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January 5th, 2011

Hitchens doesn’t know how to drink tea

Earlier this week, Pinger COD sent along this article by Christopher Hitchens (yeah, that one) about how to make a proper cup of tea. “Good!” I thought, “People need to know how to drink tea properly.” But my elation didn’t last much beyond the first sentence. So, to set some things straight, I’m going to ask you go and read the (relatively short) article and then return here so I can respond to a few points and make some clarifications that must be made.

Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it).

The assumption here is that bagged tea is the norm and is what instructions on tea drinking should be based on. But remember that bagged tea generally contains what are called “dustings” or “fannings” which are essential the sweepings of tiny particles left over from tea processing. Something else that most people don’t realize is that really good loose tea can be had for only a little bit more per cup than bagged tea. Let’s say you want to get some nice Chinese Lung Ching green tea. A random vendor online sells it for $11 for 100g. Green tea leaves can be brewed two or three times, so (using 5g of tea per cup – a bit more than you need to use), that means you can get 40-60 cups of tea for a per-cup cost of between 18 and 28 cents per cup. That’s far less than you’d pay for a teabag and hot water at Starbucks or even a diner.

Of course, you can compare that to Lipton bagged black tea and point out how much cheaper the bagged tea is. Let’s assume 100 teabags for $8 (random price found online). This is black tea, so it should only be brewed once, which comes out to 8 cents per cup. But comparing this tea to full leaves that are hand sorted and prepared for twice the price is like comparing drinking motor oil to the finest coffee beans (Kopi Luwak?) you can find.

Overstated a bit, sure, but people don’t realize how inexpensive really good tea can be.

In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea.

This is one thing Hitchens gets right. Whether drinking bagged tea or loose tea, always pour your water over the tea — don’t get your water and then dunk a teabag in.

If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: “[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.” This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.


As COD pointed out when he shared the link with me, Hitchens seems to assume black tea here. While it’s true black tea can handle boiling water, it’s still generally let it recommend to let the water come “off the boil” just a touch before brewing.

But considering that black tea is only one type of tea (there’s also green, white, yellow, oolong, and pu-erh), this instruction can be very detrimental to your tea. You absolutely should never use boiling water with green, white, yellow, or oolong teas. It will scorch the leaves and leave them tasting bitter and gross. I’m convinced this is why a lot of people tell me, “I don’t like green tea.”

It’s not quite over yet. If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour.

It’s true that it’s considering normal to add milk to tea in many countries, but it should be noted, this is only black tea. But to me, a hardline tea purist, once you add milk, you no longer have tea, you have a tea-flavored beverage. You’re altering the taste of the leaves and overwhelming it with the more powerful dairy flavor. If you’re OK with this, cool. But to me, tea should always be enjoyed straight up.

(It should be noted that I do, on rare occasions, add something to my coffee. But coffee is not nearly as subtle of a flavor as tea, so it can handle a little bit. Besides, I’m not a coffee purist.)

Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag.

Might I suggest changing this sentence to “Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, get the hell out of there and go make yourself some.”

So it can’t be said that I’m not offering any positive information, here’s my own super quick-and-dirty rundown of how to brew your tea (I’m resisting the urge to get ultra-specific, so these are just very, very general recommendations):

Tea should be 2-3g of tea to 6 oz. (or 4ish grams for 8 oz., if you prefer) of water. One teaspoon with most black teas is about equal to what you’d need for a cup, if you’re using leaves that are fluffier and less dense, you may need to use as much as a couple of tablespoons.

Black tea – Brew at just under boiling (~ 206 degrees F) for 4-5 minutes. Steep only once.

Green, white, and yellow tea – Brew at about 170 degrees F for 2-3 minutes. Can be steeped 2-3 times. To get it to this temperature without a means to measure it, boil the water and then let it sit for three minutes.

Oolong – Oolongs can be tricky since they’re between greens and blacks in terms of oxidation (blacks = fully oxidized, greens = not oxidized, oolongs = between 20 and 80% oxidized). The general rule of thumb is for less oxidized oolongs (generally lighter colored leaves), brew at 170-175 degrees and for more oxidized oolongs (darker leaves), you can get up to around 190 degrees. Resteep up to 3 times using this style or 8 times if using “Asian style” brewing (which I won’t go into here).

Pu-erh – Pu-erh, with all its earthy robustness, can handle (and even thrive) with boiling water, so go for it. Rinse the leaves the first time and then brew for only a few seconds (maybe 10). Increase each subsequent infusion 5-10 seconds. Can reseteep many, many times.

If you want more detail, Tea Trekker has the most thorough and accurate descrpition of tea steeping there is.

Now, go enjoy some tea!

Posted in Food and Beverage, Get Off My Lawn

Paul January 5, 2011, 10:37 am

You hit the nail on the head with green tea. When I’ve had it, I haven’t enjoyed it, and I do suspect that’s due to burning.

Great stuff, sir.

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