Micro-brew

It has been a troubling month for tea aficionados. First, David Tennant – in his role as DI Hardy in the acclaimed ITV Drama ‘Broadchurch’ – was shown preparing himself a cup of tea via a method shocking in its callous disregard for the British way of tea: he heated a cold cup of stewed brown liquor in a microwave. To make matters worse, a few weeks later ABC News in Australia carried a story covering the research of Dr Quan Vuong – a researcher at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales – which had shown as long ago as 2012 that completing the process of tea making in a microwave ‘activated 80 per cent of the caffeine, theanine and polyphenol compounds, and generated the best taste’. After all, according to Dr Vuong, ‘microwaving is one of the advanced technologies to get more bioactive compounds from the products’.Dr Quan Vuong

DI Hardy’s shocking disregard for tea propriety was widely covered in the British media; and the Twitterstorm which it had generated meant that the stories almost wrote themselves. The staged anger and faux horror was clearly a gift for news organizations searching for lighter material among the unrelenting flow of international aggression, political posturing, and domestic woes. The Telegraph proclaimed ‘tea-mageddon’, asking whether viewers of the crime drama had just witnessed the ‘murder’ of tea; the Independent showed greater restraint in noting that fans were ‘upset’ by the scene; the website of The Daily Mail meanwhile – joining the journalists’ scramble to find tea-related word play in their coverage of the story – claimed that fans had been left ‘boiling with rage’. Long-established TV Listings magazine The Radio Times claimed that viewers were ‘left shocked and appalled’ by his behaviour. The Daily Mirror website suggested that this offence to the nation’s tastes had distracted from the rape investigation on which Hardy and his team were engaged. More perplexing was The Sun’s claim that viewers had been left ‘confused’ by this detail in the episode, as though the casual approach to the manufacture of a hot drink made the fiendish tangle of the plot itself look straightforward. Whilst The Guardian resisted the initial story, it covered the newly-remembered Australian research, allowing it to claim that the ‘outrage across the UK’ following the broadcast of the Broadchurch episode ‘might be misplaced’. Its Australia office even staged a ‘blind tasting’ of tea ‘made using the usual kettle method’ (itself a curious summary of ‘traditional’ tea making) and tea ‘brewed in the microwave’.

But none of the Twitter comments had been alarmed by the consequences – for good or ill – of microwaved tea for the health of tea drinkers. Most had represented the character’s actions as being an offence against a treasured national institution, a troubling disregard (on the part of the programme makers) for a national heritage of tea-making skill, often expressed in the terms of a cultural religion: ‘Us Brits are the experts at tea brewing and I can assured you this is SACRILEGE’ (@CathPoucher); ‘Tea in the microwave! What blasphemy is this?!’ (@Turn_The_Pages_). Others expressed concern for the tea itself: ‘It is a breach of the Human Rights Act to microwave a cup of tea. DO. NOT. DO. THIS. EVER!’ (@lawsofben). For the historian of Britain’s obsession with tea, these responses – predictable though they are – are telling. The overwhelming majority of messages that expressed (however playfully) a conviction about the ‘wrong-ness’ of the tea-preparation method depicted are a testament not only to the utter saturation of tea within British cultural life (even at a moment when we’re told – in another endlessly repeated story – that the nation is consuming less and less tea), but also to the casual assumption that appropriate methods of tea preparation are ingrained as a part of the British psyche, a core set of skills acquired at birth, skills which re-assuringly transcend the boundaries of the United Kingdom’s constituent nations, and which bring the components of Britain’s diverse urban populations into a conversation enabled by shared experience. To read these comments is – somewhat bizarrely – to conjure a caricatured domestic landscape of Britain in the 1950s, full of tea-pots and strainers, a simple way of life in which we are to imagine people honouring the legacy of centuries in quietly waiting for their tea to brew. The reality of tea-drinking in Britain is surely most typically about a tea-bag in a mug: in a household at the start of the day, in a shared workplace kitchen. And around the country, people (like the author of this post) who become distracted having made their cup of tea, habitually re-heat their beverages in a microwave – perhaps the most common everyday use of this most quintessential of late-20th century kitchen appliances. Indeed, these tea ‘dark-horses’ mounted a significant rearguard action on Twitter.

If the cultural history of tea’s adoption as the national drink of Britain over the course of the eighteenth century tells us anything, it’s that tea is adaptable. It changes itself to accommodate local circumstances, whilst (at the same time) changing and challenging those contexts. Making a cup of tea requires investment of time and concentration: of boiling the water, balancing the intrinsic components, steeping the leaves – time which is also used for conversing with colleagues, with family members, with friends, or (when alone) for reflection and introspection. And that notion of a complex multi-stage process – attested most memorably by George Orwell – is important; even Quan Vuong’s recommended approach for microwave tea describes a method: water has to be first heated, placed in a mug with a tea bag, microwaved for 30 seconds, allowed to stand for a period of time. The tea made by DI Hardy in Broadchurch had already been brewed in a tea pot (a fact which many Twitter users appear to have missed); what viewers of Broadchurch witnessed was the re-heating of a cup poured from that pot. Tea attracts ritual and convention to itself, and these are habits which it doesn’t give up lightly. This goes some way to explain the admittedly tongue-in-cheek reaction that we’ve recently seen on Twitter: the conventions of tea making, the conversations it enables, the social rituals it invokes are important as part of a shared cultural fabric (or the memory of such a fabric), and they’re not going away any time soon.