Feb 21, 2018

How to: Make a Proper Cup of Builder's Tea

If you were to ask an American to picture drinking a cup of tea, it's safe to assume that the mental image wouldn't include work boots, hardhats, bricks, and lumber. But while coffee is standard in the U.S., for thousands of construction workers in Great Britain and Ireland, as well as numerous tradesmen like electricians, welders, and plumbers, a strong cup of tea is the preferred fuel for a day filled with labor.

Here's a basic rundown of how to fortify your work day with the strength of a bricklayer.


First, a disclaimer is necessary: while there are a handful of generally agreed-upon elements and protocols in tea making, there's also a wide range in styles of execution. (Even George Orwell weighed in on the subject. Apparently he considered adding sugar to be doubleplusungood.) Your taste is the ultimate judge, but this guide will give you a good jumping-off point.

Right! On to the ingredients:

Builder's Cuppa Tea Recipe

  • Boiling water
  • Tea bag (see note below)
  • Sugar
  • Milk (whole or 2%—not skim!)
  • A mug (not a teacup)

*Note on the tea: the point of a builder's cuppa is that it's strong, so you're going to want to brew a stronger tea bag. The best way to accomplish this is with a round, British-style tea bag. My sister-in-law married a Scot and they often bring a massive package of Tetley when they're back in the States; the other brands we tend to use in our house are Typhoo and PG Tips. (Here's another list of favored tea brands according to The Telegraph.) Start with black tea, and then work to find what you like. If you can't get ahold of anything but Lipton, don't despair—just double (or triple) your bags per mug.


First, boil your water. If you're going for authenticity, use an electric kettle, per the current British norm. (I always like to joke that the power grid in the UK takes a massive 2-hour surge at the beginning of every work day.)

Next, add your tea bag(s) to the mug.


I like to add the sugar at this point because it dissolves while the tea is brewing, which makes for minimal stirring. I use raw cane sugar because (though sugar is sugar) it's less processed than white sugar. Some British sources have you doing two small scoops of sugar for builder's tea ("milk and two"), but that tends to make it pretty sweet, so I prefer "milk and one."



Pour and let steep. This is another element with a wide range of execution. To make it strong, brew for 5–6 minutes, with a good deal of stirring to help the bag release its flavor compounds. Again, experiment to see what works best for you—set a timer for 5 minutes initially, make note of the strength, adjust accordingly next time.


Remove your tea bag and add the milk. How much milk? This is the most hotly contentious element of tea brewing. I usually go for the color of  caramel. The best advice: add your milk slowly, stirred a little bit at a time, frequently taste tested. Just remember: you can always add a little more milk, but you can't take it away.



And then, as my brother-in-law would say: get it doon yer neck.

If you're headed to a job site, or working in your shop or garage, a heavy duty spillproof mug is a perfectly acceptable way to keep it warm as you sip slowly. This one is our favorite. 



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JoelSelby on Mar 08, 2018:

@adam — Sounds like the the tea/milk ratio might be a bit too heavy on the milk side of things. (I add too much milk sometimes.) If you're interested in tweaking it, I'd try to steep the tea a bit longer (stirring occasionally) and then add a little less milk.

If the temperature of the room is cooler, I often put a small plate or saucer over top of it to keep the heat in. Either that, or I give the tea a 30-second zap in the microwave before adding milk.

I'd like to give Campbells a try!

adam on Mar 07, 2018:

Joel, the Tetley just ended up tasting like warm milk, the decaf more so. Ive been drinking Cambpells for a while, my wife bought it after reading an interview with Steven Smith (of Steven Smith Teas - her second favorite; Lord Bergamot) saying it was a great tea. She gets it from Churchmouse Yarn and Tea, which sells her favorite tea - Churchmouse Winter.

JoelSelby on Mar 07, 2018:

@adam — I've never heard of Campbells, but it sounds good! Does it only come in looseleaf? Brewing with looseleaf instead of teabags is really the premium way to do it.

I hear you on the decaf—I've been cutting way back too. I typically use Typhoo or PG Tips for decaf and double up on the bag, since the decaffeination process also takes some of the tannins with it and weakens the tea.

Out of curiosity, what about the Tetley were you not a fan of?

adam on Mar 06, 2018:

I tried some Tetley based on this, and it didn't do the trick, I have been a huge fan of Campbells for the last year or so. I'm looking for a good tasting decaf (since I'm old now and can only do one cup of caffeine a day...)

Any recommendations for a hearty tasting decaf tea?

JoelSelby on Feb 26, 2018:

@Steve Moray Great comments! Since the article is for builder's tea, the idea is to make it super strong to get you through a day of hard labor. But I totally agree with you, 3–4 is best for a normal cuppa, and you can't hide cheap tea when you sell it looseleaf!

Steve Moray on Feb 24, 2018:

Some thoughts from an avid tea drinker:

Starting with Tetley or equivalent is a good idea, as is experimenting with milk and sugar ratios.

6 minutes for steep time is probably a little bit too long. Try somewhere between 3-5 minutes, and if you want stronger tea, add another tea bag. Steeping too long will start to make the tea bitter.

If you enjoy tea and want to get really serious, get looseleaf tea from a local market or online dealer and use a diffuser to make whole pots. Looseleaf is generally much better quality than teabags (teabags use the leftover bits...they're like the hotdogs of the tea world).

JoelSelby on Feb 23, 2018:

@Keith Peters — My thoughts exactly! Unfortunately tea is still a super niche thing in the States, which is a shame. Sounds like a wide-open market for a passionate entrepreneur!

JoelSelby on Feb 23, 2018:

@Adam Tracksler — I'm all for it! If you're going for a builder's tea, you'll need all the tea liquor you can get, and squeezing the bag helps get that much extra out.

Adam Tracksler on Feb 23, 2018:

What are your thoughts on squeezing vs. not squeezing the teabag?

Keith Peters on Feb 22, 2018:

How to make tea: get a teabag. boil water. pour water on teabag. add milk and sugar. It's not rocket science. And yet, it's rare to be able to buy a good cup of tea at a shop or restaurant.

The biggest mistake, and the point you needed to emphasize more, is BOILING water. Not hot water that's been sitting in a kettle on a hot plate for hours. Not heated water out of a water cooler. Not out of a thermos. Not steaming. BOILING.

The other thing that usually happens if you go to a starbucks or other coffee-centric shop, is they use WAY too much tea. They get this giant teabag that I could use as a wallet, and scoop about a quarter cup of tea leaves into it.

Surprisingly, you can usually get a decent cup of tea at Dunkin Donuts. But it's hit or miss. Make sure you ask for milk, not cream, and put the sugar in yourself later.