Five Minutes To Midnight

When I was a teenager, way back in the early 1980s, there was thing called the Doomsday Clock, and it counted down the theoretical time that the human ‘day” had left to run, i.e. when it hit midnight KABOOM! and to quote Roger Waters* at the time “it looks like the human race is run”.

Anyway this clock was about 5 minutes to midnight back then.

Turns out it’s still around. It’s currently set at 2½ minutes to midnight, mainly due to environmental concerns and not the thought that we might blow ourselves up, although when countries have a lunatic in charge, you never can tell, and we certainly have a few of them. North Korea must keep various world leaders up at night.

So, if you had five minutes before the end of the human race and the annihilation of civilization, you could at least have a decent cup of tea. (In fact, if you’ve read Tea Story, you’ll know I even wrote a story about a soldier who does exactly that).

But NOT if you steep it for five minutes. After all, why make it if your fragile human shell is disintegrating to a crisp before you even get a sip?

Why am I considering this? Well, naturally, something set me off.

I was in a shop yesterday and they had some little hourglasses marked as “tea timers”. They came in three varieties:

  • A three-minute timer for “green tea”
  • A five-minute timer for “black tea”
  • A seven-minute timer for (gasp) “herbal tea”

It’s actually the last one I have the least issue with. Much as I dislike the phrase “herbal tea” and prefer the more accurate “tisane”, seven minutes does give time for flavour to develop in concoctions which have no actual tea in them, and therefore may not be susceptible to highly tannic over-brewing.

But seriously? “Five minutes for black tea and three minutes for green tea” is this mantra I see over and over again. Why? Who are these arbiters of tea steepage? Maybe they are people who don’t even know there are different types of black tea. Possibly people who think green and black tea are from different plants. Possibly people who have highly problematic relationships with livestock for all I know. Most likely, just some idiot that read a 50-word sidebar in a Martha Stewart magazine or once spoke to a guy on a bus who must have known all about tea because he looked vaguely Chinese.

Leaving aside the shameful scorning of oolong teas by the manufacturer, I defy anyone to claim that, say, a High Grown Nepali Black, a Taiwanese Ruby 18 black, a Nilgiri from Craigmore and a Daintree from Australia should all be steeped for exactly the same amount of time.

I don’t even think you can say that about the same tea. I am drinking, right now, a 2017 first flush Jungpana, and I think it needs at least 20-30 seconds longer than the 2015 as it’s incredibly light this year. Hang on, I’ll just twist the dial on my timer to allow for that… wait, it’s not got one.

Squirrel Nutcracker also thinks this is a load of hogwash.

Very few black teas can go a full five minutes with becoming rather over-steeped. Some would taste like chewing tobacco by that time. Similarly, greens have a multiplicity of steep times and even three minutes may be too long.

If you search on the Internet for the best times to steep black tea, you get results between three and five minutes. On face value, that’s informative, but reading a bunch of them you find some are loose leaf in pots, some are bagged, some don’t even say!

I just had a quick look on steepster, and one of our USA distributor’s teas has been steeped for 30 seconds, 40 seconds and three minutes, all at different temperatures, and all enjoyed. Two of those by the same person.

You can love different versions of the same tea. Pour boiling water on Lord Petersham and leave it for 2.5 minutes, and it’s lovely as-is (like this reviewer did). And then this person on Steepster obviously brewed it for much longer and also loved it. Great to hear: but the two are totally different results pleasing different palates.

So, where does that leave an hourglass timer?

I think a three-minute timer is a great deal more useful than a five-minute. It’s a damn sight easier to do three and a half minutes with a three-minute timer and a guess, than it is with a five.

So in the end, I bought the green one. Lady Devotea wanted me to get the black one.

Why? Because the green timer is a truly ugly colour and it clashes with our kitchen.

And compared to everything ever written about the “perfect” time to steep tea, Lady Devotea’s comment is the only absolute, verifiable, 100% accurate statement on this page.



*No-one is more quotable that Roger Waters when it comes to the self-destruction of humanity. Virtually every Pink Floyd album from The Dark Side of The Moon on and all his solo work is either primarily or tangentially about it. That particular quote is from Pink Floyd’s “Two Suns In the Sunset”

3 thoughts on “Five Minutes To Midnight

  1. Or you could just steep it until it is at the strength and flavour that you prefer. That’s what I do. A 5 minute steep would make most of the teas I like quite undrinkable.

  2. And don’t forget that water temperature and the number of leaves you use also play a role in defining how long you keep your tea into the water.

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