Tea Diplomacy: A Brit’s Take on Brewing and the American Interference

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Opinion: Americans, Spare Us Your Tea-Brewing Advice

Delving into the realm of tea brewing is always a delicate matter.

Roughly 250 years post the Sons of Liberty’s infamous tea-dumping escapade in Boston Harbour, a Bryn Mawr College professor has committed a tea-related transgression that comes dangerously close in severity. Chemist Michelle Francl, in her latest book “Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea,” dismisses the sanctity of the British cuppa by suggesting the addition of a grain of salt for the perfect brew.

The reaction was as swift as a military response to a nuclear threat.

“The elixir of camaraderie, the bond that unites our nations, is tea,” declared the US Embassy in London in an urgent communique, desperate to prevent an international incident. “We cannot stand idly by as such an outrageous proposal threatens the very foundation of our Special Relationship.”

Any chance of de-escalation vanished when the release continued: “The US Embassy will continue to make tea in the proper way – by microwave.”

Far from diffusing tensions, these words exacerbated the offense, provoking flashbacks for every Brit who ever ventured west of Iceland.

Picture downtown LA, Midtown Manhattan, or Rust Bucket Indiana. Innocently ordering a cup of Rosie Lee only to receive a chilly bag floating in bathwater. A supposedly nice cuppa arrives, not accompanied by honest cow’s milk but some yellow citrus concoction.

Worse still is tea in an unimaginable fruit or “’erbal” flavor. Or, heaven forbid, it arrives not in a reliable tea bag but in the dreaded form of tea leaves.

A high point of my ten years in New York City was the day the local grocery store introduced a “British section” with Ribena, Bourbon biscuits, and, most satisfyingly for a homesick Brit, Tetley tea bags.

I once visited a tea factory in Sri Lanka where a worker passionately explained that the finest teas come from the tips of the leaves, insinuating that those who drink bagged tea consume the floor sweepings. Being British, I refrained from pointing out that floor sweepings are precisely what we enjoy, were raised on, and celebrate in daily, sometimes hourly, rituals.

I adopted the tea habit around age 12 or 13, like many of my compatriots, having a cuppa four or five times a day ever since. It’s less intense than coffee, more affordable than gin, and generally a calming, unifying ritual, especially when shared with others. A cuppa is offered if you’ve given birth, witnessed a murder, or returned home from a tough day at work.

There are clear do’s and don’ts when it comes to brewing. Too weak, and you risk serving “gnat’s piss”; leave the bag in too long, and it becomes a “stew.” Opting for “builder’s tea,” named after construction workers who prefer strong tea with a splash of milk, makes you a good egg in British eyes.

As for the sugar debate, adding it post-puberty seems a tad immature, but who am I to judge?

However, salt? Salt? Whether it’s in the seas of Boston Harbour or a mad professor’s lab in rural Pennsylvania, tea and salt do not mix, and that, my American friends, is the end of the story.

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