Not the perfect cuppa – British tea-making may be all wrong

The accepted methods of making tea, and certainly the traditional British ways, are being challenged by a new product from Australia.

According to work by Ian Bersten, a former tea merchant, three long-held and established beliefs about tea-making are wrong – that tea should be brewed for 3-5 minutes, that large-leaf tea is better than small-leaf tea, and that brewing in a pot is the best method.

Bersten has produced an entirely new brewing system. His Tea-cha employs a kind of filter system, which consists of a conical container, with a fine mesh filter in the base; beneath the mesh is a single hole. The container is placed on top of a tea-cup or mug, two or three grammes of fine tea is placed on the mesh, and hot water is poured on. It takes thirty seconds for the brewed tea to pass through into the cup beneath, the filter is removed, and the drinking cup topped up with more hot water.

Several aspects of this will horrify the traditional tea world. One is the argument that fine tea is better than large-leaf tea, which goes completely against the argument of the modern speciality tea trade, who maintain that large-leaf tea is the very best that can be offered.

The general argument is that large-leaf tea presents a bigger surface to the water, and thus improves the extraction of flavour. In fact, says Bersten, such tea brewed in a teapot is a waste of flavour: “with a water temperature of 85C, the extraction of flavour from leaf tea is likely to be around 35 per cent of what is possible, and you throw out a lot of the flavour with the leaves. It is very difficult to get a fully-flavoured tea from a teapot.

“The fact that 94 per cent of people in Britain drink tea-bag tea is a testament to the failure of teapot tea.”

It is generally accepted that in tea-bags, the tea is in extremely tiny particles, the kind of which Ian Bersten approves. However, he says that it is not leaf size alone which dictates flavour – he argues that the entire tea-bag concept inhibits extraction of flavour.

He also questions the belief that tea should steep for three or more minutes. The best extraction, he says, is by ‘leaching’, in which the water flows past the tea leaves and takes the flavour with it, rather in the way that espresso coffee is brewed.

It is also now generally accepted that in Britain, the time for which a tea-bag is usually steeped in a cup is now down to eleven seconds, although one tea-blender has told Boughton’s Coffee House magazine that he believes current practice to be as low as seven seconds. This is widely thought to be extremely bad practice, but Ian Bersten says that steeping a tea-bag for three minutes will not produce any better result.

“Eleven seconds is certainly wrong, but the real point is that longer brewing will not give a satisfactory result, as the tea-bag process is inherently impossible. The inability of the water to pass through a teabag means results are very poor.

“A demonstration proves it. Brew a teabag in a mug for five minutes – then take the exhausted tea out of the paper tea-bag, put it into my filter, and brew again. The improvement in colour and taste is immediately obvious. The conclusion is that the tea-bag does not allow the full flavour of the tea to be extracted.”

The use of very fine tea through the Tea-Cha is said to give a brighter and cleaner flavour. The product is already in use in some catering venues in Melbourne, including some which have capacity for hundreds of customers.

The product has yet to achieve a distributor in Britain. However, for those interested in the full argument, Ian Bersten has published a slim paperback book: ‘Tea – How Tradition Stood In the Way of the Perfect Cup’.

All the best beverage trade stories come from Boughton’s Coffee House magazine!

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