Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Is proper tea theft?

The other day I went into the teachers room and pressed the reboil button on the pot to make a cup of proper tea. There are a couple of two-litre insulated electric kettles there, of a kind very common in Japan, but not that I've ever seen in the UK. I think this goes down to point number 6 of George Orwell's eleven essential points to making a good cup of tea.

George and I agree on ten of them. I have to confess to being a mif, no doubt having been handed down the practice of putting milk in first from some of my proletarian forebears, who had to use milk to protect their inferior quality porcelain or earthenware from cracking upon impact of hot tea. I completely agree on the absolute necessity of the water being on a rolling boil as it is poured into the teapot, or at least soon before. 

This is the part that sets thermo-economic alarm bells going, knowing that electrical heating is expensive, and that converting water to steam requires the input of a lot of latent energy. According to this blog by Ro Randall, which PJ sent me along with the George Orwell essay, 4% of UK domestic carbon emissions come from the kettle.  This is an astounding figure, so I traced Ro's link to Chris Sherwin's blog on Green Alliance, which in turn gives you a link to Chris Goodall's book How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individual's Guide to Stopping Climate Change on Amazon. I presume this is a reference not an advert. I know from George Monbiot's Heat that when it's half-time on the FA cup final, and half the country get up to put the kettle on, the extra demand on the system is more than the capacity of any one conventional power station, and, since mains electricity is instantaneous and cannot be stored, the load must be made up by a hydro-electric station in Wales that spend the rest of the time skimming excess supply from the grid to pump water uphill for such emergencies.

I like Japanese tea, but there was some milk in the fridge in the teachers' room, and there is nothing like a cup of proper tea. When I say proper tea, I mean English tea of course. The kind that's grown in India. Not the kinds you can actually identify leaves in. Not the fresh green tea they have in Japan or the naturally-fermented Chinese kind, but tea fermented by yeast. It's called koucha (crimson tea) in Japanese, and getting badly made cups of proper tea in Japan is very common. The main reason, I think, is that Japanese tea brews at a lower temperature. In fact to make a good cup of Japanese tea, you should pour water from the kettle into a cup, then from the cup into the teapot, onto the leaves which it will meet at around 70 degrees C, then straight from the teapot back into the cup to drink. Also, they have the dreadful non-British habit of putting cream in, or, perhaps worse, heating up the milk before adding it, but this gets back to Orwell's essay rather than the main point. It also gets onto milk which is a whole different area of ecogeddon.

The point is that making a cup of tea uses a lot of energy, but it is part of a ritual, as Ro Randall points out. Boiling the kettle and then waiting for the tea to mash gives you a valuable break from work, and the process takes you through a routine that is comforting in its familiarity. Technology can perhaps give us some answers, but I'm not sure whether it will stop people from over-filling kettles, or drinking tea in the first place. One of the most compelling reasons to drink tea in the first place, at least from the point of survival, was that boiling the water kills the germs in it. In many ways, with our current infrastructure, cold tap water is about the best thing you can drink, except of course its absence of psycho-active drugs like caffeine.

So we should always remember what Marx said about proper tea being theft. Actually it wasn't Marx, it was Proudhon who said that all proper tea is theft. And it wasn't proper tea either.