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Eleven Steps to Heaven and
“A Nice Cup of Tea”

By Dr. Terry Mabbett

George Orwell’s advice for brewing the best possible cup of tea.

One of the most fascinating things about tea is its ability to be talked about with reverence by well-known people as it were the very elixir of life. Thinkers, political and otherwise, especially the British, fall into this category. The 20th century political thinker, commentator and author of 1984 and Animal Farm fame found time to talk about tea in his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea,” printed in the January 12, 1946 issue of the Evening Standard.

Orwell published “A Nice Cup of Tea” towards the end of his life, while his novels were hitting the bookshelves. At the time, during the 1940s, the Brits needed all the soothing qualities and comfort from their tea to recover from the WWII, although the beverage was still strictly rationed and would be so for another six years.

Orwell’s reasons for writing the essay were the “lack of guidance” in cookbooks of the day on brewing the beverage he regarded as “one of the main stays of civilization” in Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. And because the “best manner of making it [tea] has long been the subject of violent dispute.”

Orwell was a well-known, left-leaning political thinker, but his biographer D.J. Taylor said, “It is hard to detect a political subtext in this essay, but it expresses a deep part of his Englishness.” Taylor suggests that the essay instead, “expresses a deep part of his Englishness - his nostalgia for the warm, safe, domestic life that had been obliterated by the war.” The novel 1984 was germinating in his mind at this time, and he was acutely conscious of a way of life that had been lost, claimed Taylor.

Some say that tea is quintessentially English, and that Orwell is similarly so is the obvious answer. Not so: tea is not as quintessentially English as first seems and neither is George Orwell. Mass tea drinking in Great Britain never really took off until tea bushes were grown in India during the latter half of the 19th century.

The whole concept of tea as the British know it today - production, processing and preparation - came about from the extraordinary fusion of Indian and British cultures that took place in Colonial India, represented today by the five sovereign nations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma. Orwell was born in Motihari, India (then a part of the Bengal Presidency, today located in the state of Bihar) into an Anglo-Indian family, his mother from a family of Burmese tea merchants. Though brought to England at a very young age, he returned to the Indian subcontinent as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police and served in Burma. Orwell was in a better position than almost any other English man or woman to dictate on the making of tea.

Eleven Steps to Heaven
Observers comment with irony that Orwell was a big vocal critic of dictators like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Francisco Franco but not averse to a bit of good old fashioned “totalitarianism on tea.”

George Orwell laid down 11 rules for making the perfect cup of tea, “golden rules” for “golden tips.”

  1. Use Indian or Ceylonese tea
  2. Brew tea in a china (ceramic) or earthenware pot
  3. Warm the pot before adding the loose-leaf tea
  4. Use strong tea
  5. Place loose-leaf tea directly into the pot without a strainer, muslin bag, or other device to ‘imprison the tea.’ Take the teapot to the kettle to pour water that should be boiling
  6. Stir or shake the pot
  7. Drink the tea out of a cylindrical cup
  8. Decant any cream off of the fresh milk before using
  9. Pour tea into the cup, then pour in the milk
  10. Drink tea without sugar
Orwell had no time for scientists and technologists. In his essay TK wrote after World War II, he blamed them for contributing to the event and all its destruction. Orwell, however, unwittingly sparked a scientific debate about tea making that culminated at the centenary of his birth in 2003. The Royal Society of Chemistry in London took a close scientific look at Orwell’s “eleven steps to heaven and a good cup of tea.”

The study, carried out by Dr. Andrew Stapely, a chemical engineer at Loughborough University in the English East Midlands, claimed Orwell was scientifically wrong on a number of points. But when looked at dispassionately and with a dose of good old commonsense Orwell is found to be pretty much right in his diktat. Needs of modern living have overtaken some of the techniques used in making tea and changes in political geography have altered names, but by and large what he said still holds true.

Orwell’s “taste” preference for Indian or Ceylonese tea is not surprising given he and both parents were born in India, but sound reasons are still given. “China tea has its virtues which are not to be despised being economical and offering a pleasing drink of tea without milk,” said Orwell, but went on to write that there was not much “stimulation” in the brew. “One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.” Anyone who has used that well-worn British phrase “a nice cup of tea” is invariably referring to Indian tea. I suspect his preference for Indian tea had as much to do with Orwell’s need, like most Brits, to drink their tea with fresh milk. Orwell’s choice of tea from the northern regions of the Indian sub continent would now encompass tea origins from both India and Bangladesh, while his Ceylonese tea is now called Sri Lankan.

Orwell’s stipulation that tea should be made in a pot had nothing to do with tradition and class, but the need for tea to be made in small quantities so all could be drunk while hot, leaving no time for the tea to “stew.” Orwell was thinking of tea tapped from an urn the old fashioned way of mass producing tea in factories, army canteens and old fashioned English cafes, air thick with cigarette smoke and tea spilt all over the counter. Orwell claimed tea out of an urn is always “tasteless,” while army tea made in a cauldron tastes of “grease and whitewash.”

He claimed silver teapots produced inferior tasting tea although not as bad as that from enamel metal pots. Pewter pots, which were a rarity even 60 years ago, were acceptable, but he stuck rigidly to his rule about only using china or earthenware teapots. Be that as it may, modern living with the introduction and overwhelming advance of teabag technology means that relatively little British tea is still made in larger teapots. The teabag is now placed straight in the cup or mug when at home, or in smaller tea pots for one or two cups in tea rooms.

Warming the pot beforehand is the logical first step to ensuring a well-brewed cup of tea that is as hot as possible. China and earthenware materials absorb heat and keep it in, protecting the tea infusion from rapid cooling. This is another good reason to avoid metal teapots that lose heat quickly by conduction and radiation. Warming the pot over the hob or stove is safer than swilling out the inside with boiling water.

Orwell was strict about strength of tea. He was referring to the amount of tea used, rather than selecting of a particular type of tea for its inherent strength. Using old Imperial measures, he stipulated six heaped teaspoons for a pot holding one quart (1.2 liters). This perfectly fits the old saying, “one (teaspoon of tea) for each cup and one for the pot.” An English style breakfast cup or mug holds around 250 ml. Orwell’s demands for strong tea at this time seem strange since tea was still strictly rationed in Britain, although he went on to say “one cup of strong tea is better than 20 weak ones.” He wrote “all true tea lovers not only like their tea strong but like it a little stronger with each year that passes,” which the government appeared to recognize by giving an extra tea ration to “old age pensioners.” Scientists at Loughborough University looked instead at the inherent “strength” of different teas and recommended those wanting a strong brew should opt for Darjeeling.

Orwell believed that loose-leaf tea should go straight into the pot unencumbered and unhindered by teabags, strainers or other devices that he claimed would imprison the tea. Orwell insisted that if tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly, and in strict scientific terms he was right. In situations where chemicals are dissolved from a solute (solid tea leaves), using a solvent (water) to produce a solution (tea infusion), any device which stops solvent “getting at” the chemicals is clearly unhelpful.

He commented that teapots in some countries were fitted with “small dangling baskets under the spout to catch stray leaves, which were supposed to be harmful.” However, Orwell claimed that tea leaves could be swallowed in considerable quantities without ill effect. All is now academic because modern teabag technology related to materials, size and shape and the design and concentration of the perforations, has set the tea infusion process free.

Taking the teapot to the kettle is pure commonsense and would receive full marks in today’s health and safety industry. This is a required step if you want the water to be as close to boiling point as possible as it hits the tea leaves in the teapot. Stirring the tea or shaking the pot after making the tea is another commonsense and scientifically sound move to obtaining the best infusion.

When it came to drinking tea Orwell was unequivocal: use a good breakfast cup cylindrical in shape as opposed to the flat and shallow type of “afternoon” teacup. Not only does the breakfast cup hold more tea, observed Orwell, but it slows down the cooling process because the proportion of the liquid tea surface interfacing with the air is reduced and less exposed to cooling.

The last few rules relating to milk and sugar are the most contentious of all. Fresh milk is a must, but in Orwell’s day, before the widespread availability of skimmed and semi-skimmed milk, cream would be taken off whole milk to avoid what he described as a sickly taste imparted by milk fats.

By far the most controversial step surrounding milk in tea is whether it should be poured into the cup before or after the tea. Preference for “milk in last” has to do with practicality because it enables the tea drinker to easily regulate the proportions. If too much milk is added first there is nothing to be retrieved after the tea is poured. Scientists at Loughborough University came out strongly against “milk in last.” They claimed that dribbling a stream of milk into hot tea makes the de-naturation of milk proteins more likely. Milk proteins normally exist in a soluble, curled up shape, but at high temperatures start to unfold and become less soluble. They say it is much better to place chilled milk at the bottom of the cup first and pour in the hot tea, thus allowing the milk to cool the tea rather than the tea to ruinously raise the temperature of the milk.

Although he freely admitted to being a minority of British tea drinkers in the 1940s, Orwell was firmly against putting sugar in tea (unless drunk in the Russian style. It is not that long ago that the average Brit sweetened his or her tea to a level where you could “stand a teaspoon in the cup.”) Things have changed mainly for health reasons and inadvertently allowed modern Brits to appreciate the subtle and refreshing nature of tea without sugar. Orwell wrote that tea, like beer, is meant to have a degree of astringency or bitterness. The 18th century novelist Henry Fielding claimed, “Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.”

George Orwell was a pseudonym, Orwell’s given name being Eric Arthur Blair. Blair was from a reasonably well off family, attended some of the best schools in England and worked for both the government and the BBC. Yet some claim Orwell’s Anglo-Indian background kept him from feeling totally English. His choice of pseudonym: “George,” the name of the King of England at the time, and “Orwell” a river in the heart of idyllic rural England, reflects this TK. Perhaps his preoccupation with the perceived quintessentially English tea was part of a longing to belong. Certainly his dual British and Indian origins and experience of life allowed him to speak with such authority, knowledge, warmth and understanding of tea and how it should be made.

Dr. Terry Mabbett has been covering the tea, coffee and cocoa industries for decades. He resides in England and is a technical writer with a PhD degree in Tropical Agriculture. He has worked in crop production and processing throughout the tropics- India, South East Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean - and in his home country of the UK.

Tea & Coffee - July, 2009

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