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The Science of Tea

By news editor, on 14 June 2013

Cup of tea by Simon Cocks on Flickr

Cup of tea, by Simon Cocks on Flickr


Written by Holly Holmes, reporting on a session at this year’s Times Cheltenham Science Festival.

Tea: the nation’s favourite beverage and a drink synonymous with British culture.

As one of the 40 million Britons who enjoy a cup a day, “Science of Tea” immediately caught my eye in the festival programme – ‘an evening dedicated to the chemistry and pharmacology behind the nation’s favourite beverage’ – what better way to spend a Friday night in Cheltenham?

The venue was packed; not a single free seat in the house. Festival favourites Mark Miodownik and Andrea Sella have clearly garnered quite a crowd following the success of last year’s ‘Science of Honey’! The event kicked off with Simon Hill, a tea buyer from Taylors of Harrogate (the masterminds behind ‘Yorkshire Tea’).

Simon essentially drinks tea for a living, making him one of the luckiest men in Britain. He took the whole audience on a journey from leaf to brew, and offered a fascinating and unique insight into the tea trade. Simon also brought along several delicious teas with him, which we got to try for ourselves.

We were under strict instructions to ‘slurp’ the teas, to really intensify the flavours of the leaf. The entire audience dutifully obliged, and the room slowly filled with a sound akin to a blocked drain. Tea-licious!

In between tea trials, Mark and Andrea entertained the audience with experiments focused around the chemical processes that govern tea drinking. Mark and Andrea’s passion for science was infectious: they breathed life into ‘dull’ and ‘boring’ concepts, making them fun, exciting and relevant. They also attempted to address the burning question that has divided tea drinkers for centuries: milk first or last?

As someone who considers the ‘milk first’ method pure sacrilege, this was particularly interesting. And I’m not alone. George Orwell once wrote: “By putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is likely to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.” Well, you can’t argue with a literary genius, can you?

Andrea and Mark attempted to settle the argument once and for all, using two separate brews and one very enthusiastic member of the audience. But could she tell the difference? Answer: no.

As well as delicious tea samples throughout the evening, a year’s supply of Yorkshire Tea was awarded to people who could correctly tell the percentage of people who take milk in their tea (98%) and also to the best tea slurper. However, Simon ensured that no one left empty-handed and gifted the entire audience with a box of Yorkshire Gold. Time to put the kettle on…

Holly Holmes is a PhD student at the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging. Her research involves the study of Alzheimer’s disease using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

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