My name is Lauren, and I am a tea heathen.
Here are my sins, listed in no particular order. I use tea bags – never loose leaf (not as a rule, I just find it so much easier to dunk a perfectly proportioned bag than use those fiddly little strainers. Also, I do not own a tea pot. Strike two, if you're counting). I leave the tea bag in, for maximum flavour (total no-no, so I'm told). Then – look away, tea enthusiasts – I add cold water (or sometimes, if I am honest, an ice cube) to render the tea immediately drinkable. I only ever add milk to Earl Grey, and I splash it in after the water. Oh, and I prefer my tea in a mug.
Told you: total tea heathen.
But I love tea. As I write this – at midday – I'm on my fifth cup of the day. While I could care less about how my tea is made, I am picky about the type of tea I drink. I pack my own tea bags wherever I go – to meetings, on holidays, even to friends' houses (what a fun guest I must make!) – because so much tea is so bloody undrinkable.
The opposite is true of coffee. While I love it – perhaps even more so than tea – I don't really care what it is. Give me your International Roast, your airline pot, your stick of Moccona in a hotel room – if it vaguely smells of caffeine, I'll drink it. Like any good Gen Y, of course I prefer my coffee artisanal, in a cute paper cup and made by a tattooed hipster whose gender identity might not be immediately clear, but in reality, I will take anything you have.
Not so with tea. I have a preferred Earl Grey brand (Twining's, all the way), I love T2's Sydney Breakfast, and I may as well buy stocks in Pukka – you should be very, very afraid if I ever run out of their Peppermint and Licorice flavour (they also do a great Lemon, Manuka Honey and Ginger). For green tea, I'm all about the matcha from The Rabbit Hole. And that's it; you can take your Bushell's, your generic office jar, your PG Tips – I'm good, thanks.
Like coffee, tea has a lore and mythology of its own. Real tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant – anything else (like herbal tea) is a tisane. Milk is added before water, and (loud, clanging duh) you should always use loose leaf, in a pot. Brewing time will depend on the blend, the size of the teapot and the temperature of the water. Could I still be a tea lover when I so flagrantly dismiss all the rules?
I ask William Main, venue manager at The Tea Room at Sydney's Queen Victoria Building about the rules of tea. "Science will say that milk must come first, due to the way the hot water would unevenly heat the proteins within the milk, causing a 'clumping effect,' if added after." Charmingly, he adds that the old "milk first" rule came about as a test to see how good your china was. "If you were concerned over the quality, you would add milk first so as to protect your cups from the heat!"
While I am quite sure Main would faint if he saw me dropping an ice cube into a freshly brewed cup of peppermint tea, he does tell me that sugar is perfectly acceptable. "There are certain teas that cry out for a little sweet touch. Orange Pekoe is delicious with two lumps of sugar and a splash of milk. Honey works fantastically with chai or Assam tea, whereas lemon is the traditional accompaniment to Earl Grey (no milk, of course!)." That's what, strike 15 for me? I'm a little happier when Main does concede that tea bags are "great" as they make the drink accessible to the masses (me?).
Like me, Main drinks tea throughout the day (probably a KPI, to be fair) and likes to change it up. Mornings, he says, call for a strong cup of Royal Yunnan (a Chinese black tea from the Yunnan province, where villagers have been making tea for nearly 3000 years), while elevenses is all about Darjeeling. "For early afternoon I have a fantastic green tea called Heaven and Earth (a Chinese sencha green with dried strawberries) and then around 4pm I like to finish with my latest addition to the menu, pai mu tan and melon (a floral white tea)." At home, though, Main is a fan of Barry's Tea – rich, strong and available in a bag.
I ask Corinne Smith, co-owner of The Rabbit Hole, why she thinks we're so picky about our tea. "Well, tea is really personal," she says. "Up until very recently, it was usually something we made at home, for ourselves. We know exactly how we like it. With coffee, we usually outsource it. Like Main, Smith's perfect cup of tea changes ("I love the versatility of tea", she tells me) but generally, she loves an oolong.
Customers at Rabbit Hole – both its original site, in Sydney's Redfern, and the new store at Barangaroo – are split when it comes to experimenting and staying true. "Everyone does something different," says Smith. "We have customers who get the same thing every day – like you would with a coffee order – and others who like to mix it up every time they come in." This flexibility is part of the appeal of tea, she says.
I ask Smith about my flouting of the rules. Would I be thrown out of a place like Rabbit Hole? "Well," she says, diplomatically, "The world certainly won't collapse because you've left your tea bag in." I press her for more. "But brewing tea is like cooking – there are ways to get the best out of the leaf. There are rules around tea for a reason, and we find that sticking to them produces the best cup possible." That said, she adds, "I think the perfect cup of tea is the one you love."
I'd go one step further than Smith – being a committed tea heathen – and say that the perfect cup of tea is, in fact, the one you're drinking right now.