Bad Tea

Do you love coffee? Or soda, or some other perky drink? Then perhaps you are annoyed now and then by reports of the health benefits of tea, with its antioxidants and its relaxing cultural traditions. Or perhaps a tea snob has extolled the refined subtleties of flavor it offers. So you know it’s a habit you should cultivate, instead of whatever depraved beverage or daily habit you currently pursue in the search for stimulation and/or security.

Well, I’m here to help you out. Because the procedure I am about to set forth will, if followed faithfully, allow you to say, honestly and with pride, “No thanks - I’ve tried tea, and I hated it.”

This is The Won’t Of Tea, The Taon’t Of Tea, the Wobbly-Sobby of Tea, or less elegantly,

The Idiot’s Guide To Bad Tea

  1. Select the right tea. Start at the beginning to ensure complete mediocrity: buy bad tea. Generic or store brands are best, though if they’re not available the first place you happen to look, a well-known American brand like Lipton or Red Rose will do. Buy a large box of tea bags, to ensure you’ll have some left over to disgust visitors for decades; tea bags make great heirlooms too. In a pinch, you may buy a boutique brand, but be sure to age it extra-long. Age it? Yes, Step 2 on the Plodding Path to mediocri-tea is

  2. Age your tea. The real flavor of tea comes from essential oils, so we need to get rid of those. Fortunately, they evaporate over time, and even turn rancid in the hands of an expert. For worst results, be sure to open and remove any plastic wrapping before shoving your tea bags in the back of an out-of-the-way drawer or closet. Generic tea will have lost most of its original flavor (if any) by the time you purchase it, but plan to age it at least a year anyway. (Precise timekeeping is against the spirit of Bad Tea, so it’s best if you can simply forget where the tea is, then happen upon it years later.) If you could only find high-quality tea in Step 1, be sure to leave any airtight lids ajar, and age at least until the next Presidential administration. What you’re shooting for is a flavor dominated by notes of string and paper, though advanced practitioners may choose to age their tea somewhere damp, dusty, or permeated with a strong organic odor such as wet dog or mildew, with corresponding impact on taste and aroma.

  3. Use bad water. Tea is as bad as the water it’s made with, so find some water that tastes bad on its own. Municipal water in cities with a history of heavy industry can be particularly nasty; some rural well water can also provide nauseating notes of manure, pesticides, or natural impurities such as iron or sulfur. One advanced trick is to boil the water several times, cooling it between boilings. This drives off any air dissolved in the water, which provides a flatness that further degrades the resulting tea flavor. For the extremist, distilled water provides a laboratory-grade flatness (much like the silence of a recording booth or the emptiness of space) that can actually bring on existential anxiety even before the tea is introduced.

  4. Avoid high temperatures. The preceding steps should have eradicated all detectable traces of actual tea flavor, but to be absolutely sure, make certain the tea is never in contact with water that is actually boiling, and cool the water as quickly as possible to prevent any real steeping. Techniques for thermal management range from the simple (wait for the water to cool before pouring) through the expert (use a large, pre-chilled ceramic mug) to the truly perverse (run hot water from the tap instead of boiling water at all).

  5. Faulty proportions and preparation. Be sure to use only one tea bag per cup, no matter how large the cup is. Pour water in the cup, then put the tea bag in (to further minimize contact with hot water). Either take the bag out as soon as the water visibly changes color, or leave in for half an hour to ensure all tannic acid is extracted if you prefer a more rigorous, tooth-dissolving experience.

  6. Aesthetic nihilism. Specific techniques vary according to the practitioner, but some generally-reviled tips include:

    • Only make one cup at a time. Sharing with a friend adds emotional connection, and brewing in a tea pot is far too elegant and traditional.

    • Store your tea someplace hard to get to, preferably in a jumble of half-empty or unused containers. In addition to encouraging proper aging, this adds aggravation to the beginning of the procedure and sets the tone for an underwhelming anticlimax.

    • Drink your tea from a large, heavy mug, to emphasize its bulk and minimize attention to subtleties of flavor. Or, for the expert, a styrofoam cup provides a chemical flavor and a tooth-squeaking distraction.

    • Use a microwave oven to mechanize the process. And of course, reheating tea is the ultimate expression of disregard for quality.

    • (Though hanging up a tea bag to dry with a clothespin prior to reuse is even more impressive.)

    • Drink your tea in a noisy, chaotic environment, e.g., while watching the Superbowl in a home-team sports bar. If this is difficult, at least find something else to do to ensure you don’t fully experience or even notice the taste.

    • Be sure not to accompany your tea with something that will complement it, such as a light cookie or scone. Either eat something weird or overpowering with it, like anchovy pizza or fruit roll-ups, or nothing at all. A cigarette is perfect.

    • In restaurants, a trough experience is easy to provide. Heat some water in an unwashed coffee carafe, ensuring it never quite boils. Pour into a tiny, thin-walled metal pot. Provide this to the patron some minutes later with a chilled cup only slightly smaller than the pot and a tea bag that has been stored next to instant coffee since the previous millennium. Not only does this provide a suitably revolting tea experience, it helps solidify tea’s reputation as “watery coffee-lite.”

Remember: beverage snobbery and unflinching obstinacy in all matters of personal habit are what made this country great,1 and are therefore your birthright and rightful legacy. Stick to your guns; with only a little care - in fact, with no care at all - you should easily be able to dismiss tea as beneath your notice.

1Whatever country you happen to be in.

Timothy Weber drinks bad tea nearly everywhere he goes.


With tea you have to persevere

If you get to read this - your old email address is not working, I should like to contact you.


I would like to add a plug for my favorite tea shop, Cognoscentea. Their physical store is closed now due to fire, but they’re still shipping top-quality tea, and if you live in Ithaca, it’s delivered by hand. This is not a commercial endorsement, more of a statement of affection.

And, of course, it will be nearly impossible to make a cup of Bad Tea from their products (though I’m sure it could be a fulfilling exercise for an advanced reader).



Sadly, Cognoscentea is no more, even online. Sic transit camellia mundi. —tjw

Sorry for you tea loss.

I live in Albany and we have a wonderful tea merchant here and online at they sell over 160 different blends but they do not have food service. The teas are excellent and they also have a toll free number 1-877-TEA-DROP Just an FYI


I’ll check it out! I was wondering what I was going to do when my current stash ran out. —tjw

Excellent advice!

Excellent advice! I personally think oversteeping is the #1 reason Americans drink bad tea. They just leave the bag in the cup the entire time they’re drinking it! I’ll never forget how much my view of tea changed when I first started taking the bag out of the cup. However, I do have to argue one point. Yes, starting with bad tea is the key to failure, but I think you should lay off Lipton and Red Rose (I can hear the lynch mob grumbling as it gathers). First of all, Red Rose is Canadian, not American, and I’ve always found it to be a wonderful everyday tea. It’s not what I’d bring out for company, but I brew a pot of it every morning for myself and I adore it. And as for Lipton…well, I’m not saying I like it much, but in a blind taste test where Cook’s Illustrated pitched these mass market cheap brands to some of the fancy brands Lipton was surprisingly well-received (as was Red Rose). Just thought I’d throw that out there.

In praise of Red Rose

I agree - four years after this article, Red Rose has become my regular everyday tea. Knowing it’s Canadian makes me feel better about that. Plus my daughter loves the figurines.

It does relate to point #2 above, though, as I was reminded just last week: It doesn’t matter how good the tea you start with is if you let it “air out” for long enough before brewing it. And Red Rose, at least, is sold in paperboard boxes of 100 with no protection around individual bags. If you’re not drinking it every day, it’s difficult to consume a box of it before it gets stale. This may be why these cheap brands get such a bad rep.

So, in the spirit of Bad Tea, I would advocate buying very large quantities of Red Rose or Lipton and ensuring that they never get placed in airtight canisters.