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A Proper Cup of Tea

Douglas Adams wrote the "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy". He revealed the meaning of life, 42. He wrote the best Dr. Who episode of all "City of Death", and he led a life that ended way too soon. My son Chris is reading "The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time" an Adam's book published after his death. A book that includes essay's, and other of his writing including an unfinished Dirk Gently story. You remember Dirk, he pointed out some problems with couches(Thanks to Steve Himmer, who has also had some experience maneuvering a sofa, for the link). What I didn't know was that Douglas Adams had also provided instructions for making a proper cup of tea.

An excerpt from “The Salmon of Doubt” by Douglas Adams

Pg 67


One or two Americans have asked me why the English like tea so much, which never seems to them to be a very good drink. To understand, you have to make it properly.

There is a very simple principle to the making of tea, and it’s this—to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be boilING (Not boilED) when it hits the tea leaves. If it’s merely hot, then the tea will be insipid. That’s why we English have these odd rituals, such as warming the teapot first (so as no to cause the boiling water to cool down too fast as it hits the pot). And that’s why American habit of bringing a teacup, a tea bag, and a pot of hot water to the table is merely the perfect way of making a tin, pale, watery cup of tea that nobody in their right mind would want to drink. The 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. That’s why they don’t understand. In fact, the truth of the matter is that most English people don’t know how to make tea anymore either, and most people drink cheap instant coffee instead, which is a pity, and gives Americans the impression that the English are just generally clueless about hot stimulants.

So the best advice I can give to an American arriving in England is this: Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea. Go back to where you’re staying and boil a kettle of water. While it is coming to the boil, open the sealed packet and sniff. Careful---you may feel a bit dizzy, but this is in fact perfectly legal. When the kettle has boiled, pour a little of it into a teapot, swirl it around, and tip it out again. Put a couple (or three, depending on the size of the pot) of tea bags into the pot. (If I was really trying to lead you into the paths of righteousness, I would tell you to use free leaves rather than bags, but let’s just take this in easy stages.) Bring the kettle back up to the boil, and then pour the boiling water as quickly as you can into the pot. Let is stand for two or three minutes, and then pour it into a cup. Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with milk. If you think you will like it with milk, then it’s probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea, you will scald the milk. If you think you will prefer it with a slice of lemon, then, well, add a slice of lemon.

Drink it. After a few moments you will begin to think that the place you’ve come to isn’t maybe quite so strange and crazy after all.

May 12, 1999

Simple enough but I have a question; one I think Douglas Adams would appreciate. The essential element in making that proper cup is that the water must be boiling. Now Douglas was a Brit, and he lived at sea level, and therein lies the problem. I live in Utah approximately 4500 feet (1372 meters) above sea level and since altitude has a definite effect on the temperature at which water boils there is a problem. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 Celsius). For each increase of 500 feet (152 meters) of altitude the Fahrenheit temperature at which water boils goes down 1 degree. That means in my kitchen water boils at 203 degrees Fahrenheit (95 Celsius). Boiling as Douglas insists it must, but certainly not the same boiling that occurs at sea level. Does this mean I will never experience a proper cup of tea in Sandy Utah? I wonder if this applies to my coffee. Would anyone care to offer a solution to this problem?



Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A Proper Cup of Tea:

» Tea Time from EminentBrain
Recent scientific studies have shown that the way I make my morning cuppa is, in fact, the proper way. But then again, I already knew this. Although I must say as much as I've always have been and always will... [Read More]


it would seem to me boiling water is boiling water regardless of the temperature at which it boiled..


Well the obvious answer is to use a pressure cooker of some kind to boil the water in. Under pressure you can get the water superheated :-) As for coffee, you don't want to use 212F boiling water on coffee. 200F to 205F is the ideal temperature for coffee. Higher temperatures burn off the some of the volatiles that give the best flavours. So you are pretty much right on at the altitude you are at.

I have always taken credit for the fact that the coffee I brew is damn near perfect, and now you tell me it's simply dumb stupid luck.

um.........c'est la vie :-) At least you get to pull it right off the stove and pour - because I live at 4000' ASL I have to let the water sit for a minute or so before I pour - damned frustrating firwst thing in the morning when my body is screaming for its caffeine fix


You are correct that making tea at high altitude is difficult. When on trek in the alps, I remember that the boling water was useless for making tea. Instead, the tea needed to be stewed in the boling water, which still wasn't particularly satisfactory, but packed the necessary caffeine punch.

I have heard that there are indeed miniature pressure cookers available for the lunatic tea-drinking fringe. The rest of us will settle for a stewed cup.

Douglas Adams fails to differentiate between posh tea (which he describes) and builder's tea, which seem to me to be completely different drinks, although both are lovely. Builder's tea generally is orange, with super-high levels of tanin - optionally drunk with three sugars.

If your process also involves fluid-gas interactions, it isn't that simple. Volatile aroma's substances might escape out of the cup at a faster rate too :-)

But honestly, I think it is the cooking, not the temparature. It probably causes the cells of the tea-leaves to burst, yielding their contents.

So it should matter much. It might even be better, since at a lower temparature organic compounds are less likely to destabilize, thus yielding MORE aroma

I've found I don't suffer so much from Brewers droop since I became Tea-total

The important part of the boiling isn't the temperature, rather the boiling itself. Boiling water has an effervescent property that activates the chemical in the tea.


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