Jan 3rd 2010 Issue
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The WRONG way to make tea

Charles Cain - Jan 3rd 2010

Preparing Tea

There IS a wrong way to make tea. Unfortunately, I've rarely observed people prepare tea correctly - even in a tea shop or tearoom. The truth is that there is nothing that will make a bad tea taste really good. It is also true that the best tea in the world, without the proper equipment, water and technique, will turn out mediocre. I have to wonder how many more Americans would be embracing high quality loose leaf teas if they knew how to pull the most from the leaves?

My project for today (as I prepare Adagio to move into their first retail store) is to review all of our packaging and brewing instructions. Honestly, I think the instructions lack some critical information. In the interests of simplicity I'm afraid we've left too much to chance and may have left some customers with less than ideal tea drinking experiences. We'll be updating our approach to brewing instructions in the coming months.

From my experience and training, here are the critical factors to preparing the perfect cup of tea:

1. Water. Does your water taste? It shouldn't. Tea offers relatively subtle flavors, and the quality of your water will always trump the quality of your tea. In addition, hard water will draw out the flavor and astringency (sometimes called "bitterness") more quickly, whereas water that is too soft will yield a weak cup. Perfect water is filtered and retains 40-50ppm of minerals (usually calcium carbonate). Perfection may be hard to achieve at home, but a tea shop that doesn't bother… shouldn't bother to open.

2. Weight. Using the right amount of tea seems like an obvious requirement, but it is often overlooked. A "teaspoon per cup" seems to be the standard approach, but what is a cup? A "cup" technically is 6 ounces. But for many drinkers it's really a 12 ounce mug. As importantly, a teaspoon of Chinese Gunpowder could be two or three times as much tea (because it is tightly rolled) as a teaspoon of White tea (large, open leaves). A level teaspoon is possible with Rooibos, but completely impossible with many Oolongs.

3. Temperature. Brewing all teas at the same temperature is like serving well done steaks to all customers in a prime steakhouse or serving all wines chilled. It just makes no sense and defeats the purpose of buying quality leaves. The perfect cup is derived from a balance of time and temperature. Water that is much cooler than boiling will not properly release all of the flavor and essential elements of a black tea. Water that is too hot will release too much of the astringency and undesirable characteristics of a green tea.

4. Time. Twinings did a study years ago and found that the average tea bag drinker steeped their bag for 45 seconds. Given the Twinings recommendation of 3-5 minutes for a black tea, that's a HUGE problem for quality. As stated above, the perfect cup is derived from a balance between time and temperature. Whatever you do, DON'T leave the leaves in the pot. Yes, I know this is how they do it in China, but they're also drinking commodity grade green teas.

5. Equipment. Last but certainly not least, use the right equipment. A fine mesh filter will keep the particulate from your cup. Just make sure that you either brew loose in a pot or use a large enough filter that the leaves can expand. Consider dedicated cups and pots. I've been in many a tea shop that served me a soft green tea with a hint of Earl Grey, Jasmine, or even coffee that carried through from the beverage previously in my pot or cup. If you're serious about quality tea, or running a tea shop yourself, you should be using a gram scale, a thermometer and a timer.

I'll admit that when I'm making tea for myself I'm not regularly breaking out the thermometer, gram scale, or timer, and I'm usually not using dedicated cups for different types of tea. That said, I DO usually make my first cup of any new tea the 100% proper way so that I know what to expect from this leaf. I know in the future that if my tea is a little weak or a little strong, it's probably because I did something wrong, not because the leaf is inferior.

I would encourage every tea retailer to provide detailed instructions on every package including recommendations for weight (in grams and teaspoons per 6 ounce cup of water), temperature, and time. Many customers won't bother with all the steps, but some will. By offering the information you make it possible for your customer to get it right, and you communicate the simple truth that to get the perfect cup of tea requires a little attention to detail.

Happy Steeping

Adagio Teas