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Cup of tea: Mastering the art of the perfect brew

Victoria Wood drinking tea

The British love tea so much the nation gets through 32 billion cups a year. Whether you take it black, white, sweetened, strong or milky - is there a right way to make a proper cup of tea?

There is nothing quite like sitting down with the perfect brew.

And the key to it?

"The perfect way to prepare a cup of tea is with freshly drawn boiled water," says Bill Gorman of the UK Tea Council.

"If you've boiled fresh water then what you're doing is energising the leaf so that it will deliver its character, flavour, styles, antioxidants etc."

Over the years drinking a cup of tea has become firmly rooted as being "quintessentially British", a calming aid in times of crisis, a companionable pastime.

In fact its origins can be found in China some 5000 years ago, and the modern everyday drink many enjoy today is not as fastidiously brewed as it was then.

Cooking with tea:

Green tea panna cotta

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Try tea-smoked duck breasts with lobster

In the BBC One documentary Victoria Wood's Nice Cup of Tea, the British comedian traces the history of Britain's relationship with tea, from its cultivation as a medicinal herb by Buddhist monks to the milky breakfast staple people are now reliant on.

Britain has developed its own tea rituals, with 87% of drinkers preferring to add milk, compared to 25% who choose to add sugar, reports Kantar Word Panel.

Black tea is still the most popular tea in Britain, although herbal and green teas have shown some growth in recent years, particularly among 16-24 year olds, reports Mintel.

"Many women I meet often say, I like the idea of green tea but it's too bitter," says Mr Gorman.

"That's because they're making green tea the same way that they make black tea.

"Instead you need to boil the water and let it cool to 85C for a perfect cup of green tea."

In China, green tea is still the most popular type of tea, enjoyed by 70% of the population compared to just 7% of people who drink black tea.

Tea for two?

Tea pouring

Kate Gover, founder of Lahloo tea company explains the four main types of tea:

"All tea originates from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis. It is the way that the leaves are processed that determines the type of tea produced," she says.

White: "The leaves are left out in fresh air to wither for a maximum of three days. It's the least processed and leaves a very pure delicate, fresh clean refreshing tea."

Green: "Instead of being allowed to oxidise, the leaves are roasted or steamed straight away which is why they stay green. They are known for being full of anti-oxidants."

Oolong: "One of the most diverse teas in terms of flavour. The leaves go through different processes such as rolling, twisting, charcoal firing and roasting. It's incredibly energising if roasted over charcoal and has a full but equally refreshing flavour."

Black: "This is the most processed and fully oxidised tea so the leaf has lost all its moisture and colour. Some black teas are enhanced with bergamot oil such as Earl Grey or spiced chai."

But Victoria Wood says the ritual around drinking tea is valued just as much as the drink itself.

"It's a world away from how we treat our tea. We buy it in big cheap boxes, we prod it with a spoon, and chuck it away.

"But here (in China) they make an everyday thing something special," she says.

While many of us are still making quick cups with a bag, brewing tea is once again becoming more popular in the UK, particularly with the recent interest in speciality brews and loose leaf teas.

It harks back to 17th Century Britain, when women would enjoy brewing loose leaf green and black teas at home with their friends, while the men socialised in coffee houses.

It was still considered unusual at this time to add milk to tea, although sugar would often be added as a sweetener.

Although loose leaf teas are often associated with the elderly, the biggest users of this style of tea are in fact women aged 25-34, reports Mintel.

Restaurants such as the Michelin-starred Hibiscus in Mayfair, London, and the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire now feature perfectly-matched loose leaf teas on their menus as alternatives to dessert wines, and white teas are often used as palate cleansers between courses.

With a classy pedigree, loose leaf may seem a little daunting to the everyday tea-drinker.

But Kate Gover, from the tea company Lahloo in Bristol, is eager to open up loose leaf teas to a wider market.

"What I'd love to see is people getting rid of their tea bags and embracing loose leaf and not being frightened of it.

Find out more:

Green tea

Victoria Wood's Nice Cup of Tea is on BBC One on Wednesday 10 April at 21:00 BST

"It might take you a minute longer to prepare but it gives you the space in the day to really enjoy that pot of tea as opposed to chucking in a bag and doing it on the go," she explains.

"People can still have their breakfast tea, such as our Bristol brew which is great with milk and has that comfort factor, but they can also have so much more flavour and then start to make their journey through to the other teas."

Loose leaf teas are often made by the same companies that make the bag varieties, so does one necessarily make a better brew than the other?

"There's a lot of snobbery about loose leaf tea and tea bag tea. So many people are missing the point," says Mr Gorman.

He explains that the industry is partially to blame for the misinformation because hundreds of years ago, the finest grades of tea were called dust, which had negative connotations.

"When Tetley launched the teabag in the early 50s, people just assumed it was the sweepings off the floor.

"But in actual fact, some of the big grades will go off to loose leaf and the smaller grades will go into bags for brewing quickly.

"Some of the best teas we test at the Tea Council are in fact tea bag teas, which are much more suited to the fast pace of modern life."

How do you like to drink yours?

  • Tea is the world's most popular drink after water
  • A third of UK consumers drink tea at breakfast
  • We drink one cup of coffee in the UK for every three cups of tea
  • 77% of tea consumed outside the home is drunk at work
  • Nine out of 10 UK consumers drink tea at home

Source: Mintel & Kantar Word panel

Find a favourite using BBC Food's buyer's guide

But brewing straight from the bag does have its limitations, argues Ms Gover, who stocks loose leaf teas from individual gardens in China, India and Sri Lanka.

"The reason we don't have tea bags is a traditional tea bag has to have a very small cut to put into it.

"If you've got a very small cut of leaf, there's not an awful lot of leaf but it's produced to make a very strong tea.

"The tea bag will often be bleached with chlorine and there's an awful lot of cost that goes into putting tea into a tea bag - more cost than the tea itself.

"If something is packed into a tiny little bag, it can't move and it can't aerate and it can't release all those lovely flavours," she explains.

"It's like the difference between instant coffee and freshly roasted beans and once people taste, they can see that difference."

Ultimately the art of making the perfect brew comes down to personal taste and for that you need to be guided by your own palate.

"I can encourage people to try loose leaf tea without sugar or milk but I'm certainly not here to dictate how they should drink it," says Ms Gover.

Mr Gorman prefers to drink his tea the "traditional English way", brewed properly with freshly boiled water.

"If you have black tea without milk it's quite zingy and I like the milk softening it," says Mr Gorman.

"But I don't think we're worried any more about whether the milk goes in first."

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