I’ve been thinking about tea quite a bit lately. Tea is pretty much a constant in my daily routines — I generally drink multiple pots in a day — but I’ve been thinking about it more since this guy mentioned George Orwell’s rules in “A Nice Cup of Tea”.
I’m not sure quite what to say about Orwell’s rules. As with religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, or “Science,” I suppose I would have to say that it is a valid approach, but not necessarily the valid approach.
It definitely got me thinking about how I go about making tea. In many ways, making tea is rather like photography — particularly film photography. Ingredients matter, tools matter, procedures matter, time matters, and, above all, attention matters. Photographers who are new to developing black and white film (such as myself) often wonder what the “right” way to handle development times, agitation, choice of chemicals, etc. Of course there is no “right” way, not because these things don’t matter — they matter tremendously — but because these choices vary with the film, how it was exposed, the conditions under which the photographer is working, and their intentions.
One does not brew green tea the way one brews black tea, and one does not necessarily brew one kind of black tea in the same way as another, etc. Nor is the same result always to be desired in the evening versus the morning, even when brewing the same tea — and details like water source are also significant.
That said, I’m happy to say that I do not keep a careful notebook of tea brewing times and temperatures, the way I do when working with film. I’m not quite that crazy, and in any case it’s not necessary. I know how to get the results that I want, so I only encounter problems when my attention wanders (in which case a prescribed time would be useless anyway), or when advising others on how long to steep tea, when I give the standard answer of frustratingly enigmatic cooks everywhere: “until it’s done.”
That being said, I see no reason not to provide my own pretentious disquisition on how tea ought to be made. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I seldom see any reason to avoid pretentious disquisition on any topic.
Good water is better than crappy water. I have not been known to buy bottled water especially for tea (again, I am happy to say that I am not that crazy), but if your tap water sucks, it’s something to bear in mind when considering why your tea sucks.
Electric kettles are nice, but avoid plastic. A regular kettle on the stove is also nice, provided you don’t drop food in it while cooking and fail to notice. Also, whistling kettles are vastly superior to non-whistling kettles, unless you’re the sort of person who actually does watch kettles.
Obviously leaves are preferable to bagged tea. This was something Orwell did not have to comment on, of course. Sadly, it no longer has to go unspoken. Someone once said to me at a restaurant, regarding a pot of tea I had ordered, “Oh no, they must have torn the tea bag.” Tragic.
There are exceptions to this rule, however. If someone is making tea for you (at Peet’s, for example) and has no idea what they’re doing, a preset quantity of tea restricts one of the variables, and limits the damage they can do. Scented teas are also good in this regard; bergamot masks all sorts of sins, in the tea itself as well as in preparation. This is why a little yellow Twinings label dangling off the side of a mug can be a downright reassuring sight under some circumstances.
Tea leaves (at right, Ti Quan Yin) are sold in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and conditions, which are accompanied by all sorts of hilarious abbreviations, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ll refer you to the dictionary provided by Upton, which is my favorite tea source, if you care to peruse them. The differences matter, but there’s no necessary correlation between leaf size and quality. The only reasonable instruction is to experiment.
Teaware and steeping
I have yet to own a tea pot which I was not capable demolishing in short order. Sometimes I am at fault; sometimes the design or manufacture of the dish is to blame; often, all these factors are working in perfect harmony. Bodum glassware, in particular, tends to last just long enough for me to be surprised at how long it has lasted before falling apart in my hand. Literally, in the most recent case — a lovely double-walled glass that somehow contrived to break in two while I was washing it.
Generally speaking, plastic or metal are not ideal materials, because they can impart flavor. Nissan thermoses are so useful that their metal nature can be forgiven. Plus, if you store tea in them often enough, they tend to build up a nice (and nearly impossible to remove) coating of tea stain that insulates you from the metal taste.
Ceramic and glass are both good, although unless the glass is in a thermos, glass tends to dissipate hate very quickly. As to glass-lined thermoses, they work great, unless of course you treat them with less than total respect and caution. Then you’re drinking a nice cup of shards…
Orwell is right that tea should be free to circulate. This isn’t always practical, however, and contrary to Orwell, it’s not acceptable to have more than a minimal amount of leaves circulating in the pot, let alone the cup. If you can’t separate the tea from the leaves, then you have no way to stop the steeping process, and thus no control over the strength of the tea. Plus, while swallowing tea leaves probably is not harmful, as Orwell says, it’s hardly desirable. So, if possible, get a tea pot with a mesh insert or what have you that is as large as possible, in order for tea to circulate, but still be fully removable.
Temperature matters. Boiling water for black, not so boiling for green or oolong. Time matters, but to varying degrees and with varying times depending on what the tea is and what you want it to taste like. I like sencha steeped as briefly as thirty seconds, but an assam which will be consumed with milk I will steep the crap out of.
When drinking black tea, it’s preferable to put milk in the cup and then pour tea on top of it. Why? Because Douglas Adams said so, that’s why. If sugar or honey is being added, I will often do that before the tea is poured, also. (This does not necessarily connote wussiness. It depends on what the tea is, how it’s prepared, and how quickly you plan to drink it.)
Beyond that, there’s not much to say. Make sure to be aware when you’re drinking the tea, and actually taste it.
* Coffee is disgusting. It should be avoided.
* When pulling an all-nighter using tea, make sure to have regular access to a bathroom.
* To semi-decaffeinate tea, steep for a minute, discard the water, and re-steep. Much of the caffeine will have been leached out.
* I simply do not understand the appeal of darjeeling teas. Just don’t get it.
Go-to tea types, for me, include:
* Sencha. Japanese green tea. Extremely “vegetal,” which means it tastes somewhat like spinach. This is a virtue, or not, depending on how much you identify with Popeye. This is my favorite tea for when I’m sick, and one of my favorite morning teas.
* Lapsang souchong. This stuff is actually smoked over a pine fire, which imparts a (surprise) smoky flavor. Great for cooking with, or just drinking, or using to frighten children. Favorite tea of mutant Emma Frost and also, if memory serves, John Bellairs’s Miss Eells. Note that if you like smoky, but not this smoky, some black tea blends include a lapsang souchong component. (Scottish Breakfast, Russian Caravan.)
* Ti Quan Yin: Probably my favorite tea overall — nothing harsh about it, and it’s missing nothing. The Buddhist association implied by its name is fully justified by the meditative experience of drinking it.
* Assam black teas: These are backbone of most of the familiar blended back teas. If you shop from Upton or similar vendors, you can get crazy selective and go into estates and whatnot. It’s been a while since I ordered an estate-specific assam from them which I really loved, and those recommendations wouldn’t necessarily be valid today (since crops vary from year to year). Experiment.