People have very different ideas about tea; some like it strong and dark with milk and lots of sugar, some like it pale and fragrant without either milk or sugar. Tibetans like it served with rancid yak butter! The way a Malaysian Indian Muslim may like his tea prepared and served may be very different from that preferred by a Malaysian Chinese.
What is important, however, is that to know how to make tea to suit your own tastes. In this respect two things are vital:
Your choice of tea
The way you prepare it:
i. The water you use.
ii. The teapot you use.
Your choice of tea:
Black tea, oolong / red tea and green tea are made by different processes and have their own particular characters. Green tea and oolong tea are usually drunk without milk, while black tea can be drunk either with or without milk. Strong liquoring types of black tea such as Assam, Kenya and BOH are well-suited for use with milk. Light liquoring, fragrant Darjeeling and artificially flavoured teas such as Earl Grey are probably best without milk.
The way you prepare it
It is essential to recognise that the way you make tea, even the same type of tea, can greatly influence how it will taste. The local water can also have a marked influence.
The most important thing is to get the strength right for your taste. This depends on how much tea you use relative to the amount of milk and sugar. If the brew is too weak, use more tea; if it is too strong use less.
Many Malaysians make tea with sweetened condensed milk. A strong coloured brew is needed to counterbalance the milk's flavour. If you try drinking the same brew without milk, it will be unpleasant.
i. The water your use
Generally, using water taken directly from the tap is not ideal. Ensure that it is at least filtered before being boiled for tea.
As a rule of thumb, the water used should at least have no noticeable taste. Using neutral spring water or mineral water is also another option.
ii. The teapot you use
For mild, delicate black teas like Darjeeling and most oolong and green teas, use a pot with a fine, smooth inside surface made out of china, porcelain, heat-resistant glass, enamelled cast iron or stainless steel.
For flavoured tea, use a glass pot because it will not harbour any smell.
For more robust teas (black teas in general), use a teapot made out of porous materials like terracotta or non-rust metals like tin and silver. These materials allow the tannin in tea to impregnate the insides, forming a 'lining' and making the tea taste better.
The 'lining' in a teapot is an important element to brewing a good cup of tea. When a teapot develops a 'lining', it enhances the flavour of the tea brewed within but one must not brew other kinds of teas in them. The ideal situation is to have separate tea pots for light and strong teas.
In cold countries, it is usually recommended that the pot be warmed before the tea is made to avoid the brew cooling too quickly. A ceramic pot retains heat well but a silver pot is, of course, more elegant.
After enjoying your pot of tea, the teapot should be rinsed in clean water then left upside down to drain. It should be dried on the outside but not on the inside. If you use a dishwasher, never put the teapot in together with the rest of the dishes.
A teapot must never be used for anything other than tea.
Tips for brewing tea
There are, however, a few golden rules that every self-professed tea drinker should stand by when brewing that prefect cup of tea.
Always use boiling water when making tea, whether you are using tea leaves or teabags. Hot water from a thermos or jug is not good enough. This is because the soluble crystals of dried juices formed when tea is dried will only completely dissolve at 100 degrees Centigrade. Bring the teapot or cup close to the kettle and pour the boiling water over the tea directly from the kettle.
Always boil a fresh pot of water for brewing. Fresh cold water should be put in the kettle and should be used for making the tea as soon as it boils. This is to avoid the water being de-oxygenated by long boiling (oxygen in water is lost by boiling, resulting in a flat cup of tea).
There are certain parts of the world where the water is strongly chlorinated and makes any cup of tea taste terrible. In these cases, the only solution is to boil the water, allow it to cool in the kettle and boil it again.
Having poured in the boiling water, allow the tea to stand for two or three minutes and then stir the contents to release the full colour and flavour. However, if tea is left too long in the pot, it may develop a "stewed" or bitter flavour.
Never confuse long-infused tea with strong tea. All the stimulants in tea – caffeine, theophylline and theobromine – are completely released in just three minutes. Thereafter, the polyphenols, responsible for giving tea its taste, are released to complete the flavour.
The longer the tea infuses, the more polyphenol is released and the less active the stimulants become. Thus a cup of tea that has been infused for longer will taste bitter and have less a stimulatory effect compared to a cup that has been infused for a shorter period. Even so, this is not harmful to the drinker.
Other things to consider
Milk left open in the refrigerator is quickly tainted by other contents, particularly vegetables, and this will affect the flavour of the tea. It is best therefore to keep milk in the fridge in a clean, airtight container.
There are often arguments about whether milk should be put in the cup before or after the tea. This is unlikely to make any difference to the flavour, but it seems sensible to put the milk in afterwards because it allows you to see the strength of the tea and to vary the amount of milk accordingly.
Tea should always be stored in a dry, airtight container because it easily absorbs moisture from the atmosphere. When this happens, the oxidation process is reactivated and causes the tea to lose its freshness and flavour. Teabags especially should be stored correctly or the tea will develop a flat papery taste.
In conclusion, you should make tea the way you like it, always remembering that the method you use will have a great influence on the final taste. All this may sound complicated but it's really very easy. And it's worth it to enjoy your perfect cup of tea.