Introduction to Tea
The topic of tea will be continual — I plan on at least 5 posts – A basic introduction; All about pots, filters, & containers; How to prepare teas, The different kinds of teas (which may end up into a multi post as well); and then a few recipes utilizing tea.
The US is a nation of coffee drinkers, as is proved by the copious number of coffee shops from coast to coast. You can get a good selection of coffee almost anywhere these days, from the local Exxon or Hess gas stations, to the bodegas, delis, Mom & Pops, and of course the ever present Starbucks.
However, when it comes to teas, the choices are severely limited. Starbucks offers some Tazo tea, which is okay and surely better than nothing. But usually, you are stuck with bagged tea — Lipton, Tetley, or some sort of flavored bagged tea. Off-the-shelf bagged tea that you find at your local “mega mart” is just flavorless bags of fannings. Yes, it’s true — I’m a tea snob :P
I recall having dinner one evening in the city at a very nice restaurant. I should have known better than to order tea when I was handed the dessert menu which had a full page listing of the varieties and styles of coffees, and just “Tea” listed. I ordered it anyway, think that this restaurant, being a 4 star rated place, would serve a good, or at least, a decent cup of tea.
I was presented with a small aluminum pot, filled with luke-warm water, and a tea bag on the side. Suffice it to say that I ended up asking for a cup of coffee instead. You just cannot brew tea leaves, even tiny fannings, in tepid water.
Starbucks has about 11,500 shops worldwide. And there are *tens of thousands* of places in the US to get good coffee. However, a rather complete listing of tea shops is around 2208 tearooms *worldwide*.
I started drinking tea when I was a girl — Constant Comment which is a blend of black tea, orange rind and spices. Sleepytime was another. In my late teens, I started drinking Lipton almost daily, preferring it over coffee. I do admit to still using both the Constant Comment and the Sleepytime — scents and flavors of your childhood stay with you forever, it seems.
And then one afternoon I was introduced to Darjeeling. A perfectly brewed cup of first flush Darjeeling. It was delicate, and tasted to me like a perfect bottle of Red wine might taste to a wine connoisseur – it was amazing. I fell in love with the flavor of the tea, but also the whole preparation of it.
That cup of Darjeeling changed how I viewed tea forever. I started learning about the different varieties of tea – everything from an oolong and Lapsang Souchong to Assam and Ceylon and everything in between.
Trial and error taught me how to make a good cup of tea, but it wasn’t immediate. I over brewed, under brewed, used too much leaf, or not enough. I read everything relating to tea that I could get my hands on, and experimented with different styles of pots, different brewing techniques, different water temperature, different filters, infusers, strainers…you name it, I wanted to know about it.
Eventually I found what worked best for me, and the types of teas that I loved, some that I liked a lot, some that are amazing in winter, but not so great in summer, and vise-versa, and some teas that I just could never get a taste for. I’ll go into this in detail in the next tea post.
This is the equipment I use:
hot water kettle
4 cup teapot
Long handled measuring spoon
I started out my tea adventure very simply, and very cheaply. I found an online tea shop and picked out a couple of different tea samples. And I purchased the least expensive tea pot I could find, which came with a built-in stainless steel mesh strainer, and boiled water in a pot on the stove. The teapot leaked, and dripped tea every time you poured it, but it was fantastic to me. This was what tea was all about
As I progressed, so did the tools I used. I used to have a lot of different tea pots, but what I stuck with is
just the basic — a 4 cup pot. The favorite pot – one that does not drip, and holds its heat very well is the Chatsford Earthenware 4 Cup teapot, Series “B”. The latest version is the series “E”. It comes in various sizes, from 2 cup (12 ounces) to 10 cup (60 ounces). Chatsford pots were designed to fit the strainer that is included with every pot, so the strainer sits perfectly inside. The Chatsford comes in earthenware, as well as bone china and porcelain.
Some people prefer to steep the tea directly in the water, and then strain into another pot. For me, that isn’t necessary. I have tried a lot of different strainers and filters – bamboo, stainless steel mesh, plastic mesh, fine cheesecloth. All will work, depending on the size of the tea leaf. It’s just a personal preference.
I use what is called a tea sock. It is basically a 2-4 inch hoop-ring that holds a double ply “sock” made of muslin cotton. It isn’t pretty, and perhaps not something that you want to use when you have guests, as it quickly stains, but it is large enough that the sock itself expands, allowing the tea to brew fully within it, easy to clean, and store.
I used a stove top tea kettle for many years, prefering the ceramic kettle made by Joyce Chen. But that was lost in the divorce ;). I used just a pot on the stove until I found the electric kettle I wanted. My favorite addition to my ‘tea tools’ is an electric kettle, with variable heat settings. The one I use is the UtiliTEA Kettle, sold by Adagio Teas. It’s the perfect size for the 4 cup pot. The variable heat settings are great, as you can get water to boiling for black teas, yet there is a setting low enough to brew green teas.
I originally was going to make this one post, but once I started writing about tea, I realized that this has to be split into a few different posts.
I’m passionate about tea. There is genteelness to tea and an art to it’s preparation. There isn’t anything like the ritual of making a morning pot of tea — waiting for the water to boil, pouring that boiling water over the tea leaves, smelling the wonderful aroma that drifts upwards and fills the air with a sweetness that is indescribable, the seemingly endless wait for the leaves to steep and the heavenly taste that is the first sip.
I hope you enjoy this post, and the ones to follow in this tea series as much as I know I will enjoy writing them.