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KaiOctober 17, 2018

How do you make the perfect cup of tea, really?

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Inspired by a weak reality TV brew and The Spinoff’s own teabag tapes, Alex Casey spills the tea on making the perfect cuppa. 

First published in October 2018.

Last week was a huge week for tea disasters. It began on Married at First Sight NZ, where policy analyst and gaming enthusiast Fraser Lee (nee Pearce) shocked the nation when he made his new wife Monique a piss-poor tea, one so weak that I was able to see the ghost of my future self in its pale, mirrored surface.

Monique reacted accordingly, by instantly opening her phone camera and publicly shaming the tea and its maker. Needless to say, Twitter was also angered in a big way.

The second tea disaster happened right here in The Spinoff offices, where our partnerships editor Simon Day was tasked with making Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a cuppa before her interview with Toby Manhire. I watched from my desk as he cautiously presented the tea, controversially with the bag still in, only to have her whip it out within milliseconds of the mug hitting the desk. He looked absolutely gutted.

“It broke my heart. It confirmed all my doubts,” he told The Spinoff in an emotional, exclusive interview following the disaster. “I had one chance and I fucked up.”

Despite the prime minister remarking on the record that she was enjoying the tea “so much”, Day felt he made a huge, irreversible mistake when he made the split-second decision to leave the teabag in. “I am a coffee drinker, and very occasionally a peppermint tea drinker. Suddenly, all the conversations I’d heard about milk first vs. milk last, bag in vs. bag out, came flooding into my brain like a cacophony. I was completely lost.

“As I walked through the office and people started giggling and commenting ‘why is the bag still in’, my anxiety increased. I reached full panic attack when, after presenting the cup of tea, the prime minister immediately removed the bag.”

Reality star Pearce was less conceding about his milky, televised mistake. “I’d made perfectly good cups of tea for Monique up until that point,” he said in another exclusive interview with The Spinoff. “I just got performance anxiety that day.” Like Day, he claimed to prefer a herbal tea. “My herbal skills are the best, I get my water to 55° perfectly every time – if it burns, it’s too hot for herbal tea.” Unlike Day, he wasn’t willing to totally fess up to his sins.

“I’d go as far to say that this is an orchestrated smear campaign by the tea lobby, with Monique as their spokesperson, because she once made a pot of herbal tea and she only put one teabag in it. I didn’t call her out on camera for that, but I’d like to clear the national record that we are both as useless as each other at making tea.”

While we are talking about clearing the national record, I took to Facebook – returning once more to the beloved cultural epicentres Kai Corner and Real Pod Corner – to gauge the pulse of the nation in regards to the perfect cup of tea. Based on my crowd-sourcing, here are the definitive pointers to ensure that no mistakes are ever made again. Soak it in. 

1) Keep it fresh

Many swear by filling the kettle with fresh water before making the perfect cup of tea, because something something oxygen, something something minerals. I argued with the online trolls that it was double the hot and therefore twice as nice, but alas. “Never reboil a kettle, yuck,” says heat expert Courtney Kitchen. “Always fill it fresh and just boil what you need.”

2) Heat ’n’ eat

While the internet devours itself over milk orders, the wise Angela Cuming wishes to remind us of an important step which is often forgotten in the chaos. “In Northern Ireland I picked up the habit they have of first filling your tea cup or mug with boiling water and then tipping it out, thus warming the cup before you start the brew. It’s a crucial but often overlooked step.”

3) Milk first?!

There was a lot of chatter about the “monsters” that add the milk to their cups first, but there is one situation where it is allowed. “Milk first is only correct if you’re pouring from a teapot – if the tea has already brewed,” says brewdog Breanna Hawthorne. Take heed though, even if the brew is right you are still likely to pour in too much milk. The final word came from John Davis, who advised “just one wee drop” in the mug beforehand is the only way to “do the moo”.  

4) No tea at all?!

If you think milk first is a shocker, then what about this submission from a deep background source: “my friend does no teabag, just hot water topped up with a bit of cold milk, which she calls a ‘pearl’”. Although perhaps as rare as an actual pearl, there’s at least one more who agrees with the zero-tolerance tea policy. “Throw the teabag/leaves in the compost,” advises Jane. “Just have hot water.”   

5) Keep the bags

Someone’s anonymous uncle likes to get the most squeeze possible out of his teabags by reusing them multiple times. “He used to have a little clothesline above his sink where he would peg his teabags, ready for their next use!” Someone’s anonymous mum is perhaps even thriftier, submerging the teabag for “about five seconds” before removing it and storing it in a little bowl in the cupboard. “She’ll get a ‘good’ four to six cups out of each bag,” the distressed daughter recalled.

6) No bag, no cry

The general consensus – too little, too late for poor Simon Day – was that the bag stays out when milk is involved. “I’m not opposed to leaving teabags in after the milk,” writes James Ireland, “but take it out before drinking, because it makes it easier to drink without teabags rubbing against your upper lip.” One brave thought leader had a new hot take: “leave the bag in while drinking, until the tea is finished,” says Emily Ward. “It’s a gradient brew, an ombré tea.”

Artist’s impression of a teabag clothesline

7) It’s all in the brew

The brew time ranged from “until someone reminds me I have made a cup of tea” to “five minutes at the minimum”. “What is the point of tea where you just dip the bag in the water a single time?” wrote long-haul tea soaker Rowan Newton. “Especially when combined with green milk. You’re just drinking luke-warm almost flavourless water.” If you are too impatient for the three-to-five-minute average wait time, you can always press the bag with a spoon. Or, if you’re Fraser, your fingers. 

8) Do the ‘wave’??

Perhaps the most chilling submission of all came from a tea drinker who wished to have their identity concealed for fear of public backlash. “I’m a microwaver,” they bravely submitted. “It takes less time than boiling the jug, it doesn’t burn the tea leaves because they’re heating up gradually, and makes it nice and strong.” It’s an isolating choice. “I don’t know anyone else who does this or, when they find this out about me, doesn’t judge me immensely.”

Perhaps armed with these handy tips from tea enthusiasts across the nation, the next cup of tea you make on national television and/or for the prime minister won’t become a source of ongoing ridicule. “I still think about the day I failed to make the perfect cup of tea for the leader of the nation every day,” said Simon Day.

“Her teabag sits beneath my computer screen as a reminder to always be better.”  

A broken man attracting ants

Of course, you could be less hard on yourself and take Fraser Pearce’s defiant reaction to his own teapot tape. “The lasting implication is that I’ve never made Monique a cup of tea again. That’s what happens when your partner betrays you.” He ended our exclusive interview with some sage advice for any anxious tea makers.

“It’s not about the flavour of the tea, or how you make it, or how it’s brewed. At the end of the day, it’s still a cup of tea that someone’s made for you.”

Keep going!