Builder's Tea: Why a Brit Makes That Face if You Don't Use Milk and Sugar

Builder's Tea: Why a Brit Makes That Face if You Don't Use Milk and Sugar

It was first mentioned in a letter. England's East India Company  had been attempting to build relations in isolated Japan, where, for centuries already, tea occupied a place of high praise and spiritual reverence. It was mentioned by Richard Whickam who had tasted it in his far-ranging travels and now begged the good Company to transport home with them a barrel of what he called "chaw", which along with "chaa" is of course an alteration of the Hindi "chai" and Arabic "shai". By 1660, tea was officially presented to the court of Charles II, whose new wife, the Portuguese Lady Catherine is said to have used the drink to help her adjust to life in England, making tea collecting and tasting the core of her social life, using it to break ice with her new society, interest her English friends, and facilitate study and present herself as worldly and savvy (which she of course was).

But – and here, as a famous Brit once wrote – lies the rub. Bring your average London tea-drinker (that would be...just about all of them) a cup of what was brought to Charles and enjoyed by Catherine, and you'd more than likely be confronted with the same politely skeptical look as if you handed them a Starbucks chai latte. Plain green Chinese tea was the court's drink of the 17th century.  Nowadays? The English prefer what's called "Builder's Tea" a hearty brew made in a pot by adding boiling water to tea (loose, bagged, but more likely loose), always in that order, and then served, strained, into mugs with milk and sugar added by the drinker, some of whom may forgo the sugar, but few of whom forgo the milk without incurring a quiet gasp or two.

It's not that Americans don't also often like their tea flavoured and sweetened – we do!  It's just that we express it in a different way. For us it's about the variety and nuance of the tea as it's prepared. For example: a pomegranate tea, or a chocolate rooibos. But we're more likely to have them plain or slightly sugared. And we also – forgive us – probably pour hot water from the stove or electric kettle (or, god forbid, microwave – which tastes just fine thank you very much) into a cup and then drop our tea infuser into it. Rather than a pure English steep of two-to-five minutes where the tea is sacred, respected, untouched, we sometimes like to work the tea infuser agitating it like we're starting a Model-T: an elaborate Yankee swirling and pumping ritual. Get us our flavour and our drink, please! And finally, while a yummy chai might benefit from milk (to be true to India, one would in fact boil milk rather than water with a cinnamon stick and cardamom pods inside it) we don't often add it to our tea tea. Oh, and the difference between boiling and simply-very- hot water? No such difference for most of us. Big, serious, conversation-warranting difference across the pond.

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Of course it's not a question of right or wrong. There's wonderful merit in a British cuppa and fine rugged appeal in the stateside method. Don't be offended if a Brit insists on your trying a Builder's tea. For them, we're doing the equivalent of eating a salad undressed, a mozzarella stick un-marinara-ed, or plain dry unsalted popcorn. Again: good for you if these are exactly how you like these dishes. It's a question of what we're used to.

But is there a deeper reason? Roguish British ruler for whom milk represented something? Suave English author whose characters always drank their tea that way, influencing the nation? Something to explain to us the significance of the "proper preparation”?

Well, while milk has never been questioned in and of itself, the order of operations was a matter of hot debate for many a year. Up until 1946 in fact, England was divided, to the point where George Orwell, in an essay about tea that year, noted, concerning whether one adds tea to milk or milk to tea, that:

"...indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject."

His conclusion? “By putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is likely to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round."  

Others make claims for milk's effect on temperature, arguing that later is better. But some will always associate tea preparation with the sublime sight of sugar and milk – just a dash and puddle of each – in the bottom of their grandmother's porcelain teacups, awaiting the boiling tea's inevitable pour.

Still, though we all like things the way we're most familiar with them, your English friends will be happy, likely, just for the fact that you love tea. Make a small snack or light meal out of it with some biscuits, bread, or your favourite American treat – and they'll feel well hosted. As for milk, it's probably best to have it available, even if you secretly feel that tea is an adult drink, damnit, and should be savoured for what it is and not soothed and damped by dairy and sucrose.

Draw your strength from another great English tradition of quietly suffering in polite deference even to the most baffling of choices on the part of those around you. After all: Somethings are best left unsaid. 

>>>>>>  Classic Black Teas Suitable for the English <<<<<<

Try these English Tea's Today!


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