The English Afternoon Tea style of making tea is for black tea, suitable for larger groups. The point is refreshment – abundant tea as hot as possible as long as possible, and ease of replenishment. Always use forgiving, no-fuss teas which mistreatment cannot make undrinkable, for mistreatment is what this tradition teaches unless one resorts to untraditional devices.
Traditionally, you boil water, warm the pot, measure tea (plus a big one for the pot) and place loose tea in pot. In this traditional method, any ill consequences which befall the tea are accepted in passing but ignored. When the pot is empty or almost so, or when the undrink tea in it becomes stewy and oversteeped, boiling or even less than boiling water is added. Theoretically, this second steeping need not be inferior to the first, but it seldom seems to work out that way. Ideally, at least, the excess “tannin,” if diluted, allows the weaker liquor of the secondary steeping to retain good bite and brightness without contributing bitterness. A joke about a Scotsman in the tea trade escaped me until I understood this. Of a tea he approved the stingy Scot would say, “Aye, it takes a firm grip on the third water.”
In practice, the tea is never as good as it could be made in this traditional English Afternoon Tea way. It has always amused me that a leading practitioner, Mr. Samuel Twining, OBE, preaches so vociferously against the use of a tea cozy, which he swears stews the tea instead of steeping it. Assuming Mr. Twining is right about the cozy, which I doubt, he never forbids going on to stew the tea anyway by leaving it to oversteep, at which point he blithely recommends adding water as if to wash away the sin. Though this works, the trouble is it does not work very well, not if the tea has any delicacy to lose.
More particular English tea drinkers used to (and perhaps still) decant the tea at its peak of perfection into a second, preheated pot. Handling a volume of scalding water sufficient for a large gathering can be daunting without servants. Even within an intimate circle the maneuver requires a measure of grace not to seem strenuous, or even dangerous. Since the tea is less important than the food, conversation and camaraderie together, however, this is usually thought an unnecessary bother. There’s no great loss, given the typical milk and sugar type of black tea commonly served.
Read next: The Black Tea Ritual (Part 2 of 2)