February 27, 2024

A scientist from the country where you can get tea made with lukewarm tap water claims to have found the recipe for a perfect cup.

The secret, according to Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, is a pinch of salt — and energizing the tea bag.

“You get some horrible cups of tea in the U.S. It’s terrible,” Francl said. “I grew up in the Midwest, which is a deep coffee-drinking country, but tea has always been my drink of choice — and I spent a lot of time studying it.

“But even after all these years of drinking tea and researching chemistry, I’ve learned new things about what’s in my cup and how to make the very best cup of tea.”

In less controversial advice, Francl suggests using short, sturdy mugs as they have less surface area, so keep tea warmer. Preheating your mug or teapot is crucial, she says: the warmth increases the amount of caffeine and antioxidants released, which, she says, create vital “aromatic compounds.”

Finally, settling down the question that vexed British tea drinkers and snobs for ages – be it a miffy (milk in first) or not – Francl found that milk should be added after the tea is poured to reduce the chance of curdling. The milk, she added, must be warmed.

The key to a perfect cup is also using larger tea bags that allow the tea leaves to move around and keep them in contact with the water – although ideally you should use loose leaves.

Further advice – which should surely be unnecessary for even the most casual tea lovers – is that both tea bags and loose leaves should only be used once.

“The research shows that the size of the bag really matters, not the shape, but some shapes give you more space,” Francl said. “Tea leaves expand by maybe a factor of four or five and if you don’t give them enough space, there’s not enough good access from the solvent.

Francl analyzed research papers and ancient texts dating back more than 1,000 years to devise the best brew, and documented these experiments in her new book, Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea.

Francl’s pro tips for the perfect brew is:

  • Add a pinch of salt – the sodium ion in salt blocks the chemical mechanism that makes tea taste bitter, especially when it’s been brewed.

  • Pull tea bags quickly, but with very thin and pressure – to reduce the sour-tasting tannins created by caffeine slowly dissolving in water.

  • Decaffeinated tea can be made by steeping a tea bag for 30 seconds, removing it and discarding the liquid, then adding fresh water and brewing for five minutes.

  • A small squeeze of lemon juice can remove the “foam” that sometimes appears on the surface of the drink, which is formed from chemical elements in the tea and water.

  • The flavor of tea is almost as important as the taste – so when drinking from a takeaway cup, it’s best to remove the lid.

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