Making Tea 4 - Making Billy Tea the Australian Way

This is the traditional way of making tea in the Australian Outback. The drover with his herd of sheep or the itinerant shearer with his swag would have to drink water wherever he could find it. Tea is a good way to drink the water and the billycan reduces tea making to absolute simplicity.

The billy itself is simply a kind of metal cooking pot with a lid and a bucket handle that goes on the fire. The water is boiled and tea made all in the same pot. For a family choose one of 1 to 2 litres, but for a larger gathering you need a billy of perhaps 10 litres or more. It will soon be blackened and sooty on the outside but clean and shiny inside, which adds to the authenticity.

When you travel with your swag in the Outback you don’t carry fresh milk. It is traditional to flavour billy tea with tined sweetened condensed milk, but the flavour is not one everyone likes. You will need:

  1. Strong black tea (any kind, fresh if possible)
  2. Billycan of suitable size
  3. Water (clean and fresh if possible)
  4. Campfire, and somewhere to put the billy
  5. Tin mugs (250 ml or larger)
  6. Gum leaf (optional)
  7. Milk, sugar or condensed milk, as available.

How to go about it:

  1. Fill the billy can with water: at least 250 ml per person.
  2. Cover with lid and put on the fire to boil.
  3. When the water boils, take off the fire by lifting the handle with a stick and remove lid. Be careful – everything is very hot.
  4. Sprinkle tea on top of water: a handful for a family billy, several handfuls for a big one.
  5. Drop in the gum leaf for its distinctive flavour (optional).
  6. Wait. After about 5 minutes the tea leaves will suddenly drop to the bottom. Tapping the side of the billy with a stick may help (at least many people do it!).
  7. Pour carefully into tin mugs leaving tea leaves in the bottom of the billy.
  8. Flavour with milk, sugar or condensed milk if liked.

The tea is strong, invigorating and a surprisingly good flavour. An Australian bush barbeque would definitely not be the same without billy tea. It goes particularly well with damper and jam or golden syrup, but that is another story!

A gum leaf means a young, green leaf of a eucalypt tree. These are available in a surprisingly large number of places outside Australia, but it is very much an acquired taste.

Tradition is that the dregs of the tea from cups and billy are poured into the fire to help put it out before leaving the camp.


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