The Perfect Cup of Tea Around the Globe

Person holding a cup of tea
Photo: Kittibowornphatnon/Shutterstock

How do you take your tea? With sugar or lemon? How about milk, and if so, what kind — whole, skim, almond or other? Do you prefer black tea or green tea, or maybe chai (like the woman pictured)? Would you enjoy an iced tea on a hot day, or is hot tea the only way to down a cup in your book?

The point is, there are as many ways to make a cup of hot tea as there are people on the planet, and the regional differences are interesting (and delicious). From the green and oolong teas of Asia, to the black teas of the United Kingdom and Ireland, to the "strong like bull" tea of Russia, how a population prepares its ideal cup is a reflection of both history and current trends.

Take a tour around the world of how the biggest tea-consuming countries prepare a proper cup.

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Photo: Alim Yakubov/Shutterstock

Turkey has some serious tea-drinkers. The average Turkish citizen consumes about seven pounds of tea a year — that's about 1,000 cups, according to data from market research company Euromonitor International, which makes the Turks the biggest tea consumers on Earth.

Tea is a staple in everyday life, the Turkish Cultural Foundation says: "It is hard to imagine breakfasts, social gatherings, business meetings, negotiations for carpets in the Grand Bazaar, or ferry rides across the Bosphorus in Turkey without the presence of tea. With tea servers in streets, shopping malls, and parks shouting, “ÇAY!” (chai), the beverage is always within shouting distance."

How to make a proper cup: Use rize tea, which is a black tea produced on Turkey's eastern Black Sea coast; you could try some from Çaykur, the oldest tea-producing company in Turkey.

Boil water in the lower pot of a double teapot (called a "çaydanlık," pictured) made out of porcelain, preferably. Add loose-leaf tea to the top part and, once the water boils, add enough hot water to steep the leaves. Let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes.

This allows each person to have their tea as strong or as weak as they wish: Pour a quarter or half glass of the steeped tea water and fill the rest of the glass with hot water, according to the Instanbul Insider.

The tea is served piping hot in a small, clear glass with a slight hourglass shape (also described as tulip-shaped), which you hold under the rim to avoid burning your fingers. The clear glass enables the drinker to appreciate the tea's deep crimson color.

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Photo: Regan Buker [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Behind Turkey, Ireland is the second leading consumer of tea per person on the planet. The Irish custom of "taking tea" or having a "cuppa tea" happens multiple times a day: There's the morning one at breakfast, a traditional tea at 11 a.m., afternoon tea between 3 and 5 p.m., and high tea at 6 p.m.

How to make a proper cup: Irish tea is most often Assam tea, also known as Irish breakfast tea, which is a blend of black teas. (Try Barry's and Lyons, recommends Irish Central.)

In Ireland, proper tea is served from a teapot in teacups. Prep the pot by scalding it before adding the leaves or the tea bags, according to the Irish American Mom. Add a small amount of boiling water to the empty pot, swish it around for at least 10 seconds to remove residue from previous brews, then discard the hot water.

Add one teaspoon of fresh loose leaf tea per person plus one to the pot. Top the teapot with boiling water from the kettle, and steep for three to four minutes, says the Farmer's Almanac. Whether the tea is weak or strong depends on the individual, but many Irish folks like their tea strong with plenty of milk and sometimes sugar.

When you drink four to six cups of tea a day, they won't all be in such style. Using a mug with a teabag for breakfast or in the afternoon is no big deal — be sure to add a biscuit or not-too-sweet cookie on the side. High tea is served with all the expected accompaniments: Irish soda bread, tiny sandwiches, scones with jam and cakes.

Oh, and tea is never (ever) served iced, even on the hottest days.

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The Chinese have been drinking tea for thousands of years, and they're still going strong. The average person drinks 400 cups of tea a year, which means the country's population consumes 550 billion cups annually, according to the University of Southern California.

In China, tea is served as a sign of respect, especially from younger family members to their elders at family gatherings or from employees serving others at meetings. It may be included as part of an apology, a showing of gratitude or a celebration.

How to make a proper cup: The type of tea depends on the season, Sun Yuping, tea master of Shanghai Fenghe Teahouse, told CNN. Green tea is fresher and more fragrant in the spring, while oolong is harvested for fall drinking.

Chinese tea is served in small, 2-ounce (ish) servings — sometimes called thimble-sized. Use an 8-ounce small ceramic pot, and fill it no more than halfway with dry tea leaves. In a separate kettle, boil water and cool to the appropriate temperature (110 to 160 degrees F for green teas, for example), Saveur says. Fill the teapot about 3/4 of the way and pour it out right away to wash any dust off the tea leaves and warm the pot. Refill the pot with more water and let it sit one to five minutes.

Never pour a full cup of tea in China. “Like wines in Western culture, tea in China is more of a sense and concept than taste,” Sun said. “You should never completely fill your tea cup, it's considered impolite.” Fill about 70 percent of a cup with tea, as the other 30 percent is "space for your emotions," said Sun.

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United Kingdom

Photo: Jeremy Keith [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

The British are another band of serious tea drinkers who down about 4.3 pounds of tea a year. Having tea at 4 p.m. each day is an English ritual originated by Anna Russell, Seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the mid 1800s, who needed a snack to bridge the long gap between lunch and an ever-later dinnertime. (Preach.)

By now, Brits have the perfect cup of tea down to a science, and according to the British Standards Institution (BSI), there's only one way to do it. The British Tea Producers’ Association, Tea Trade Committee and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food all contributed to create the standards (officially known as BS 6008), which were developed in 1980.

How to make a proper cup: You'll need a porcelain pot with 2 grams of loose black tea leaves for every 100 milliliters of water, which should not be hotter than 185 degrees F. Steep the tea in the pot with the boiling water for six minutes.

In your empty mug or teacup (call it a cup no matter what you use), add about a teaspoon of milk. The act of adding milk before or after the tea is hotly debated, however, and author George Orwell was an outspoken critic of the milk-first practice: "The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round."

One person should pour all the cups — using a tea strainer to catch any leaves — and hand them out as they are poured. Serve the tea with scones, jam and cream, or cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

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Photo: Alieva Liubov/Shutterstock

While tea-drinking in Russia was once considered an afternoon affair, it has become an all-day activity and arguably the favorite drink of many Russians (non-alcoholic, that is; it can't compete with kvass). Residents of the chilly nation drink more than 3 pounds of tea per person each year, and tea is a key component in Russia's social culture.

Traditionally, Russians used a unique device known as a samovar, or a heated metal container (the silver bottom of which can be seen in the top center of this photo) to boil and brew their tea. Though these days, many opt for the convenience of an electric kettle and small teapot, especially when making tea for one.

How to make a proper cup: Russians use black tea most often, though green tea is rising in popularity. (Consider trying an Oolong blend known as "Russian Caravan.") Russians add loose tea leaves to a small teapot with boiling water to create a "zavarka," or a very strong tea concentrate. The tea concentrate is poured, either a splash or up to an inch, into individual mugs and topped off with boiling water. Like tea in Turkey, everyone can have their cup as weak or as strong as they prefer.

It may come as little surprise that this "strong like bull" nation enjoys its tea as strong as its vodka. But sugar, lemon and milk are served so you can sweeten or dilute your cup. Russians also have been known to add jam to their tea. Even tea-loving author George Orwell, who was adamantly anti-sugar when it came to his tea, added sweetness when tea was served Russian-style.

Whatever you do, just don't serve it naked, that is without breads or sweets to accompany it, as that's considered rude. Likewise, it's considered rude to drink your tea naked, which is when you decline the treats set out by your host. So eat — and drink — up!

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There is no English word strong enough to describe how offensive it would be for someone in Morocco to not offer tea to someone entering their home, the Washington Post reports. "You must,” one local man insisted to a Post reporter. “It is in the blood. It’s in the culture.”

Moroccan tea, which originated in northwest Africa but soon spread to the rest of the Arab world, is unique for its use of fresh herbs and the elaborate way in which it's poured.

How to make a proper cup: Boil water in a kettle and pour 1/4 cup of water into a clean teapot. Swish around to warm the pot. Moroccan tea starts with loose-leaf Chinese gunpowder green tea — add 1 teaspoon for every 6 ounces of hot water. Then add another 3/4 cup of water and swirl it around again to activate the tea leaves.

Let it steep briefly, about 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Swirl the pot again and pour out the water, making sure to strain the leaves so they stay in the pot. Next add a handful of mint leaves to the tea leaves and a few scoops of sugar (cane sugar is best). Fill the pot with more boiling water and let steep about 5 minutes.

Here's where the elaborate pouring ritual begins: Pour a glass of tea, then pour it back into the pot. Repeat a few more times to dissolve the sugar. When you pour the tea into individual cups, lift the teapot up high and pour from a distance with panache. And never fill to the brim.

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Photo: Christian Kaden [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr

Perhaps nowhere else in the world are tea rituals as detailed, artful and stylized as the Japanese tea ceremony, which is the preparation and presentation of matcha, a powdered green tea. Less often, these tea ceremonies use sencha, a loose-leaf green tea and the most popular tea in Japan.

How to make a proper cup: Attention to detail starts with the very first step when making sencha. Experts recommend using only bottled spring water — not tap water, not hard water and not distilled water.

Next, the temperature: If the water is too hot, it will burn the leaves. If the water is too cool, the tea will be weak; aim for about 175 degrees F. If you're using a high-grade tea, lower the water temperature to about 155 degrees. (These instructions come courtesy of several Japanese tea stores.)

Pour the hot water into the individual teacups you're going to use so the cups will warm and the water will cool. Measure about 2 teaspoons of loose tea for every cup of water into a kyusu, or a small teapot, and fill with boiling water. Let steep for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on the type of green tea, then pour into the teacups.

For stronger tea, pour more of the teapot liquid into the cooling water already in the teacup. For weaker tea, pour less. But make sure you pour out every last drop of liquid from the kyusu, and make sure you pour it evenly into all the teacups that need serving.

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Tea, specifically chai, has been called "the drink India can't live without." It's the most popular beverage in the country, the BBC reports, and Indians consume 837,000 tons of it a year. Chai is everywhere from roadside stands to high-end restaurants, and it transcends class levels, too. While chai is the Hindi word for tea, it usually refers to the sweetened spiced milk-tea of India.

It might seem surprising that this hot-weather country drinks a hot beverage year-round, but the tea triggers the body's cooling reflexes and brings your body temperature down.

How to make a proper cup: This recipe is courtesy of Indiaphile. Add 3, 2-inch long pieces of lemongrass to one cup of water and bring to a boil. Add 2 cups milk, sugar to taste and 1/2 teaspoon chai masala (add more of this for stronger chai). Bring to a boil, strain and serve hot.

If you like, you can try adding mint leaves, ginger, saffron, orange zest, basil, black pepper, carom seeds or star anise.

No fancy ceremonial serving here, as busy pedestrians or train commuters often grab a to-go cup from street vendors. But street vendors do have some cool tricks for dividing the tea between cups and cooling it in the process.