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The Perfect Cup of Tea

Tea advice from the experts. You’re SO welcome.

Here’s all you need to know about the ‘right’ way to make tea. No ceremony necessary. First of all, we have assumed one is using leaf tea. You really and truly should. Secondly, not all leaves require the same approach. Green leaves may prefer a longer brewing time: Darjeeling performs shabbily with milk. But let’s describe the classic process of making a traditional “black” tea as found in most of Fortnum’s (and the world’s) most popular blends.

Here is a simple digest of what works.

  1. Fill the kettle with fresh water from the tap. Yes, your grandmother was right: water that has been boiled already will affect the taste of the tea.
  2. As it approaches the boil, warm the teapot by rinsing it out with hot water.
  3. Treat the teapot to one rounded teaspoon (yes, or caddy spoon) of tea leaves for each person and one extra spoonful 'for the pot'. That’s the orthodox rule, though many these days find it a little strong. You’re in charge here.
  4. Just before the kettle water boils, pour into the pot. It doesn’t need to be stirred.
  5. Leave to infuse for three to five minutes, depending on taste. Serve, using a tea strainer.

If making tea in a cup with a tea infuser, the same rule applies – one spoon of tea, use water just off the boil and infuse for 3-5 minutes.

Milk or no milk?

Many teas taste delicious with milk, particularly stronger teas such as Assam, where the milk tempers the strong flavour. Generally, the lighter the tea, the less likely it is that it needs milk. Green, white and yellow teas as well as aromatic and floral teas should be drunk without milk. Very light teas such as Darjeeling can easily be overwhelmed by milk. If you are not used to drinking your tea ‘black’, do try it – you will be surprised by the difference.

How to keep your tea in perfect condition

Keep coming to Fortnum’s and acquiring small quantities. If that's not practical, loose-leaf tea will keep very well in an airtight container for up to a year. But please, don’t leave it at the back of the pantry from one year to the next. We’re open most days.

The right kind of cup

If aiming for perfection is has to be bone china. The delicacy of the cup definitely enhances the delicacy of the tea within.

Milk in first or last?

loose leaf tea and tea cups

This thorny question has divided tea drinkers for quite some time. Putting the milk in last was considered to be the ‘correct’ thing to do in refined social circles, but the reason for this is often forgotten. In the early days of tea-drinking, poor-quality cups were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, and putting the milk in first helped to prevent this. When finer and stronger materials came into use, this was no longer necessary – so putting the milk in last became a way of showing that one had the finest china on one’s table. Evelyn Waugh once recorded a friend using the phrase ‘rather milk-in-first’ to refer to a lower-class person, and the habit became a social divider that had little to do with the taste of the tea.

Having said that, there is a good reason for adding the milk last – if you are drinking an unfamiliar tea, it is easier to judge the correct amount of milk to add once you have seen the strength and colour of the tea. On the other hand, putting the milk in first means that the fat in the milk emulsifies in a different way when the tea is poured, which does change the flavour of the tea, giving it a more even, creamier flavour. It also cools the tea slightly to a more acceptable drinking temperature. So, now that the days when one’s social position was judged by this sort of thing are long gone, you may pour your tea however you choose. If anyone comments, send them to us.