The Perfect Cup of Tea (British-Style)

The Perfect Cup of Tea (British-Style)

Halfway through the Dan Brown bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code, protagonist Robert Langdon, on the run from French police, arrives in the middle of the night at the palatial home of British expatriate Sir Leigh Teabing and buzzes the intercom, hoping for temporary asylum. Teabing, roused from his sleep, decides to challenge Langdon to a British-themed quiz before granting him admission. After Langdon correctly guesses that he will be served tea (out of a choice of tea or coffee), Teabing continues:

            “Milk or sugar?”

            “Milk," Langdon said.


            "Sugar?" Teabing made no reply.

Wait! Langdon now recalled the bitter beverage he had been served on his last visit and realized this question was a trick. "Lemon!" he declared. "Earl Grey with lemon."


While the preferences of this literary character may not represent the whole of the United Kingdom, the British definitely have strong opinions on their national beverage—how it should be brewed, how it should be served, and what should be served with it.

Intra-national Differences

What is certainly not a matter of opinion is that every Brit seems to have his or her own preference on exactly how to make tea. In his essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” author George Orwell (1984) wrote, "Tea is one of the mainstays of civilization in this country and causes violent disputes over how it should be made."

Since Great Britain is still a monarchy, perhaps it makes sense to start with the royals—specifically the Royal Society of Chemistry, who released a document containing instructions on brewing what they claimed was “A Perfect Cup of Tea:”


Loose-leaf Assam tea

Soft water

Fresh, chilled milk

White sugar



Ceramic tea-pot

Large ceramic mug

Fine mesh tea strainer


Microwave oven


  1. Draw fresh, soft water and place in kettle and boil. Boil just the required quantity to avoid wasting time, water and power.
  2. While waiting for the water to boil, place a ceramic tea pot containing a quarter of a cup of water in a microwave oven on full power for one minute.
  3. Synchronize your actions so that you have drained the water from the microwaved pot at the same time that the kettle water boils.
  4. Place one rounded teaspoon of tea per cup into the pot.
  5. Take the pot to the kettle as it is boiling, pour onto the leaves and stir.
  6. Leave to brew for three minutes.
  7. The ideal receptacle is a ceramic mug or your favorite personal mug.
  8. Pour milk into the cup FIRST, followed by the tea, aiming to achieve a color that is rich and attractive.
  9. Add sugar to taste.
  10. Drink at between 60-65 degrees Centigrade to avoid vulgar slurping which results from trying to drink tea at too high a temperature.

To Milk or Not To Milk?

The question of milk—not just whether to add it, but when—elicits vigorous debate. The Guardian jokes, “If anything is going to kick off another civil war in the UK, it is probably going to be this.” Apparently, science asserts that milk must be added to the cup first, then tea, to avoid the droplets of milk undergoing a process of denaturation that downgrades the quality of the cuppa. Nonsense, retorts the other half of the British population. If one adds milk first, how can one know exactly how much is wanted?


No cup of Earl Grey would be complete without a biscuit or two. Commonly called digestives, the Brits at least come to some semblance of agreement on the necessity of this cracker-cookie hybrid—tea may be a matter of opinion, but digestive biscuits are essential.

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