 5:25

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