You can spend a lot of time learning about teas and preparing teas and drinking teas. But are you really getting from them what you can? This little teapot is here to assure that you humans do just that! TOOOT!
Sections in This Guide
|Squeezing Out an Extra Infusion or Two||Starting Out on the Wrong Foot with Tea|
Why People Buy Premium Teas
Why do people buy premium teas? That’s a question closely related to this one: Why do tea vendors specialize in premium teas? It has to do with psychology; this is a layman’s view here.
What Is a Premium Tea?
A lot of tea vendors call their teas “premium” and “hand-crafted” (see this article for more info) when they are just using those terms to attract you, the discriminating tea drinker. To us, a true premium tea is first of all truly hand-crafted and/or of the highest reputation based on overall quality (taste and aroma). Teas from people who really know how to grade the tea buds and leaves and then process them just right are truly premium.
Inconsistent Taste and Aroma Cherished
The premium tea drinker accepts and even cherishes inconsistency. They know that premium teas change from year to year vs. major tea brands (usually blends of various teas) like PG Tips, Lipton, Bigelow, etc., that focus on consistent flavor and make it a goal. Premium teas will vary depending on the location where grown, the weather conditions of that flush (time of growth and then harvest), how harvested (often hand-plucking done by knowledgeable workers), and (often most importantly) how processed (usually by a true tea master who has trained for many years and then been processing for many years). Exploring those variations is part of the joy of premium teas and what that discriminating tea drinker seeks.
Willing to Put in Time and Effort
Appreciating premium teas requires more effort, interest, and knowledge, and therefore more time. You could end up having premium tea enjoyment transcending the beverage and becoming a hobby or even a vocation. You will also find yourself zeroing in on certain tea types, tea gardens, and even those teas processed by specific tea masters. I have seen photos posted on social media sites of shelving where an enthusiast is storing his pu-erh collection or another devoted tea drinker is enjoying the latest tea from a specific garden. There are whole tea books devoted to this tea master or that. The interest is definitely strong!
Superior Quality Assured for the Price Charged
True premium teas have an assurance of quality. The vendor often knows his source, be it the tea grower, tea master processor, or even their representative. And the prices are almost always in line with that quality, besides calculating out to a very low cost per cup. A good example is a premium green tea that steeps out 5 or 6 great infusions and several good infusions from the same tea leaves in your gaiwan or teapot or even steeping glass. A cheaper version might only give you a couple of great infusions and 2 or 3 passable ones. If you like to squeeze every drop out of the teas you have, they should be those premium teas. And those devoted to such teas know this is a key factor in their purchasing decisions.
Are You a Premium Tea Drinker?
It’s okay to like whatever you like. There is no judgment intended here. But if you meet an criteria above, you can consider yourself a premium tea drinker. To you we say, “Cheers!”
Squeezing Out an Extra Infusion or Two
Your purchase of that wonderful premium tea. Time to enjoy a round of infusions, but how do you insure that you get the most from those precious tea leaves?
General Infusion Extending Steps
You’ll want to play around with whichever tea you have, but these are general steps you can take to get an extra infusion or two:
- Use a cooler water temperature than is usually recommended, but don’t go too much cooler or you won’t get a good steep from the leaves. (We’re talking about teas infusing in hot water versus the ones that can be infused using ice or very cold water.)
- Shorter infusing times are also good, but again if you go to far, just as with water temperature, you might not get a good infusion at all. Some teas already have very short infusing times, so this might not be an option for you. It works especially well with black teas, where the usual infusing time is five minutes and where shortening to three or even two minutes will give you a more flavorful and less bitter or astringent liquid, even allowing for a second infusion with is not typical for black teas.
- Use a smaller steeping vessel than usual, such as a ___ ml gaiwan or a similarly sized Yixing clay teapot, but stay with the same amount of leaves you use in the larger vessel. Be sure to have the lid on tightly to keep heat in as much as possible.
- If you don’t have a smaller steeping vessel, use more tea leaves. This will help compensate for cooler water and shorter infusing times.
Some people advise not squeezing the tea leaves after an infusing session as a way to avoid bitter dregs. However, the better the tea quality, the more this is a great option for you. Go ahead and squeeze. Just be careful since the leaves will be hot.
Again, some experimenting on your part will help here, but hopefully these ideas will point you in the right direction.
How to Identify Your Tea’s Aroma
The aromas of the various teas out there can be so enticing and thus so much a part of the enjoyment of tea that there are even special aroma cups (taller and narrower than usual sipper cups) used to help you make the most of them. But what are you smelling? How do you identify and describe that aroma? Various charts have been created over the years to try to lay this out in a fairly comprehensible form.
The issue of personal experience still remains, though, for you can hardly identify fennel or mahogany or cardamom or even strawberry if you haven’t actually smelled these aromas. A little sniffer training might be needed before you can answer that title question: “What’s that smell?”
Some Aroma/Flavor Wheels
Click on each photo to see details:
An Approach to Take
Look up the tea you’re going to have and see what the flavor description is. Then, go experience the real aromas (nuts, fruits, grass, etc.). For example, Gunpowder Green Tea is supposed to have a distinctive nutty/oak aroma. You might want to visit a lumberyard and smell some oak lumber and visit the nut section of the grocery store and sniff some of the nuts there (try not to look too weird while doing this and remember that many of these places have security cameras recording you – so if you’re actions look too odd, they could end up as a viral video on YouTube).
This option could be a bit more pricey. Take a list of tea aromas, go out and purchase some of the items named (such as nuts and fruits) and bring them home to experience the aromas. Thinks like hay and grass will mean going outside or even taking a drive in the country. As for mineral aromas (such as volcanic ash), I don’t recommend traveling to a volcano – better to just use your imagination. Things like jasmine and osmanthus might not be available locally, and I, for one, am not interested in going to a stable to experience first hand the aromas there said to be in some teas.
An Even Better Approach
Just relate to the aromas based on your own experience and the things you are already familiar with. Tea is a very personal beverage, even when enjoyed with friends. Experience it your way.
See also: Appreciating the Aromas of Tea
When Your Tea Smells Funny
The aroma of your dry tea leaves and of the steeped tea in your cup is usually a pure delight. But sometimes that wonderful nuttiness or fruitiness or floral character or even chocolaty aroma is lacking and in its place is something rather “funny” (and not the ha-ha kind of funny but the crinkle-up-your-nose-in-disgust kind of funny). Not good.
Bear in mind that some teas have some rather unusual aromas. Things like scallops, asparagus, wet moss, and more. That’s not the kind of unpleasant funny we’re talking about here, unless you’re getting those odors from a tea that’s not supposed to have them. And that’s the key. That funny smell is anything other than what the tea is supposed to have according to the vendor’s description. While vendors can’t always be accurate on these things and while everyone’s nose is different, they shouldn’t be too far off the mark. Different teas are processed to produce certain flavors and aromas by tea masters who have been trained for years (no correspondence school classes here – strictly hands-on).
No, that funny smell has to be the result of something else. Poor storage conditions is the first thing that comes to mind. Your tea could have absorbed the smell of some strongly odored substance (such as a bag of yellow onions) that was nearby. Avoid this by assuring that your storage container is airtight and well sealed. Another culprit is excess moisture getting to those leaves prematurely (that is, before you are ready to steep them). Tea leaves are very dry and so will absorb moisture fairly readily. Even a small amount could be a problem, leading to mold growth or a stale taste and smell. Time is also a culprit here, from the moment the tea leaves are plucked off the bush until you end up steeping them. Getting the leaves from the field to the processor is a key period. White teas and green teas have to be stopped from oxidizing. Oolongs can’t be let oxidize too much. Pu-erhs need to be oxidized in the right way. Black teas aren’t quite such an issue, though, since they get fully oxidized. Once processed, the teas are still under a time crunch, needing to be stored safely to retain the qualities the tea masters have imparted to them during that processing.
Phew! All things considered, I guess that not having your tea smell funny is the true miracle of the tea master’s art. All the more reason to treat your teas carefully once you get them.
Tea Taste Descriptors
See Taste Descriptors.
Why Fresh Is Best for Some Teas and Not Others
Some tea vendors offer their customers the chance to order some of their white and green teas ahead of the harvest with the goal of assuring that customers get the freshest possible versions of these teas. There are advantages to getting that freshness. But quite frankly there are some teas where fresh is not the best.
How Fresh is Fresh?
Fresh, when it comes to tea, isn’t like walking out to your garden patch and picking those pole beans and taking a bite. From the time that bud, or leaf set, or full leaf is plucked from the tea bush to the time it ends up steeping in your gaiwan, teapot, or even steeping glass, weeks and even months could have passed. The steps needed to process tea will vary in type and complexity, and therefore time needed. Doing the various steps by hand versus a machine can also make the time much longer. White teas are very generally speaking the shortest since the fewest steps are required. Green teas are next since they are withered, rolled, and then dried. Oolongs need some oxidation, and black teas (what the Asians call “red tea”) need to be fully oxidized. The leaves can take hours or even days to fully wither (one site claims 16-20 hours as a general rule, but there is a lot of variation based on the tea leaves). The rolling needed to start oxidation can take an hour or so, the oxidation can go for 90 minutes or longer, and then the drying can take hours over a hot wok or in an oven or even by spreading out bamboo trays in the sunlight (or for some teas the moonlight). The finished tea has to be packaged, and this can vary from small packages of several kilos to larger packages that go to a distributor who breaks it down into smaller containers. Shipping times have to be taken into account, too.
Some Teas that Need a Lot of Processing Time
Click on each photo to see details:
Oolongs can be very labor intensive, including a tight control over the oxidation process and when the right moment has arrived to stop it. It starts with the withering and then goes to the bruising stage. Wuyi Rock tea can take up to 10 hours to bruise properly to remove more moisture and that grassy character and to allow the right amount of oxidation. Then, the leaves have to be dried, with various methods used according to the type of oolong being produced and the tea master doing the processing. A large wok is one possibility, but so are large ovens that still require a careful and experienced eye to keep the tea leaves from getting burnt. Then comes rolling and shaping, often by hand, then heating, then more rolling and shaping – actually, this process can go back and forth several times before the proper result is achieved. Then baking: first Maohong (a fast bake in high heat for a short time to remove more moisture and stabilize the chemistry in the leaves as well as fixing the final shape), then Zhuhong (a low heat applied for a longer time period lasting as much as 7 hours for such classics as the Wu Yi Rock previously mentioned). Then there is a final sort before cooling and packaging.
Black teas have to be fully oxidized, so they need to sit long enough for that to happen, with the leaves being stirred occasionally to keep the process even through the batch (often laid out in a long, shallow, narrow trough) – this process can add a few hours to the processing time (starting with the withering).
Post-fermented teas (the majority known to most tea drinkers are pu-erhs) are another category, and they can need aging for years just to be palatable.
Some Teas that Need Aging
Click on each photo to see details:
Tea can teach us patience. Waiting for the tea plants to come out of their Winter dormancy and put forth that new flush. Waiting for the tea harvesters to do their part and the tea processors to do theirs. Waiting for the tea to get to you, either directly or through your favorite tea vendor. But pu-erh is a tea that requires an even higher degree of patience, with a wonderful reward in terms of superior aroma and flavor at the end. Ripe and raw pu-erhs both benefit from some aging. Some experts say about five years for the raw and a year for the ripe (although some claim it is drinkable immediately due to the “cooking” (wo dui) process that mimics natural aging). You can buy these teas very young and then store them safely at home, office, or elsewhere. Or you can buy ones that have been properly aged by reputable tea factories or dealers. Either way, you will definitely benefit by these teas not being fresh.
Water’s Impact on Tea Taste
A key factor in the taste of tea has been acknowledged by many tea experts to be the quality of the water. All lot has been said in articles and blogs about water’s impact on tea taste, but that won’t stop me from reiterating the most important points here. It is the most obvious but most often overlooked factor affecting your tea experience.
Hard or Soft
Soft water (with a minimum of minerals in it) will steep tea up differently than hard water (which has higher concentrations of various minerals). A big issue is the amount of calcium (contained in such minerals as dolomite, calcite and gypsum) and magnesium (most often found in dolomite) in that water, and those amounts vary based on the source of water such as an aquifer. The calcium and magnesium ions are usually charged (fairly active). Hard water full of these minerals can make your tea taste one way, and soft water with low levels of these minerals produces another tea taste.
Oxygen levels in water, especially when making tea, are a subject of much concern. Tea sages caution against using water that has sat awhile or that has been boiled and then has cooled and so has to be re-boiled. A bit of research showed that re-boiling water does not change the amount of oxygen in it. The concern is that boiling produces steam and carries away water molecules, leaving minerals and increasing their concentration.
Many municipal water systems add in EPA-mandated chlorine and/or chloramine into the water that flows through their pipes into your house. Chlorine has a very noticeable odor (think high school swimming pool). It tends to dissipate fairly quickly, though, and can be mostly gone by the time your turn on the tap in your home. Thus, chloramine, which is more stable and lasts longer in the water, has come in to use, with chlorine only being used for one month of the year as a “system flush.” Since the chloramine does not dissipate quickly, the old adage of drawing a gallon of water and letting it sit in an open container for a couple of hours will no longer work to remove this chemical from the water. It will interact with the tea leaves and also remain in the liquid after infusing.
One option is a water filter, but remember that you are not removing the chlorine/chloramine (you’d have to use one of the super filters for that) but only the smell and taste, which helps when it comes to tea.
How It’s Heated
What method you use to heat your water can affect tea flavor, also, sometimes in such a subtle manner as to be detected by only the most sensitive palates (but still worth mentioning here). Microwaves are generally panned as being totally unsuitable for this task, but the issue seems to be more about temperature control. When you heat in a microwave, how long to heat is a guessing game, since wattages/voltages vary. One solution is to follow what some tea vendors advise: heat the water to boiling and then let it cool to the desired temperature. For purists, though, using water that has been boiled and then cools even if only slightly gives a stale, flat taste to tea. That brings to mind the electric tea kettle.
Electric kettles have temperature controls. Fill the kettle with water, set the temperature you want, and hit “Start.” Simple. And you are totally at the mercy of the accuracy of the kettle’s temperature gauge, so shop for one that has a good reputation for reliability in the area. You will also want to be sure to clean it periodically to remove any mineral deposits from the water that have built up on the inside walls of the kettle.
Here’s hoping you’ll have even better tasting tea by paying closer attention to your water.
See also: Water and Oxygen and Tea
The Impact of Tea Temperature on Flavor
Setting aside heat’s effects on the growing of tea plants (Camellia Sinensis), I want to focus on the impact of tea temperature on the flavor of the resulting liquid. There are actually two general categories here: steeping effects and drinking effects.
What you start out with is not always what you end up with. It can be frustrating, but that’s physics pure and simple. Heat means activity. Those little water molecules get to doing quite a dance when they are hot. Well, just as most people can’t dance all night, neither can those water molecules. Sooner or later they slow down, and that means the water gets cooler. So your initial water temperature is not what you end up with. How much variation there is depends on your starting temperature, steeping time, and the temperature of the air where you’re doing the steeping.
Ending water temperature (what the temp is after steeping) can be 20, 30, 40 or more degrees cooler than when the water was first heated. My experience (not a scientific study here, just personal observation) is that water cools about 10-15 degrees per 45 seconds. Also, a closed steeping vessel (lidded teapot, gaiwan, cup, glass, etc.) will cool more slowly. Covering the steeping vessel with something such as a cozy will also retard cooling. If you are using a Yixing clay teapot, pouring some of the hot water over the outside of it after filling it will also help.
Why bother? Simple. A truer steep. Vendors provide steeping instructions to help you get the best from their teas. But there are other factors beyond their control, and how well you are able to maintain an optimum steeping temperature is one of them. While cooler water prevents scorching, very hot water can extract more flavor, but you need to keep the infusion time very short (10 or 15 seconds for the initial steep).
At some point, you learn that some teas prepared in very hot water taste a better when they are let stand a minute or two to cool slightly. Tea flavor is a pretty complex thing. There is the aroma, which helps convey flavor since smell and taste perceivers are in close proximity in your head. It’s one of the reasons that professional tea tasters slurp the tea into their mouths — they bring in air with the tea and force the fragrance up through their nose. Some tea flavors hit your tongue right away when you sip. Others emerge as you swallow and bits linger, stimulating your tastebuds. If you sip the tea when it’s piping hot, you risk scalding those tastebuds and thus not being able to taste the tea at all. As the tea cools, you have less chance of tongue scalding but also you get to perceive the tea flavors more since some are more pronounced in a cooler cup and you can keep that cooler liquid in your mouth a second or two longer so the flavors have a better chance to impact your tongue. If the tea cools too much, bitterness can come out, especially for black teas that tend to be steeped longer.
How to Assure Proper Temperature
You have options here:
- A tea thermometer — This is probably the most reliable method but may seem a bit too much like a scientific experiment for some tea drinkers who want a more aesthetic tea time.
- An electric kettle — The level of precision depends on the kettle and again lacks that aesthetic element. Plus somehow this just seems to technical. However, it tends to be very practical and also means you can heat water in an area where water and electricity are available but not a stove.
- Watch the water — Ah! Here’s that aesthetic element, where you watch the water begin to dance as it heats. Bubbles will rise to the surface. How many and how frequently they rise is an indicator or water temp. To use this method, though, you need to count fast or have quite a bit of experience watching the water and then determining the temperature.
With all this in mind, I encourage you to let the liquid cool slightly (about 30-60 seconds) before sipping. However, you may have to experiment a little to see what works best for you.
The Stages of Tea Enjoyment
You start out wanting something hot to drink. But you don’t want something too sweet, so hot cocoa is out. And you can’t take all that caffeine, so coffee is out. Then, you find that box of teabags in the back of the cupboard. Hey, if they can do it in the movies, surely you can dunk a teabag in a mug of hot water and end up with something potable.
Soon you embark on the stages of tea enjoyment, where you find yourself:
- perusing the tea section of the local grocery store to scope out new teas to try,
- checking out what local tea rooms are in your area so you can have a day out with friends and share this amazing beverage you’ve discovered, and
- doing an online search for tea sites that carry more varieties so you can expand your on-hand selection.
This all leads you to setting aside that original box of teabags for other uses, such as steeping up a couple of bags and then using the spent bags on your eyes to reduce puffiness. Anything but drinking.
At some point, you learn that some teas are not to be boiled and that even many teas prepared in hot, hot water taste a bit better when they are let stand a minute or two to cool slightly. You have reached the stage of tea enjoyment that could be described as “connoisseur,” Little Grasshopper!
Why would the temperature of the steeped tea matter? You know by now that the temperature of the water for the steeping is important. Black teas generally use boiling water, while oolongs, green, and whites, use water heated to cooler temperatures. But once the tea is steeped, you drink it, right? Well, having reached this stage of tea awareness and enjoyment, hopefully you’ll say “No!”
Tea flavor is a pretty complex thing. There is the aroma, which helps convey flavor since smell and taste perceivers are in close proximity in your head. Anyone who’s had a head cold or been stuffed up from allergies knows that. It’s also one of the reasons that professional tea tasters slurp the tea into their mouths — they bring in air with the tea and force the fragrance up through their nose. Some tea flavors hit your tongue right away when you sip. Others emerge as you swallow and bits linger, stimulating your tastebuds. If you sip the tea when it’s piping hot, as many are wont to do, you risk scalding those tastebuds and can’t taste the tea at all. As the tea cools, you have less chance of tongue scalding but also you get to perceive the tea flavors more since some are more pronounced in a cooler cuppa. If the tea cools too much, though, bitterness can come out, especially for black teas that tend to be steeped longer.
When you have reached this stage of tea enjoyment, you might as well keep going. You can become a certified tea professional, a pro tea taster, and maybe even start your own tea company. Thrilling!
The “Shoulds” of Tea
There are those tea aficionados who claim that there are no “shoulds” in tea. I beg to differ. No, I’m not going to tell you that you should ditch your grocery store bagged tea and spend a lot of money on the many pricey and special teas out there. Nor would I ever tell you that you should only drink pu-erh or green tea. I am trying to say that there are some things that can improve your tea experience.
A few “shoulds” for when you first try a tea that is new to you:
- Know the tea – learn a little something about it. This will help you get some idea of what to expect in terms of taste and aroma (but you “should” bear in mind that your experience may be vastly different from what the vendor describes – nevertheless, a bit of foreknowledge is good).
- Follow the vendor’s infusing recommendations (which, of course, leads to the “should” of the vendors supplying such guidance to their customers.
- Taste the tea liquid before even thinking of adding anything to it (milk, sweetener, lemon, honey, mint, etc.). And when I say “taste” I mean not just a mere sip, but probably a nice cupful. Often, you will probably find that nothing needs to be added. And that could lead you to even more forays into the world of fine teas.
Some “shoulds” for preparing and enjoying teas, whether new to you or not:
- Use the best water quality you have available to you. (Don’t use distilled or sterilized water.) Many municipal water systems use chlorine/chloramine to kill bacteria in the water. It can adversely affect the taste of your tea, though. There are filters that will remove the smell and taste, or you can use bottled water.
- Whether you are using a gaiwan, a steeping glass, a Yixing teapot, or some other style of teapot or other vessel, cleanliness is important. Despite the old adage of merely rinsing a teapot (usually referring to a Brown Betty or other style of teapot popular in the UK and other European countries), I find that it is better to clean these vessels between uses.
- Take your time – don’t rush things. I know that sometimes our lives seem hectic, that we’re being pulled this way and that. But these teas took time to grow, time to harvest, time to process, and time to ship to you. So, you might as well add a little time to the preparation and enjoyment of that tea. Let each sip sit for a moment on your tongue. In fact, if you can slurp the tea in, bringing in air with the liquid, you will get an even better impression of the tea’s flavors and aroma. Swallow and pause before taking another sip so that the aftertaste of the tea can set in.
And the reason you “should” do any of the above? Because, as they said in those cosmetic commercials on TV, you’re worth it!
The Importance of Tea Leaf Uniformity
For some teas, especially higher quality teas from Japan, the standard for measuring that quality is tea leaf uniformity. For other teas this uniformity of shape and size is irrelevant and even makes one ask if tea leaf uniformity matters. When looking into this, the answer seemed simple and fairly obvious, as you will see below.
Let’s set aside first the concept of consistency, which some equate to uniformity. Consistency is more of a taste issue and is what name brand teas go for – the main reason they blend instead of offering the teas by garden and/or flush as we do. Their customers expect a certain taste every time (difficult to do since tea will be affected by a number of factors: location grown, when harvested, how processed, the type of water used, the water temperature, the infusion time, and the steeping vessel (especially when using a Yixing/zisha clay teapot versus a gaiwan, ceramic teapot, steeping glass, or other non-porous vessel). Here we’re strictly referring to the size and shape of the leaves, especially after processing, and how those characteristics affect infusion and thus tea flavor.
Tea leaf uniformity starts with the plucking. Experienced workers look for those matching a certain criteria, based on the type of tea being harvested. Then, there is the matter of getting quality through careful processing, especially one step in particular. That processing step is sorting and is more critical for some teas than for others. Silver Needle is a prime example. The pluckers go only for the silvery closed “buds” (which are really formations at the end of the stem consisting of a tender inner leaf and two outer leaves wrapped tight around it, whereas a true bud develops into a flower). Partially opened buds, those without silvery silky “hairs,” and those that are damaged in any way are picked out and set aside. There shouldn’t be too many of these if the pluckers are experienced and very attentive to their task. Being fairly uniform in many pu-erhs is also preferable since it will help the tea age consistently.
Getting back to Japan for a moment, this uniformity is one of the characteristics sought by judges in the Shizuoka tea competition. They pile tea up high, and the higher the stack, the more plump and consistent (uniform in length, size and shape) leaves (usually needle shaped) they are and supposedly the more harmonious the tea brew. (Shizuoka is a prefecture in Japan where tea has been grown since 1241; they produce about 45% of Japan’s entire tea production.)
Now a look at a tea where such lack of uniformity is just fine. One word here: oolongs. Yes, oolongs are rather un-uniform in their final shape and size of the processed leaves. A great sample is 2011 Spring Nonpareil Mt Wudong Song Variety Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid) Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong. The lack of uniformity both before and after infusing the leaves is very evident. The list of oolongs is long, with this same variation being clear to see. Not only is uniformity not needed here, it’s a waste of effort and does not achieve any difference in quality of flavor and aroma worth mentioning.
So the answer here is: it depends on which tea you’re talking about. Overall, for your own selection of which teas to buy, unless you are seeking top grade Japanese green teas, pu-erhs or premium teas like Silver Needle, don’t worry about that uniformity factor for the tea leaves.
The Aesthetics of Tea Leaf Appearance
A lot is said about tea leaf appearance, and I’ve been saying quite a bit of it myself lately, not to mention posting some of my favorite tea leaf photos online. Yes, those tea leaves have an aesthetic appeal all their own. My artist’s eye couldn’t resist a bit of exploration. But the aesthetic is not just their appearance. After all, what good are pretty tea leaves if they steep up tea that is harsh, bitter, or just plain yucky?
Just as with people, that pretty appearance is not a guarantee of pretty innards!
Click on each photo to see details:
Tea Steeping Is an Experiment
Tea steeping is an experiment, a time to have fun and enjoy not just the flavor and aroma of tea but also the process. Go for it and have a great time!
When trying a tea for the first time, start with the vendor’s guidance for water temperature, steeping time, even the amount of tea leaves and water to use. This guidance comes from their personal experience or even the tea growers’ and processors’ experiences. Starting this way gives you a baseline for comparison. From here you can decide how to go. Stronger flavor. Weaker flavor. More subtlety. More boldness. And so on.
Try variations on steeping time, water temperature, etc., until you find what produces the best flavor for you. You might even switch from steeping in a ceramic or glass teapot to steeping in a Yixing teapot or a gaiwan. This works especially well for fine teas like many of the ones we sell.
Some general rules:
- Steeping times when using a Gaiwan or Yixing teapot are much shorter than when using a ceramic teapot. It can be as little as 7 to 10 seconds versus a minute, depending on the tea.
- Use more leaves rather than longer steeping times to get a stronger flavor, and conversely fewer leaves for lighter flavor.
- Hotter water will steep faster and stronger than relatively cooler water. Not good for delicate teas but good for most black teas.
- The amount being steeped (water and leaves) at a time will also affect flavor, with smaller amounts steeping up faster and having more variation between each steeping.
With these in mind, you might want to revisit teas you tried awhile back and did not get good results from. You might be pleasantly surprised. That oolong might go several steepings longer and that pu-erh might reveal even more flavor secrets. A little steeping experimentation is worth a try!
Tea Lessons – Practice Makes Perfect
Steeping tea is not exact science, even though there is a lot of science to it. There are so many different ways that tea leaves are processed, resulting in so many different kinds of teas, that it’s easy to do something wrong.
Of course, I’m talking about “true tea” from the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis and its varietals), not things like Rooibos (red bush), Honeybush, Chamomile, herbal infusions/tisanes, Guayusa, etc. There is enough variety out there without all of this foreign matter added in.
I’ve had the pleasure of trying a number of these “true teas” (along with some of those “foreign matter” brews) and learned that steep times from 30 seconds to 10 minutes is possible to get the right flavor. Of course, what that “right” flavor is can be largely a very personal determination. That’s where the tea vendor’s instructions come in as a valuable aid. The trend seems to be toward putting these instructions on a Website instead of the package. If it keeps the price of tea down, I am more than willing to endure.
Recently, I neglected to do the research and really messed up trying a tea sample by oversteeping it. It was a bright, grassy Sencha that deserved better treatment than I gave it.
Just as I think of the hundreds, maybe even thousands of hard-working people who make the simplest things in my life possible (like a cotton shirt), I think of all the people who tend the tea bushes and trees, and those who get it from the gardens into my teacup. (This includes those “middle men” despite claims by the “Fair Trade” crowd.) The cotton shirt involves not only those who grow the cotton crop but such far-flung things as the people who build the machines on which the cotton is turned into thread and then woven into cloth, not to mention pattern makers, sewers, and a host of others.
This Sencha didn’t involve quite so many people, but there were still a fair number, and the fruits of their labor deserved better treatment than I had given it. Thank goodness the tea was good for a second steeping, even after being severely oversteeped.
So, how bad was it? Well, instead of a 30-second steep that would have produced a delicate tasting cup, hubby and I steeped it for — are you sitting down? — three minutes! Yeah, I know, that’s really bad. Sigh.
If at first you don’t succeed… Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough left to try again. Other tea samples have come in larger amounts, giving me a chance not only to toss my mistakes and do it right but to try different things. Hubby and I had lots of fun, for example, with the Young Pu-erh we tried. Some chai mixes we’ve tried deserve a little further experimentation. Then, there are various greens that take on different flavors depending on how they are steeped.
Hubby and I will keep practicing until we get it right, taking notes along the way of what worked and what didn’t. After all, practice makes perfect!
Starting Out on the Wrong Foot with Tea
If you are so unfortunate as to have your first taste of a particular tea be a very bad one, you can get started out on the wrong foot with that tea or with tea in general. So, starting out right can be important. This was clearly illustrated to me a few weeks ago when I tried a very disappointing tea. If it had been the only version of this tea I’d ever tried, or if it had been my first cuppa tea ever, I would have been totally turned off. Bleh!
The tea in question was a bagged tea. That was the first sign that things were getting off on the wrong foot. Now, a first time tea drinker wouldn’t have any inkling that bagged tea is a very different experience from loose tea. We’re not talking about the size of the tea leaf pieces here. Whether the bag contains full leaves, broken leaves, fannings, or dust, being in a bag is the real difference maker. Many tea drinkers say it ain’t so, but I have tried a number of teas steeped both ways and have come up with the same result: the bagged tea doesn’t steep up as tasty and is often altered by the bag material.
In this case, the teabag was that Manila hemp (Abacá) material in the flo-thru design made popular by a very well-known American tea brand. It even had the same style string and tag attached (the kind of thing that Hollywood and various photographers and graphic designers like to use to show you it’s a cup of tea, not coffee). The smell of the bag and tea was unpleasant and could even be described as medicinal. What to do?
With high hopes of getting rid of at least some of that odd smell, I cut open the teabags and dumped the tea dust into the teapot. Would it help? Would the tea steep up without that taint? To make a long story short, nope!
The tea (a Ceylon black tea blend) was harsh, astringent, bitter, and retained that medicinal quality. Which brings me back to the original point of all this. If this had been my first experience with Ceylon black tea, I would have been quite turned off and very reluctant to try any other Ceylon black teas. Fortunately, I had tried a number of very nice Ceylon black teas before this.
How do you prevent this kind of bad start to trying tea? Well, the first step is to read blogs like this one. Another is to talk with tea shop owners and anyone you may know who really likes teas. You can also buy sample packs from tea vendors so you can try various teas and even different vendors’ versions of the same teas. That way you can try and compare. And most of all, don’t give up on tea. If you try a bad one, take heart for there are plenty of good ones out there.
Straining Your Tea – The Pros and Cons
When steeping loose leaf teas, you usually steep in one vessel and strain the liquid into another vessel (chahai, sniffing/aroma cups, and/or sipping cups).The more you know about and steep fine, loose-leaf teas, the more you’ll see a note in the steeping instructions that you shouldn’t strain your tea. You are probably wondering about when you should and when you shouldn’t strain and why. It’s simpler than you’d think.
Click on each photo to see details:
Why You Should Strain Your Tea (the Pros)
First, let’s distinguish between strainers and infuser baskets. A strainer is basically a filter. You pour a liquid through it so that any particulate matter is kept in the strainer. An infuser basket is a fine mesh basket in which you put the tea leaves and then put that into the water to steep the tea (the tea leaves don’t always get a chance to fully infuse, plus you don’t have the option to refrain from straining the tea since you are in essence straining it when you pull the infuser basket out of the steeping vessel). So, straining tea means pouring the liquid out of the steeping vessel through a strainer into another vessel or using an infuser basket where you lift it out of the liquid after steeping.
The main reason for straining is to remove the leaves from the liquid. This makes the liquid free of most particulate matter and prevents oversteeping. You can accomplish both of these without using a strainer, though, and sometimes should. Yixing teapots have little holes inside at the inner opening to the spout that keep the large leaf pieces in the pot, so no strainer is needed. And with a gaiwan, you use the lid as your “strainer.”
Why You Should NOT Strain Your Tea (the Cons)
The main reason for not straining your tea involves one of the aspects of fine teas — their particular mouthfeel. For some teas that means a smooth fullness, almost buttery. Teas that tend to have this “fuller” mouthfeel will lose it when you run the liquid through a strainer. This seems mostly due to a breaking apart of larger molecules in the liquid by the fine mesh of the strainer. Sort of like sifting flour.
Another reason not to strain some of your fine teas is that you may actually want bits of the leaves in the liquid. The use of teabags filled with tea leaf dust has accustomed people to a tea liquid that doesn’t have these bits in it, depriving them of the flavor and experience of the actual tea leaves. Making the switch to full- and broken-leaf teas means a re-acclimation in this regard. In fact, in China many still “strain” tea through their teeth, pretty much as an adherence to tradition, though. You don’t have to go that far. Just steep and then carefully drain out the liquid into the chahai or cups. You will get a more complete tea flavor and experience this way. And that means more value from your tea dollars spent.
See also: Tea Strainers vs. Tea Bags
Rinsing Tea Leaves vs. a Quick First Steep
Some tea experts say to rinse your tea leaves and toss the liquid, then go for the first steep. Others say to just do a quick first steep, go ahead and drink the liquid and then relax and do more steeps. The big question is: Which one is best? The answer lies in why you would want to rinse your tea leaves, which has to do with what “rinsing your tea leaves” actually means.
A lot of times, rinsing something just means a quick wash off in plain water. This is meant to remove any loose soil remaining on the item being rinsed. However, rinsing tea leaves is a bit different, especially when looked at on a cellular level.
After tea leaves are harvested, they undergo a series of processing steps. The overall goal is to remove most of the moisture. The leaf cells start out as an exterior wall of cellulose filled with water and some other chemicals:
- Inorganic components: potassium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, iron, sulfur, aluminum, sodium, silicon, zinc, and copper.
- Nitrogen compounds: amino acids like theanine (unique to tea) and the alkaloid caffeine.
- Carbohydrates: mostly pectins, plus minute amounts of sugars and starches.
- Other items: pigments derived from chlorophyll and flavons, and vitamins B and C.
- Enzymes and Polyphenols: polyphenol oxidase, Peroxidase, Catechin, Epicatechin, Epichatechin gallate, Epigallocatechin gallate, Gallocatechin, and Epigallocatechin.
Much of this remains in the tea leaf cells once most of the moisture (as much as 93%) is removed. Rinsing the leaves puts moisture back in and loosens up the cell walls to let some of these chemicals out.
This is where the “rinsing” comes in.
The rinsing process
- Put your tea leaves in the teapot.
- Heat the water to the appropriate temperature.
- Pour enough water into the teapot to cover the leaves.
- Let them sit a few seconds.
- Pour out the water.
After this, you can steep the tea normally. The leaves are now “awake” — they have soaked up enough water to make them more pliable and able to take in more water and release those various chemicals named above. Each steeping means that more of these chemicals are released, thus changing the flavor of the liquid.
The quick first steep
- Put your tea leaves in the teapot.
- Heat the water to the appropriate temperature.
- Pour the water into the teapot as you would for a normal steep.
- Steep for 30-60 seconds, depending on the tea.
- Strain into your chahai or cup and enjoy as usual.
Those among us who want to get every drop possible from our tea leaves will probably use this method of “waking up” their tea leaves. Just remember that this first steep may not be representative of the normal flavor profile for the tea you’re having.
Which you use is up to you. Just remember that, even if a tea vendor recommends a rinsing, you can do what you want. Love it!
See also: Rinse, Wash, or First Steep?
Nothing Beats That “Golden Pour” of Tea
Tea drinkers like the rich gold color telling of rich taste — that color in their tea “liquor” (the liquid resulting from the water pulling out the flavorful essence from the tea leaves) — from the pale yellow of Green Spring Snail (Bi Luo Chun) to the dark amber of Yunnan Red Gongfu. And many more.
There’s a time of year when gold is seen everywhere in nature as the aspen and maple leaves turn gorgeous hues. In fact, gold seems to be all around us during that season: Christmas tree ornaments are brought out of storage, and necklaces, brooches, and other jewelry in glittering gold take center stage as gift lists are consulted.
But none is so rich, so satisfying as the “golden pour.” It’s that first flavorful cupful of tea liquid from a freshly brewed pot (or cup or gaiwan).
Every drop of tea is full of the best essence infused from the tea leaves, resulting in a taste that is the epitome of what can be attained. It is a true gold medal performance, where the molecules of water have coaxed the molecules of “tea-ness” from the leaves.
Here’s how this tea “gold” is achieved:
- Start with the best quality tea you can afford. Just as you want fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh baked breads and dairy, and choice cuts of beef to make a “golden” meal, you want to start with fresh, quality tea.
- Don’t forget the water quality! Icky-tasting water will not magically produce heavenly-tasting tea (the essential attribute of the “golden pour”).
- Gain knowledge about how to properly brew the tea. No matter how good your ingredients, if you don’t know how to prepare them, no “gold” will result. I’ve learned this the hard way when trying new food recipes.
- Assemble the items you’ll need. Having everything ready at hand is the secret to success for many chefs.
- Proceed with the preparation. Fortunately, tea is a lot simpler to make than many think, but you may still need a few trials and errors to get the tea tasting the way you like.
- Having concluded the preparation, you are ready for that “golden pour.” Fortunately, this is the simple part. Just pour through a strainer into your cup or cha hai (a separate vessel to hold the tea so it is away from the leaves in the steeping vessel).
- Then, do yourself a big favor: clear your mind of clutter, carry your cup to a quiet spot, take a few relaxing deep breaths, close your eyes, and lift the cup to your lips. Before sipping, inhale the fragrance. Then, take a light sip, letting the tea excite all the nooks and crannies of your palate on its way down your throat. Feel the warmth as it travels down inside you.
You’ve just experienced the “golden pour.”
Remember that, just as in any recipe you’re following, the rules for preparing tea are not chiseled in stone. You can alter the length of time you let your tea leaves steep, how much you use (general rule is a teaspoon per cup), and whether you use tap, filtered, or bottled water (whichever tastes best to you). What you add to your tea, if anything, will also be a matter of personal taste, as well as what type of tea you are making. Milk/cream, sugar, honey, artificial sweetener, lemon, etc., can be good in some teas. Fine greens, whites, oolongs, etc., though don’t need them.
If you steeped up more than just one cupful, the remaining tea will change in flavor, scent, and color as it sits in the cha hai or other vessel (by no means should you leave the liquid in the same vessel where it steeped). It will probably still taste good, especially if you followed the first step above (starting with quality tea), but it will not be the same.
Select a tea, steep it up, and enjoy your “golden pour” moment.
Too Much “Expert” Tea Advice?
Tea should be enjoyable, even if you are drinking it for the claimed health benefits. I would even go so far as to say that tea should be fun to learn about, to prepare, and then to enjoy (whether you’re sipping or gulping).
I like black tea. Correction: I love black tea. Mainly because I love my tea served in what many refer to as “British style,” that is, with milk and sweetener. I have been enjoying my tea this way for many years. So, I was rather surprised to see an article titled “How to brew ruby black” on the Tea Industry Careers & Trends group page on LinkedIn.com. It’s a tea I have enjoyed for a long time. Gee, have I been steeping this tea wrong all these years? Or is this just more “expert” tea advice that I now have to absorb in order to enjoy a cuppa? And that led to the question of whether all this advice is taking the fun out of tea. Yikes!
Actually, the author isn’t putting his foot down and about to send the tea police to your house to be sure you steep just right. He’s just sharing some thoughts on steeping that tea. The same goes for those other tea “experts.” They are simply providing information to help you understand and appreciate tea better. If you’re like me, then you enjoy things more as you learn more about them. And that makes them more fun.
Take, for example, that ruby black tea from Taiwan. The article mentioned above shows a way of steeping that the author claims results in a tea liquid that is even more flavorful than the tea grower has achieved. Wow! Considering the price of a good quality tea, this was worth a try. The recommended water temperature was a bit cooler than I normally use (95 degrees instead of 100 Centigrade) and the steeping time was shorter (2½ minutes versus the 5 minutes I usually do). He also uses 5 grams (not quite 2 teaspoons) of tea leaves in 300cc of water.
Well, let’s give it a try. Experimenting with tea is part of the fun, after all. Heating the water… checking the temperature with my thermometer… 95° exactly… teapot is ready with the right amount of ruby black tea leaves, so in goes the water… timer set to 2½ minutes… tick, tick, tick, DING!… time to strain and enjoy! Good color — a nice rich ruby red. Good aroma — rich and enticing. Now for a sip — ah, light yet still with that rich flavor. But too light for me to add milk and sweetener. Oh, well, it was still fun to give it a try.
The bottom line here is basically how you take that “expert” tea advice. With all due respect to all of them out there, you are the true “expert” on your tea experience. Read them and then go have your tea your way. I steeped more of that tea my normal way, added milk and sweetener, grabbed a hot scone and had a fabulous and fun tea moment. Your turn!
See also: 5 Reasons to Learn More About Tea
How to Stop Over-Thinking Tea
There definitely seems to be a lot of over-thinking tea these days. The “Rube Goldberg approach” to preparing tea is seen everywhere. But how do you stop over-thinking tea and get back to the basics? A big question – time for some answers.
First things first – what is over-thinking tea?
One thing I learned while in Germany is that the Germans over-think everything. Take as an example the simple pleasure of hiking in the woods (and in all fairness they aren’t the only ones who do this). For Germans, hiking isn’t about just putting on a sturdy pair of boots and setting them to walking – they have to know all the details about every hiking boot ever made, how to breathe properly, what special clothing to wear, what sunscreen and bug repellant are appropriate, and so on. It sort of sucks the fun out of the whole experience. And that’s what over-thinking tea does, too.
Some examples of over-thinking tea:
- You have to know all the intricacies of tea – what it is, what the growing conditions and harvests are like in the various growing regions, and each minute detail of how it’s processed.
- You are riveted to reading about the hundreds of steeping vessels and gadgets available (such as have been reported on in this blog), or worse yet feel compelled to try out most of them at least once.
- You just have to try every new tea available (and every possible variation of flavored teas and even tisanes).
- A new tea club starts up and you have to join or feel left out some how.
Some might call this a bit obsessive. Could be. I’m not a psychiatrist. So I just call it “over-thinking” (having been told that I over-think a lot, I totally understand the mindset).
How to Stop
You’d think this would be a no-brainer where I said something simple like “Get rid of the excess and pare down to the basics” – well, yeah but with caveats: It’s good to experiment. It’s good to learn more about tea (this blog wouldn’t exist otherwise). It’s good to try new things. However, sooner or later you need to stand back and say, “Time to get a simpler approach here.”
- From the dozens of teas you have on hand, select 1-3 that you like the best. Find good homes for the rest. (I call this the “litter” approach where there are just too many kittens or puppies for you to keep them all.)
- Go through your drawer of strainers and infusers, your cupboards full of various steeping mugs and those brewing machines that promise an instant hot cuppa perfect tea, and your storage closet/attic/basement/garage for the ones you had the energy to box up and put away during a Spring cleaning a few years back (and have been piling more on top of them ever since). Pull it all out, lay everything out to look through, and sort them into piles of “keepers,” “resells,” “donates,” and the “I wouldn’t give this to my worst enemy” ones.
- Pass along to others who want to learn more about tea the books from which you have gleaned your own tea knowledge so they might attain a similar level of understanding.
Now you’re ready for that more simple approach to tea.
What you need:
- Something for heating water. If you want to be very simple, use a stovetop kettle (my personal preference). Or you can go with an electric one which is great for those situations where a stove isn’t available. Of course, even simpler is an open pot to put on your heat source (stove, hot plate, grill, or campfire).
- Something for steeping the tea. Lots of choices and dependent on what tea you like. A gaiwan for those pu-erhs, oolongs, greens, and white teas (simpler even than a Yixing teapot where you need to season them and dedicate each one to a particular type of tea, and then you need a chahai or similar vessel to pour the steeped liquid into for pouring into the sipping cups). A ceramic teapot for black teas and even some green teas.
- The teas. [WARNING: I am about to say something shocking.] Here goes: Teabags! Yes, teabags. You give up some aspect of taste but gain in terms of simplicity. While I don’t recommend using teabags with a gaiwan, they are certainly the way to go with the ceramic teapot for those of you willing to make that trade-off. Of course, you can buy those fillable tea filters. That way you can load them up with the teas you selected in your simplification process above.
- Schedule your tea readings, including books and blogs like this, so that you feel comfortable that you’re not missing the information you like getting but aren’t buried under it to the point of not actually enjoying your tea.
Such ratcheting back on your tea efforts will hopefully let you have more enjoyment, unlike those hikes I was on in Germany where everyone was telling me I was walking wrong, dressed wrong, etc. Thank goodness they’re not around when I’m steeping tea!
How to Select the Right Tea for You: The Tea Decision Tree
If you are looking to switch to tea from those other liquid substances (coffee, colas, etc.) but aren’t sure how to start or if you are just looking to expand your tea horizons, we have some ways for you to make some wise choices. It’s the Tea Decision Tree. Here’s how it works…
Step 1 – Why Are You Drinking Tea?
Choosing between teas can often begin with why you are drinking tea. Decide which it is. Often it’s a mix of these.
- Flavor – A very important part of anything we eat and drink.
- Mood – Tea is the great uplifter yet soother.
- Some hoped-for health benefit – Lots of claims out there, some are even supported by scientific evidence.
Step 2 – Choosing the Next Criteria
- Flavors – bold, fruit, citrus, jasmine, mild, oaky, spicy, etc.
- Mood – refreshing, soothing, something new
- Health Benefit – digestion, energy boost, relaxing for sleep
Step 3 – Select One of the Options Presented
Depending on the previous choices you will have various options.
- A bold and energizing option – English Breakfast blends of black teas balanced to stimulate you and your tastebuds.
- A citrus option – Lemon-flavored teas often come to mind here, but try some Blood Orange Flavored Black Tea for a change of pace. It has an intense and flavorful fresh citrus character with a delicate sweetness reminiscent of freshly squeezed oranges.
- For more mild and relaxing – Earl Grey, a blend of teas from India and Sri Lanka with flavoring from oil of bergamot (a small acidic orange).
- Digestion – Pu-erhs have a reputation for aiding here, so you could give them a try. If you’re new to this style of tea, be prepared for something really different: an aroma and taste that some compare to soil or leaves decomposing on a forest floor.
- Relax and sleep – Chamomile herbal infusion.
Going for It!
Okay, you’ve got your options. Just make your choice, steep it up, and let that tea magic work on you.
How to Make the Most of a Tea Sale
The season for giving gifts, especially gift of tea, is here and so are the sales, including tea sales. So how do you make the most of this and get a great deal? Careful choices are needed.
Click on each photo to see details:
Option 1 – Go for that special tea that you couldn’t afford but now can
Let’s face it, some teas can be downright expensive. That price makes sense, though, when you factor in the labor to harvest and process them and then the cost to get them to the tea vendor. Plus, some of these teas have relatively short shelf-lives and are also produced in limited quantities. Even so, it can be a stretch to purchase even a small amount. Take advantage, then, of the two-for-one or the percentage off sale here. Order some to enjoy now and save for later (you can extend shelf life on some teas by keeping them in airtight containers in either the refrigerator or freezer).
Option 2 – Stock up on your favorites
Many folks like Dian Hong, others go for some Chun Mee, and many others go for a nondescript black tea (usually a blend of teas bought at tea auctions). Whatever your preference, now is the time to buy some extra, especially if it’s a tea that you can store for awhile.
Option 3 – Go exploring by ordering some teas you’ve always wanted to try
This doesn’t have to be a rare or expensive tea. It could just be one you’ve heard about and thought “Some day when there’s a sale, I’ll get some of that.” Well, don’t miss this opportunity, then. In fact, go with sample sizes (most tea vendors offer these) and try several new teas. It’s always fun to do a bit of exploring through the world of tea!
Option 4 – Buy those special teawares you’ve always wanted
Teawares can definitely make a difference in how your teas taste. Teas that can undergo multiple steepings are best steeped in a Yixing teapot, a gaiwan, a kyusu, or similar vessel. Use that tea vendor sale to get one of these vessels. Or, if you already have them, how about buying a tea table? And sipping cups are never too numerous.
Option 5 — Give a tea gift, of course!
We all know that at this time of year, while shopping for gifts for loved ones, we end up getting one or two items for ourselves. It’s only natural. But don’t forget to buy some gifts! And a tea sale is the perfect opportunity. You can put together a combo of a teapot and a special tea, a gaiwan and a small package of pu-erh tuo chas, a glass teapot and some blooming teas or some Silver Needle (watching those fat buds unfold is a real delight).
Time to get shopping!
Don’t miss out. There’s still time to make the most of a tea sale! (Pssst! Our sale is good through January 1st, 2013, so if you don’t get that tea gift you want on Christmas morning, you can order one yourself from our site.)
Enjoying Chinese Teas the European Way
Some people hesitate to buy some of the more premium Chinese Teas, thinking they also have to invest in a host of special teawares. Well, they could, but it’s not 100% necessary. You can enjoy those teas the “European way.” After all, Europeans do it all the time. And so do most tea drinkers here in the U.S.
One big issue with Chinese teas is that they are often best when steeped loose. To many tea drinkers both in the U.S. and Europe, especially countries like Ireland which still holds the record as the most tea consumed per capita, tea is black dust in a bag, often with a string and tag attached.
No way to get a true taste from teas like Bi Luo Chun and Yunnan Black Tea in this form. That in itself is offputting, especially to those too busy to take the extra time to steep their tea loose in water heated to just the right temperature. They tend to think, therefore, that they can only enjoy these premium teas in a special setting. However, others are doing so every day.
European and U.S. style teawares:
In Europe and here in the U.S. steeping tea in a mug is more and more commonplace, so much so that a company in the UK started a “Save the Teapot” campaign awhile back. They bemoaned the demise of steeping tea in a teapot due to the wide use of teabags. Again, too, time is a factor here. Why dirty a teapot when you can put the hot water directly in the mug and dunk in the teabag? Better yet, just fill the mug with water, zap it in the microwave to heat the water to a super boil, and then add the bag. Sounds lovely…uh, well, actually it doesn’t.
Fortunately, there are increasing numbers of tea drinkers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean who want to drink their tea loose. Teapots with steeper baskets integrated in the design are one solution. The other is a method of steeping that involves either a small teapot or two larger teapots (the loose tea is steeped and then all the liquid is strained out either into a big cup or another teapot). And yes you can do this with any of the fine Chinese teas available on the market. And don’t forget steeping mugs with filters integrated in them and insulated to keep your tea hot yet stay cool enough outside for easy handling.
Click on each photo to see details:
So, go ahead and indulge in those wonderful teas from the land where tea drinking began — China!
The Handmade Tea Advantage
We know that handmade gives a real tea advantage. Tea processing was all done by hand until machines came along. Now, handmade tea, where traditional methods are used, is becoming a rarity, carried by tea vendors like us who care about quality. We know the handmade tea advantage.
In the advent of tea bags, machine processing became more common so that the tea leaves could be ground down to a consistent size and shape for easier bagging (and often faster and stronger steeping). Along the way, the centuries old methods of processing tea leaves by hand became almost a lost art. Vendors dedicated to seeking out and presenting these teas to their customers have helped the growers/processors keep and even expand their audience of dedicated tea lovers. We are dedicated to this approach as well.
One big advantage to hand processing is the connection to the tea leaf of the person doing that processing. Changes in texture and aroma can be detected and will determine when the processing is changed or considered complete. So the real key to handmade tea is well-trained tea workers. But then that’s the key to a lot of quality items, not just fine teas!
Harvesting, Grading, and Sorting
Experienced workers harvesting, grading, and sorting by hand assures that you have the best quality. Would you know a tea leaf that is well formed and at the right stage of ripeness? These workers usually do. This is especially important in teas like pu-erh, where there are 10 grades, ranging from just leaves to all buds (considered the best). Tea such as Silver Tip is comprised of only the tip-most leaves and buds selected by knowledgeable sorters. Yellow teas, harvested before most green teas are, need to be the younger leaves that are smaller and still rolled into buds and, most importantly, whole, not broken. That means careful handling by hand, not machine. These are but a few examples showing the importance of doing by hand these steps in the process of getting tea from the bush to your table.
On to the rest of the processing.
This steps removes enough of the moisture from the tea leaves so that they are limp and can be rolled and shaped. By hand this is done by simply laying the tea leaves out on racks and letting them air dry. Spreading the leaves out by hand can assure a more even layering which in turn assures a more even withering. Experienced workers check the leaves to assure the right level of moisture is removed.
This step releases oils out of the leaves to bring out flavor. Leaves rolled by hand result in a higher quality (and, of course, a more expensive grade) of tea. Again, control over the process is best when done by hand by experienced workers. The person doing the rolling can smell the oils being released and therefore know when to stop.
Oxidizing and Fermenting
At this stage in the tea processing, skilled tea workers have come to a fork in the processing road. Which direction they go depends on what tea type they are making. For white and green tea they skip this step and go to the next one. For yellow tea, a slight amount of oxidation is done. For oolong, they oxidize partially, varying from only a little oxidation to a lot. For black tea, the leaves are fully oxidized. The leaves are spread out in a cool room, and the tea leaves start to take in oxygen, which reacts with their chemistry to turn them dark. Again, spreading the leaves out by hand can assure even layering.
This step stops the oxidizing/fermenting. Here it’s a trade off between the efficiency of machine firing where larger quantities of leaves can be fired at the same time and the better control over the process by hand pan firing. Quantity vs quality — an age-old dilemma. A further benefit to the hand process is that it can better result in different shapes of the finished leaves. Dong Ding Oolong has leaves rolled in particular shapes resembling ore nuggets, while Silver Needle has its leaves rolled into needle shapes (thus the name). Such results require attention by skilled workers.
Hand or machine here is determined by the flavoring used. For example, teas like Jasmines are flavored with flower petals layered between racks of tea leaves, definitely a task best done by hand, whereas teas flavored by oils can be done in the processing machine.
Well, there you have it, and now you know why we carry handmade teas to give you that tea advantage.
See also: What Is a Hand-Crafted Tea?
5 Conjurers’ Secrets to Enjoying Tea
So often I get comments from folks saying that they are scared to try various teas. Or scared of tea altogether…it’s too complicated…it can turn out bitter…it can get oversteeped or have no taste at all… and so on. But don’t let tea scare you! It’s really quite simple. No need for witches’ cauldrons, strange ingredients like bats’ wings, and sorcerers’ apprentices making your brooms and buckets (or your teapots and cups) dance all by themselves. You just need to know a few conjurers’ (that is, steepers’) secrets.
Conjurers’ Secret #1
Make sure your water is free of ghosts and goblins and things that go “bump!” in the night. The better the water, the better start to that pot of tea. And the less likely you will be of getting frightened to the point of having your hair turn white (unless it already is white, in which case you will be shocked into it turning some other odd color such as fuchsia or even mauve). I use bottled spring water to be sure it is free of chlorine and chloramine, but you could use a filter on your kitchen faucet to reduce excess minerals in the water.
Conjurers’ Secret #2
Use a proper cauldron……uh, tea kettle. It needn’t be large enough for Hansel and Gretel to fit in though – just enough to hold the amount of water you’ll need to heat for your tea. They have quite a size range, so just select the one closest to the amount of tea you usually make at any one time. My tea kettle holds about 48 ounces (6 cups) of water, but others are larger or smaller. And no need to start up a roaring wood fire in a forest clearing in the dead of night. There are stovetop kettles and electric kettles so you can heat water for that cuppa any time you feel the urge.
Conjurers’ Secret #3
Employ a proper teapot for steeping that tea. Which is proper will depend largely on the tea you are steeping.
- Black tea – A ceramic teapot, a Brown Betty (earthenware teapot), a glass teapot, or even a silver teapot.
- Green tea – Lots of options from a glass (yes, a glass!) to a gaiwan to a Yixing teapot to even a porcelain or ceramic teapot.
- White tea – same as for green tea.
- Oolong – gaiwan, Yixing teapot, ceramic/porcelain teapot, even a glass.
- Pu-erh – gaiwan, Yixing teapot.
Conjurers’ Secret #4
Let the tea dance with the water. You needn’t play any music, though. The dance of the tea seems to go with it’s own music, and it’s not “Night on Bald Mountain,” “Thriller,” the theme from “Ghostbusters,” or even “Monster Mash.” The leaves will float and sink and rise back up. They will become bloated as the cells refill with water that was evaporated out of them during processing. But unlike corpses in a swamp, these leaves become quite lovely as they swell up in that water.
Conjurers’ Secret #5
Watch out for the time. Remember that just as Cinderella’s dress turned back into rags, the coach turned back into a pumpkin, and the horses, coachman, and footmen turned back into little critters when that clock finished striking the hour of midnight, so will your tea turn into something rather unpleasant or even downright monstrous…like those gremlins getting water splashed on them or Swamp Thing becoming a deformed (but still gentle hearted) creature saving Adrienne Barbeau from disaster…if you oversteep. How long you can let your tea steep will be a matter of your own personal taste as well as a matter of the tea you are steeping. Black tea usually goes 3 to 5 minutes while you chant “Don’t be bitter. Don’t be bitter.” (Works every time.) Green teas are generally steeped only 1 to 3 minutes. Don’t forget to chant. However, some pu-erhs can be steeped as short as 30 seconds and as long as 10 minutes and you usually don’t need to chant to avoid bitterness, especially if it’s a pu-erh that has been aged at least 10 years.
Your Special Spell for a Perfect Tea Time
Round about the cauldron go;
In the lovely tea leaves throw.
Leaves that on a mount’n did grow
Slept in winter under snow.
Pluck’d and processed while it’s hot
Ready now to steep in pot.
Toss in whole the black Typhoo
box and all into the brew;
Add in pouch of some Earl Grey
Steep up quick ’fore light of day!
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Drink it when the time is right
Drink to make a perfect night!
(My thanks to Shakespeare for the inspiration.)
5 Top Tips for Tea Lovers
Time for some tips for you tea lovers. Whether you are just starting to expand your tea horizons beyond the simple black and green teas you grew up with or are a dedicated enjoyer of some of the finest teas, you can always use a few tips for how to get more from that experience, so here are our top 5 tips.
1 That Prize-winning Tea Isn’t Always the Best for You
I’ve probably mentioned it before, but what the tea judges look for in a tea may not be what you look for in a tea. Part of the issue is that we are all different. Part is how they infuse the tea and then experience it (usually a quick almost inhaled sip with lots of slurping noise, a swish around the palate, and then a spit – hopefully, that’s not how you do it, at least not the spitting part).
2 Be Brave, Be an Explorer
Habits are easy to form, and getting out of them can take conscious effort. It can also take a bit of bravado and that explorer spirit. There was a time when travel wasn’t as easy as it is now, so those living in the eastern hemisphere weren’t too sure what was in the western hemisphere. They would bravely go exploring. You can do your own exploring without risking falling off the edge of the world. Just try a tea or two outside of your regular choices.
3 Get Cozy with Your Tea Vendor
Buying regularly from the smaller vendors does tend to be noticed by their owners who then seek to show their appreciation, such as our discount for returning customers. You as a tea lover need also to keep in touch with that vendor. Many are on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and offer a newsletter. These things help you stay informed about new teas coming in and tea sales, great ways to expand your line-up of teas to try.
4 Pass Along Samples of Teas You Like (or Don’t)
Sharing is often touted as an activity that can give you a warm and fuzzy feeling. This is especially so when you are sharing samples of teas you really like. And the teas you don’t like might prove to be adored by someone else. This seems especially so of our flavored tea line-up. Rooibos, chamomile, and other herbals are also in this class. So you can share the joy or share the possibilities.
5 Sample…Sample…Sample…Then Buy What You Like
After awhile of sampling various teas, you will find some that you’ll just need to have some more of. Time to get that order in and assure that any of your favorites that were rather unique will be available.
Happy hunting and wishing you many great tea sessions ahead!
5 Misconceptions in America About Tea
There are five misconceptions Americans have about tea that have persisted through the years no matter what. Nevertheless, I will go ahead and present them here with my suggestions for how to counter them.
Click on each photo to see details:
1 – Tea is that dust in a bag
To the majority of Americans, tea is that stuff you buy in the grocery store. It’s dust inside a little bag (some are that flo-thru design and others aren’t) that may or may not have a piece of string about 3 inches long glued to it and a paper tag glued to the other end of the string. Many of these teabags are then wrapped in a paper cover, giving the illusion of preserving freshness. Others are in foil covers that are more airtight. They offer convenience and portability. But is such dust really tea?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Sure, those teabags contain dust that started out as leaves from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis species). But by the time they are processed into that fine dust, they become akin to that instant coffee in a jar. Compared to steeping a full-leaf loose tea where you get rich flavor notes that vary from infusion to infusion, that dust is a pale and seemingly distant cousin. Try some loose leaf green tea side by side with a teabag green tea. The loose leaf will taste fresher and more varied. Of course, you can always use a sachet instead since they generally have larger tea leaf pieces in them.
2 – Tea is easy, no need to learn anything more about it
The shift to bagged teas caused a shift in thinking among tea drinkers. They began to see tea as the easy beverage – heat some water to a little above room temperature, dunk a bag up and down a few times in it, remove the bag and enjoy the tea…or not! Along with this “easy” approach to tea came a loss of real tea flavor. Life seems to be about trade-offs more often than not.
With tea, no trade-off is really necessary. With just a bit of upfront effort, you can enjoy your favorite loose leaf teas about as easily as you do those teabags – and get much better flavor in the bargain. Infusers are one option. I like the kind that fits inside my cup and can be lifted out and set on its lid which when turned upside down makes a great saucer to catch drips. Steeping mugs are another, although you need a tea that can be re-infused a number of times without the flavor totally degrading. The gongfu style of steeping isn’t nearly as complicated as you’d think. And we’re here to help you make that transition away from teabags as easy as possible.
3 – Tea is too complicated
Just as the idea of tea being as simple as 1-2-3 (heat a mug of water, dunk in a teabag, drink) prevails, at the same time many think that anything other than a teabag is too complicated. All of that tea ceremony this and tea ceremony that, chanoyu-whatever, gonging the fu, and so on. As with anything, it doesn’t have to be that way. Your choice.
There is a saying that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Tea can be like that. You can take the time and effort to learn the formal ways of enjoying tea or you can put together your own simple routines. The end result of either will be greatly increased enjoyment of those teas. Of course, you need to start with premium teas. But don’t let that scare you. It’s easier than you’d think, and many tea vendors, including us, have lots of information on their store sites to help you through the process, or you can go to our social media sites and ask whatever you’d like to know about tea.
4 – Tea is just for when you’re sick or want some health benefit
The big culprit here is TV and movies. Time and again we see scenes of someone not feeling well (hung over, bad cold, almost run down by a passing car, etc.) and some well-meaning person offering them tea (sometimes it’s really an herbal infusion such as chamomile). It’s especially prevalent in British shows/movies. But we’ve picked up that attitude here. Many of us may also have had a parent, grandparent, or other relative who would offer us tea in our youth when we were sick. The growth in herbal medicine in the U.S. and Canada also means that tea is included in that aisle for stuff to infuse to “cure what ails ya.”
Let’s face it – lots of information is out there about how good tea can be for you. But don’t forget the flavors and aromas. Go ahead and have the hot cup of tea when you have a cold. It will more likely than not make you feel better just by having that hot liquid in your system, and for the most part it won’t hurt, assuming you can handle a small amount of caffeine. Also, take the time to try new teas. There is such an array out there that you could have a different tea every day of the year without repeating any. Trying various teas will help you identify the kinds of flavors that appeal to you, such as more floral oolongs, more richly flavored Assams and Keemuns, earthy and satisfying pu-erhs, and nutty white teas. Start thinking of tea as your morning wake-up beverage in place of that cup of java.
5 – Tea is for special occasions or for that fancy tearoom
A tradition in the U.S. has grown over the years: celebrating special occasions with tea, especially at a fancy tearoom. In fact, the view of those tearooms as being for special events has been fostered by … ta-da! … the tearoom owners! Some events promoted: taking Mom to tea for Mother’s Day, bridal showers, baby showers, family reunions, taking Dad to tea for Father’s Day, and Valentine’s Day (had to fit that in somewhere, considering that that date is quickly approaching).
This “special occasion” approach to tea ends up shortchanging you tea lovers. Tea is for any time, any day. Whether it’s a hot cup of Keemun with your ham and eggs for breakfast, some shu pu-erh for that mid-morning break, an oolong with that burger for lunch, or whatever else you prefer, tea is the perfect go-with beverage.
Don’t let misconceptions about tea keep you from enjoying this marvelous beverage!
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Hi, humans, this site is under my editorial excellence. I, your lovable and sassy Little Yellow Teapot, authors articles on tea, etc., and edit the occasional guest article. All in the interest of helping you humans have a better tea experience. TOOOT!