I want to talk today about one of my favorite subjects–tea. Being the daughter of an Englishman, I’ve been drinking tea as long as I can remember. I drink way more of it than coffee, and I would even go so far as to say I’m a connoisseur. I started my tea drinking life the old fashioned English way; strong black tea with milk and sugar. Green tea was only had when we went to Chinese restaurants. Green tea is now my favorite, and is one of the top five things I would take with me to a desert island. In fact, in the summer, I’ve been known to turn the air conditioner on so the house would be comfortable enough to drink hot tea in the afternoon. Yeah…it’s like that.
There’s so much I could say about tea, but I’m going to try to streamline here. Several years ago, one of my dearest friends said something which broke my heart. He said, “I don’t like green tea because it tastes like swamp water.” OUCH! I really couldn’t blame him, though. Because even though tea is the most consumed beverage on earth, second only to water, it isn’t fully appreciated in the United States. I am happy to say, however, that I believe this is changing. There are three major components that will make or break your tea experience, so allow me elaborate.
The first thing to know, is that the difference in quality between grocery store tea bags and loose leaf tea is EXPONENTIAL. The tea that is typically in tea bags is the dust and remnants, or “fannings,” that are leftover after the better quality whole leaf has been used. Whole leaf loose tea that’s been lovingly created in smaller batches has a complex flavor profile. This simply cannot be achieved with one dimensional mass market tea dust that’s allowed to sit in a warehouse and go stale for long periods of time. Another issue with tea bags is that there isn’t enough room for the tea to spread out and be saturated with water. The whole leaf needs to dance in the water in order for all the nuances of flavor to be released. Something else to consider, tea bags are usually bleached. This bleach, of course, affects the taste of the brew, as well as your body when you drink it. That said, the easiest tea to tolerate in a bag is going to be a black tea. It’s the heartiest of the types of tea, and if you put milk and sugar in it, you’ll have an acceptable cup. Also, it is becoming easier to find better quality tea bags out there. Companies that use whole leaves, organic leaves, and unbleached bags have cropped up, but I try to save those for emergencies or travel.
The second component is water temperature. Yes I know…when I first heard this years ago, it sounded silly to me too, but it is absolutely true. If the water is too hot it will scald the leaves and leave you with a bitter “swamp water” cup. It is especially true of green tea, which is the most vulnerable to this post’s three components. Back in 2009 when I started getting serious about my tea, I started trying to control the water temperature by sticking a candy thermometer in the kettle. This eventually became tiresome, so I invested in this temperature controlled kettle I found on amazon.
But you could just as easily pull the water off the heat and let it sit for a minute or two. If you google “what temperature to brew tea,” you will find results that swing 5 to 15 degrees in either direction from the temps that appear on this kettle. This can be a matter of personal taste which you should tinker with until you find your niche. Black and herbal teas definitely need a full boil. However, white tea, green tea and oolong take lower temps, so keep that in mind when you’re working with those three. The temps on this kettle have always worked for me. But with my precious green teas, I usually pull the kettle off the base about thirty seconds before it beeps. Here’s a list of suggested brewing temps in degrees:
Green 160-175 (some would go as low as 150)
Darjeeling— This is different: Darjeeling is simply the name of the region in India where the tea comes from, but can be oxidized as a white, green, oolong or black. Also, different “flushes” of darjeeling have different flavor profiles, so with this one you’ll really need to tinker with temperature and steep time.
The third and final component is brewing time. Once again, green tea (especially delicate Japanese greens) is easily ruined if it is brewed too long. This is, I’m sure, another reason my friend said he didn’t like green tea: sub-par tea dust in a stuffy bleached tea bag sitting for too long in overly heated water…OF COURSE it would taste like swamp water!! To think that many people drink their green tea like this is devastating to me, which is why I felt compelled to help. Brewing time, like temperature, varies a little. When you buy loose tea, there will be brewing instructions with it. These are a guideline. One person’s two minutes is another person’s ninety seconds. However, as mentioned earlier, green tea is the most temperamental. When I get a new batch of my favorite Japanese Gyokuro, I do a test cup. I brew one level teaspoon in eight ounces of water and time it. At about forty five seconds I start tasting it, and taste it every fifteen seconds or so until it’s perfect. I then write this time down and tape it to the container. I test all my new teas this way.
As I’m writing this, I realize there is so much to say about tea that I should break it up into parts. So next I think I’ll do a post showing you my brewing tricks. I feel like many people in this country find loose tea inconvenient, daunting or confusing. And while there is a degree of trial and error involved, the ritual of preparing a wonderful cup of good quality tea can become a very enjoyable part of your life. There are exquisite teas in the world that are cherished as much as fine wines. I just wanted to try to help my fellow Americans learn to love tea as much as I do.
Here are some great websites that I buy organic loose teas from: