This distinguished brew is much more than just ‘a cup of tea’. It is a social connection, a bit of consolation when words are not enough. Indeed, George Orwell called it one of the “mainstays of civilization” and over many years it has become a symbol of everything that is English. The British population consumes 165 million cups of tea per day, which makes it the most consumed beverage after water.
Despite being the epitome of English culture, tea actually originated from China. Legend has it that the Emperor Shen Niung was reclining under a tree whilst his servant boiled water for him to drink. Meanwhile, a few leaves drifted into his cup and voilà, the first ever cup of tea was brewed. The Emperor liked what he tasted and then and there started the craze that would spread across the world, quickly becoming a billion pound industry.
The popularity of tea eventually filtered through to Britain via Holland, which was one of the last European countries to embrace what would become its national drink. The high taxation on tea meant that it was initially only enjoyed by the upper echelons of society. However, taxation was eventually abolished in the middle of the 18th century after the exorbitant price of tea fuelled a thriving smuggling industry to meet the demand of the country. Tea then became more affordable, so even the lower classes could enjoy a good cuppa; although the tea that they consumed was certainly variable in quality. Sheep’s dung was a popular additive and whilst unpleasant, was much less harmful than the lead or copper that was also often added.
The Perfect Cup
A few leaves make an incredible journey from the rainforest just to get to your cup. For centuries, the art of making the perfect cup of tea has been much debated. Many years ago, Orwell claimed that there were eleven fundamental criteria to tea-making, which included always adding the tea before the milk, drinking it out of a ‘good breakfast cup’ and never, under any circumstances adding sugar. More recently scientists from the Royal Society of Chemistry unravelled more secrets of tea making and controversially disputed Orwell’s notion that milk should be added last. The scientists suggested that adding milk to the cup before the tea leads to a better flavour by preventing the denaturation of milk proteins. Other important principles include leaving the tea to stand for six minutes before drinking it at the ideal temperature of 60 ºC.
Dr. Ruxton is a nutritionist from Kings College, London, who has done extensive research into the properties of tea and has gone as far as to say that drinking tea is better than drinking water. She also dispelled the popular belief that tea has dehydrating properties.
Furthermore, tea has been shown to be associated with numerous health benefits. It is an excellent source of flavonoid anti-oxidants, which get rid of free radicals within the body that might otherwise go on to damage cells. Research has shown that tea drinkers experience significantly less cognitive decline and are less prone to dementia. Other health benefits include a reduced risk of a heart attack, whilst the fluoride in tea helps contribute towards healthy teeth and bones. There is even some good news for the weight-watchers among us; tea without milk has no calories and only 14 calories with semi-skimmed milk. The only drawback to tea is that if consumed close to a meal, it can interfere with the absorption of iron.
That’s all the scien-tea-fic information about Britain’s best-loved beverage…so next time you need to let off some steam, perhaps you will swap your kegs for kettles and raise your glass to toast the teapot. Freshers: as you settle into university life and meet new people, be aware that the real friends are not the ones you will be necking shots with on a night out, but the ones you will find yourself sharing tea, hobnobs and hilarity with. So go on, have an herbal infusion, not a hangover; even Boy George said “I’d rather have a cup of tea than go to bed with someone — any day”.