A Proper Cup of Tea

Following on from my last article about Twinings and the history of tea in London, let’s talk about how tea drinking began and how to make the perfect cuppa (cup of tea).

First tea break

It All Started in China

Legend says that the first cup of tea was brewed in China around 2500 BC quite by accident. Shen Nung, who is considered the father of Chinese medicine, was traveling through the country snacking on plants to find out which ones were poisonous and then trying to find antidotes for them. He was said to have had a transparent body which made it easier for him to see the plant’s effects.

One afternoon, he stopped for what turned out to be the world’s first tea break. He built a fire and put a pot of water on to boil – being a scientific man, he knew that boiled water was safer to drink. He gathered some dried branches of the nearby camellia sinensis (tea plant) to make his fire. As the wood burned, the wind carried some of the dried leaves into the air and they fell into his boiling water making the very first brew of tea. Of course, the curious Shen Nung wanted to taste the colored liquid. Not only did he find the taste pleasing, but he was convinced it would work as an antidote to some of the poisonous herbs that he planned to sample later on. After some experimentation, he concluded that he could counteract the toxic effects of around seventy plants with a cup of tea.

Unfortunately, for Shen Nung, one poisonous plant proved fatal. Its toxins worked so quickly that he didn’t even have time to drink his tea antidote before his intestines exploded.

Today, most of us don’t wander through the woods nibbling on poisonous plants, but we still drink tea – just because we like it. Shen Nung enjoyed his tea made with just the basics: a pot of boiling water and dried tea leaves. That’s really all that’s necessary, but some of us modern folk are a bit more finicky about how we brew our cuppa. After 4,500 years of tea consumption, making a proper cup of tea has turned into an art.


How to Make a Proper Cuppa

So, how do you make the perfect cup of tea? There are probably just about as many answers to that question as there are tea drinkers. Everyone has their preference for a certain tea blend, serving temperature, sweetness, milkiness, etc. And whatever suits you is your perfect cup of tea. However, there are some recommendations to help you brew your perfect cuppa:

  • Fill the kettle with fresh, cold water. Oxygen in water helps the flavor develop, so don’t be tempted to reheat any previously boiled water.
  • After the water comes to a boil, give it a few minutes to cool down. Pouring boiling water over tea leaves will burn them and keep them from releasing their full flavor. After the water has rested two or three minutes, pour it over the tea.
  • Let the tea steep. Different kinds of teas have different brewing times which are usually noted on the packet. Of course, it’s up to you to decide how much time is just right.
  • After the tea has steeped, remove it from the water. Over brewing will make it bitter.

Whether you make your tea in a pot or directly in the cup, these tips will help you make a flavorful cup of tea. Be sure to use your favorite mug or cup for added enjoyment. Bone china or porcelain are normally recommended for best results.

Are You a Miffy or a Tiffy?

A controversy has long raged about whether milk should be added to the cup before the tea or after. There are two camps: The Miffys (milk in first) and the Tiffys (tea in first). This debate, like most things, has its roots in history.

In the early days of tea-drinking in the UK, cups were not of the quality they are today and pouring hot water into them could cause them to crack. So, everyone was a Miffy and poured their milk into the cup first to cool the water a bit and keep the cup intact.

When fine china arrived in Britain, the upper crust became Tiffys and took to putting their tea in first. This had nothing to do with flavor: it was just to show everyone that they owned the best quality china and it was strong enough (and expensive enough) to take the heat.

If you are feeling pretty comfortable with your social standing, then feel free to add milk to your tea whenever you feel like it. You can even bypass the milk altogether, it’s entirely up to you. With that said, however, here are a few milk considerations:

  • Tea brews best in hot water. That means that if you are steeping the tea in a cup, it’s probably better to add the milk after the tea has steeped because the milk will cool the water. If using a pot, the tea has already brewed, so it doesn’t matter which goes into your cup first.
  • Putting milk in first results in a creamier tea and cools the tea to a more drinkable temperature.

Now, go put the kettle on and brew yourself the perfect cuppa!

Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England

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A Perfect Cup of Tea
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Margo Lestz


  1. Great stuff. I normally pour the hot water straight from boil into my cup with the tea bag… I guess I will try your way for a while see the difference.

    1. Hi Sam. It was great to see you at the convention!
      I used to pour the boiling water over the bag too. I think it tastes better if the water sits a few minutes, but it might just be my imagination… Let me know what you think. 🙂

  2. Margo,
    I just love reading your stories and admire the illustrations that go along with each story. I love to read about culture, food, history, and humor, and your stories cover them all, and then some. It’s definitely a better way to spend my time, rather than reading the depressing current events on the news sites.
    Keep up the great work! Oh and your stories would make a GREAT PBS show. 😉

    1. Hi Alice,
      Thank you so much for such a lovely comment. It really brightened my day. I’m glad to hear that you enjoy my stories because I enjoy researching and writing them too. Thanks again, it’s so kind of you to take the time to write – and I’ll be waiting for PBS to call. 🙂
      All the best,

  3. Good morning! My family are avid tea drinkers and the selection on our shelf is vast – my sons being most responsible for the variety. My habit when pouring tea from a pot is to put milk into my cup first, as the tea blends into it right away and then doesn’t need to be stirred (I don’t take sugar). An elderly Scottish lady once told me the origin of what you refer to as Miffys is the following: tea was very expensive and adding milk to a full cup of tea could cost you the whole cup if the milk happened to be off. Putting the milk into the cup first meant you could stop pouring the tea at once, thereby saving it, if you noticed that the milk was reacting strangely. I have also heard the theory of saving the china from cracking. In fact, it happened to me with one of my mother’s Royal Albert bone china cups….I poured boiling water into it to warm the cup (a habit I still practice – I warm the pot and also all the cups before serving tea) and the whole bottom dropped off in one crack! I felt terribly bad. The cup may have had a flaw, as it never happened before and also never since. XX Jeanne

    1. Hello Jeanne, Thanks for that extra bit of reasoning about when the milk goes in. It sounds like you really know how to make a proper cuppa! I’m afraid I’m a bit lazy and just put a bag in the cup and pour the water over it – but I still enjoy it. Thanks so much for commenting. Have a great day. xx Margo

      1. Oh don’t you worry Margo, when I’m alone I have a cup just like you! When there’s more than me, it has to be a pot as, with all the chatting, one cup will not do! Have a great day too X

  4. Great post, you cant beat a good brew , always been a tea first milk after person but will try othsr ways see if it makes a difference and interesting to know the history behind tea and now to put the kettle on !

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