Brewing the Perfect Cup of Tea Depends on How You Steep It, According to Science

Ever notice a nasty layer of scum floating on the surface of your tea? Here’s how to get rid of it.

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12/8/2021 8:05:00 PM

Ever notice a nasty layer of scum floating on the surface of your tea? Here’s how to get rid of it.

Ever notice a nasty layer of scum floating on the surface of your tea? Here’s how to get rid of it.

.” “How can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavor of your tea by putting sugar in it?” Orwell writes. “It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”Earlier this fall, researchers at the Institute of Food Nutrition and Health in Zürich, Switzerland added to this tome of tea-related literature with a

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published in the journalPhysics of Fluids. It details the cause of that greasy film that forms on the surface of a mug of black tea—colloquially known as tea scum—and how to prevent it.The work was a detour for co-author and doctoral candidate Caroline Giacomin, Ph.D. (c), who typically studies how different particles affect the mucus in our bodies. When

COVID-19made sourcing mucus for her lab work impossible, Giacomin found inspiration in her daily cup of tea and the tea scum that came with it.Scientists have been trying to get to the bottom of the tea scum debate for decades, Giacomin explains. In the early 1990s, a study

debunkeda myth that the scum was the result of waxy residue on tea leaves. Instead, they discovered, the film resulted from a reaction between the natural plant compounds in tea called polyphenols and calcium carbonate (the primary component of hard water, which has a high mineral content).

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Related Stories8 Teas for Runners Who Don’t Drink CoffeeWith the chemical composition of tea scum nailed down, Giacomin wanted to look at its physical properties, including thickness and resistance, details that might prove useful not just for at-home tea connoisseurs, but also for commercial producers of tea, such as those that sell bottles of (preferably scum-free) iced tea.

To do so, the researchers turned to the science of interfacial rheology, a branch of fluid dynamics (the study of fluids and how different forces affect them) that focuses on the behavior of matter when a gas and a liquid meet—in this case, the interface of the air and steeped black tea. In their experiment, the scientists slowly rotated a motorized metal disk, called a rheometer, on the surface of a mug of loose-leaf Ceylon black tea in order to measure the strength and thickness of the film depending on water hardness, as well as common tea additions like lemon, sugar, and milk.

Water hardness had the most demonstrative effect on the development of tea scum: The harder the water, the stronger the film (your local public works department should be able to tell you how hard your water is, and at-home tests are inexpensive and readily available online). Sugar didn’t appear to influence tea scum; milk contributes to its thickness, while the acidity of lemon can reduce or even prevent it.

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