Note that this is a guest post written by my mother, who is seriously into tea. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
There is nothing more pleasant than sitting by the fireplace on a snowy winter day, sipping tea and reading your favorite book, except maybe sitting outside on a fresh summer’s morning, sipping tea while watching the chipmunks and squirrels chase each other among the trees.
I have been drinking tea since high school, primarily because I have never been able to stand the taste of coffee. Yuck! I felt had to drink something that was socially acceptable when everybody else was drinking their Folgers (yes, I’m that old), so I turned to tea. In those days the only thing readily available was the infamous Lipton’s tea bag, which was fine with me because I didn’t know any better. At least it was preferable to that nasty caffeinated stuff derived from beans! But as I matured, so did my taste buds. Now I have a whole drawer full of different teas, mostly loose-leaf, but some tea bags as well, and I know exactly what I like.
Types of Tea
A true tea-drinker knows there are several basic types of tea: (1) Black – the old standby. It is oxidized, has about half the caffeine as a cup of coffee, and holds up well to added milk (never cream or half-and-half) and sweetener, lemon, or various spices; (2) Puerh – an aged black tea that tastes like smoke and also has half the caffeine as coffee; (3) Oolong (properly pronounced “woo-long”), which has less caffeine and is a bit lighter than standard black tea; (4) Green – only about a third of the caffeine of coffee and more delicate in color and flavor that the previously-listed teas. It is not oxidized but only dried after being picked, and should not have anything added other than light flavorings, such as lemongrass or mango; and (5) White, which is lighter even than green tea and is made from only the tiniest, newest tea leaves. It has about 20% of the caffeine found in coffee. Of course, there is chai, but that is merely black tea with lots of added spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, etc. There are many different varieties within each type, and you soon learn to pick out your favorites.
Choosing and Steeping Your Tea
The two most important things about making a proper cup of tea are choosing the particular tea to suit your taste and then steeping it properly. My favorite tea is Nilgiri, a black tea from southern India, and I also enjoy Assam tea from northeastern India. Another excellent black tea is from the Temi estate in Sikkim, which can sometimes be hard to find in the U.S. Of green teas, I like the Green Tea with Mango from Tea Source of Minneapolis. I have never been fond of puerh tea, but I did have some once at a shop in Seoul that was incredible. It had been aged 15 years but unfortunately cost $100 a cake, which is well out of my price range. I purchased $10 worth, which made about five cups of tea. The shop also had some puerh teas aged 100 years, but I did not even bother asking what that cost!
Few people would dispute that loose leaf tea is almost always better than tea bags. A friend who used to own a tea shop once informed me that most tea bags contain only the “ends” of tea – the least desirable scraps of tea leaves. Whether that is true for most or even some tea bags I cannot say, but I can confirm that the cachet of drinking a cup of tea is lost when you only dip a tea bag instead of performing the ritual of preparing your tea properly.
Proper preparation begins with boiling water for black teas (including puerh and oolong), and water heated only to 160 to 180 degrees for green and white teas. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of measuring the water’s temperature to make sure it is just right for green or white teas, do like me – I put a little cool water in the bottom of the cup or teapot, then add boiling water, all before adding the tea. The precise temperature is not crucial. I live in the mountains in western Montana and at the altitude of my house water boils at 205 degrees, not 212. My black tea tastes just fine despite the lower temperature. It is nice if you have time to pre-warm the teapot or tea cup by adding hot water to it when you first put the tea kettle on the stove, but that is certainly not necessary. It will heat up enough when you add the boiling or, in the case of green or white tea, near-boiling water to the tea.
If you are using a tea bag, pour the water over the tea bag, rather than dipping the tea bag, to bring out the most flavor. However, if you are able to use loose leaf tea, you have options. When making tea by the cup, you can buy an infuser – I like the kind that is cylindrical and basically constitutes an insert that rests on the rim of your cup. Tea balls and spoons that snap closed around your tea and are dipped into the cup tend to leak small tea leaves in my experience, but if you find a good one, go for it.
As for teapots, some have built-in tea infusers, such as Assam teapots or French presses, where you can mash the tea leaves down and away from the water when your tea has reached the desired strength. Others have mesh inserts, resting just under the lid, rather like the infuser I like to use in my tea cup. Still others require you to drop the tea leaves directly into the pot. When using the latter type of teapot, you should use a tea strainer to remove the tea leaves as you fill your cup, and empty the pot as soon as you reasonably can. Tea turns bitter if you let it steep too long, whether in the pot or the cup.
Black teas should be steeped from four to six minutes; greens and whites for two to four minutes. If you want your tea stronger, use more tea leaves rather than steeping it longer.
Most people put a level teaspoon of tea per cup, with an additional teaspoon “for the pot.” I like my tea strong, so I generally take a rounded teaspoonful per cup.
If you are a true tea snob, you would not dream of adding anything to your tea. I, however, never enjoyed tea so much as on my trips to India, where my hostess served me black tea with milk and sugar every morning. Ever since then I have added milk and sweetener – stevia these days – to my plain black tea. Powdered milk works great, as it does not dilute or cool down your tea like milk from the refrigerator does. I always carry a small bag of powdered milk and another of stevia in my purse for black tea away from home. If I am served flavored black tea, such as Constant Comment or Earl Gray, a milder tea such as oolong, or a tea with a distinct flavor of its own like puerh, I never add anything to it. Similarly, I never add milk or sweetener to green or white teas, as the teas’ delicate flavors simply won’t stand up to that. Mild fruit or lemongrass flavoring can be added to green teas, but not stronger fruit flavoring like pomegranate or strong-flavored spices like cinnamon.
I also discovered what Indians call masala chai on my last trip to India. Chai is simply the Hindi word for tea, and “masala” means “spice.” It is wonderful! Chais in the United States can vary widely in flavor, unlike Indian masala chai, which always seemed to taste the same, regardless of where I obtained it. I do not like chais made with any pepper or with too much of any particular spice. I love cardamom, but I once almost gagged over a cup of chai I purchased from a tea shop in Montana because it had WAY too much of that spice. Chai spices should be balanced, not overpowering. Of course, chai should be made with milk and sweetener, and the more milk the better, and you can use heated milk instead of water if you like. You can buy loose-leaf chais, but if you find the right balance of spices in a tea bag, go for it. The American chai that tastes the most like Indian masala chai, in my opinion, is Tazo Classic Chai. But everyone has their own tastes.
Make sure you store your teas in airtight containers, regardless of whether they are loose leaf teas or tea bags. Most loose leaf teas come in resealable pouches or tins, but almost any clean glass or metal container will do the trick. And one final bit of trivia that separates a tea lover from everyone else: we know that a tea kettle is used to boil water on the stove, while a teapot is used to hold the tea while steeping and when serving. You would be amazed how many people do not know the difference between the two!
So choose your tea (and don’t be afraid to experiment), find a good book and a comfortable chair, and enjoy!