Monday, November 28, 2011

The Perfect Cup of Tea

Recently I was asked to tell how to make the Perfect Cup of Tea on twitter of all places.  I found the constraints of the format a bit daunting.  It is as simple as pouring hot water over tea leaves.  But if you want perfection, rather than dishwater or bitter over-steeped tea, it can also be really complex.  So I am going to try to do a step by step recommendation of how I like to prepare the perfect cup of tea.  There are as many ways of making tea as there are tea masters. So I know some out there will have issues with what I am about to say.
My Perfect Cup of Tea
Step 1: Get some water.  Should be cold/cool water that is filtered but not distilled.  Minerals help enhance the flavors in tea.  Tap water, not so good for making the perfect cup of tea.
Step 2: Boil the water.  If you are lucky enough to have a variable temperature kettle, select 208 degrees (Fahrenheit) for Black, Pu'erh and Tisanes (Herbal, not true teas, but I will include them.).  White and Oolong Teas need a lower temperature water to bring out the best in the teas.  I set the variable temp. kettle to 195 degrees for these types of tea.  You don't need a fancy kettle, so put your kettle on the stove boil the water & let it sit for a couple of minutes.  If you have really good hearing you can listen for the water when it just starts to make noise and bubbles form in the water, this should be the perfect temp. for Oolong & Whites.  Green Teas need the lowest temperature water, 175 on the variable temp. model or boil the water and let set for about 4 minutes.  If you are observant you can start the kettle on the stove and when you see a puff of steam come off the water that should be the right temperature for Green Teas.
Step 3: Measure your tea and put it into your teapot.   We use 3g per 6 oz. of water.  To make consistently great tea you really need to weigh it.  The rule of thumb is half the number of grams for the oz. of water in the pot.  If you can't weigh it, then we give Tablespoon equivalents on our packages.  The problem is that unless you weigh the tea, if you use the old method, one teaspoon for each cup and one for the pot, you will get very different results.  White tea is very light and you need quite a bit of it for a cup.  The least amount needed is rolled Oolongs or pearled teas, then Black Teas, then Green, then more for twisted Oolongs and the most of White Teas.  These are just some of the problems with using a teaspoon.  Once you make lots of tea you can  guess, but I still use a scale and I drink tea everyday, all day!
Step 4: Add the correct temp water to your weighed out tea in a teapot.
Step 5: Steep the tea.  Now here are recommended times for steeping.  White Teas are 2-3 minutes.  Pan Fired Green Teas (Chinese Style) 1-3 minutes.  Steamed Green Teas (Japanese Style) 30 sec. to 1 minute.  Oolong Teas 2-3 minutes.  Black Teas 3-5 minutes.  Pu'erh Teas 45 seconds to 1 minute.  Tisanes are 3-5 minutes.  The steeping times I use are usually the shorter end of the range.  The Pu'erh tea recommendations are different than what I had been doing, but after taking a Pu'erh class through the Specialty Tea Institute, I changed my recommendations.  The old method was the same as Black Teas.  This produces a nice flavor & dense cup, but the subtle notes of the tea are lost.  The shorter steeps, and numerous resteeps give a wider range of flavors in the tea.
(Remember that if you are using a teapot that doesn't have an insert or a way to remove the leaves, you need to pour out all the tea, so you don't over steep the tea.  This will lead to bitter tea.)
Step 6: Drink your perfect cup of tea.  Take a moment to really taste the tea.   Relax and savor it.
Step 7: Resteep.  Here is another area that I will part with the majority of tea experts.  The rule of thumb is add 30 seconds on to the time for your 2nd steep.  I do a shorter second steep.  I feel the leaf has opened up and I judge by color more than time for the second steep.  Using this method it is usually shorter than the 1st steep.  The 3rd steep I also judge by color & it is sometimes longer or the same as the 2nd steep.  I keep resteeping until there is not enough flavor.  That way I am getting all the leaf has to offer and I am limiting the amount of total caffeine I am consuming.
Tea is an amazing drink and I hope this gets you excited to experiment on your own with times, temps and weights.  Remember this is My Perfect Cup.  Yours might be something all together different, just take a moment and siptea...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bottled Tea vs. Fresh Brewed

The RTD (ready-to-drink) tea market is going through the roof.  Sales keep increasing.  This is good news for the tea industry, and it introduces people to tea, which is always a good thing.  The only problem is that many of the drinks are high in sugar and low in beneficial antioxidants.  The industry is being helped by all the information on the health benefits of tea, green tea in particular.  The average consumer is buying the bottled tea drink thinking they are doing something good for them, and are really only getting a drink that may be as healthy as drinking soda.  The healthy antioxidant, or polyphenols are present in bottled tea drinks, but at half to 100 times less than the levels of freshly brewed tea.  If you are drinking a decaffeinated version of a bottled tea it is even lower.  To decaffeinate tea in general, the caffeine and many of the antioxidants are stripped out, then the antioxidants are put back.  The studies of the lack of polyphenols in bottled tea are from as early as 2000, when the USDA said that bottled tea had very low levels of polyphenols.  Linus Pauling Institute did a study in 2005 that also showed low levels of polyphenols.   The latest study done in August of 2010 showed the same results. "The six teas... analyzed contained 81, 43, 40, 13, 4, and 3 milligrams of polyphenols per 16-ounce bottle. One average cup of home-brewed green or black tea, which costs only a few cents, contains 50-150 milligrams of polyphenols".  The labels say that green tea is antioxidant rich, but don't actually say the tea contained in the bottle is, so what they say isn't untrue, but it is certainly misleading. If you are going to buy bottled tea, stick to an unsweetened one, but better yet make your own at home.  You will be saving money & getting lots more antioxidants in your cup.  Take a moment in your day to make a cup of tea and sit & siptea...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tea Basics

So as I talk to more and more customers I realize they need some basic information about tea.  I have been studying tea for a quite a few years and consider myself a novice.  Yet I am still miles ahead of the average tea drinker.
All tea, true teas, are made from the same plant, Camellia sinensis.  It is a relative of the flowering Camellia japonica found in many yards.  There are two main varietals, Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica.  The Camellia sinensis sinensis is largely considered the Chinese varietal, and the assamica is the Indian varietal.  Then like most plants there are further varietals that are better adapted to altitude, rocky soil, more moisture, less moisture, etc.  There are tea plantations in Hawaii and in South Carolina.  The plants can grow here, but it is labor intensive, so it hasn't taken off as a cash crop.  Although there are increasing numbers of tea gardens in Hawaii.
There are five major tea groups, I know that I will probably get some arguments on this one, but I am going to include the following as my 5 main groups.
White teas originated in China, some say they still have to come from China to be white tea.  White tea is air dried.  Some consider it to be semi-oxidized because some bruising does happen to the leaf during the drying.
Green teas are pan fired (Chinese style) or steamed (Japanese style) to stop the oxidation & keep the green in the leaf.
Oolong teas are from 5 to 95% oxidized teas.  Mainly found in China & Taiwan.  There are two main leaf styles, long twisted leaves or balled.
Black teas are considered 100% oxidized.  They are produced in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Kenya.
Pu'erh teas (pronounced like pour, some say poo-air) are fermented teas.  Either artificially, shou (pronounced show), or over time, sheng style.  These teas continue to change flavor and are considered enigmatically alive.  These teas come from Yunnan, China.
There are health benefits to all teas, but I hesitate to get too involved in listing the benefits, because some of them are not recognized in the US.  The benefits I will list are that teas contain anti-oxidants and caffeine.  Caffeine can help in weight loss and anti-oxidants are immune boosters.
There are other classes of tea, like yellow, dark and semi-oxidized that don't fall into the oolong group due to differences in production.
Now that you are completely confused.  I'll try to explain a few things.
All of the 5 groups of teas have many variations in them, like wine makers with wine.  They start out with a merlot grape, but two different winemakers will make completely different tasting wine with them.  The same could be said of tea.  Each tea master has his own way of doing things, and they will change slightly with each harvest to get the final taste profile that they are trying to achieve.  So a white tea from one garden will taste different from another gardens white tea. 
Oxidation is what happens when you break the cell wall of the leaf and expose the leaf to air.  Like a bite out of an apple makes the inside turn brown.
Fermentation is the process that moisture and heat cause the leaf to break down.  The Shou Pu'erhs are put into a pile and like compost they heat up and start breaking down through enzyme activity.  Sheng Pu'erhs take years to age and taste like the cooked pu'erhs do after a few months. 
Tea bags usually have smaller pieces of tea, so they can open up faster in the water and make a strong cup of tea.  They don't have the flavor nuances of specialty loose leaf tea.  They also don't re-steep very well.
The more you start to learn about tea, the more you learn that it is just the first step on a delicious and varied journey.  Start exploring!