Monday, September 8, 2008

On Tea.

Or Why Orwell Was Right (Mostly)

Many people (Anyone who's browsed Volk Studio, for starters...) have heard of George Orwell's classic essay, A Nice Cup of Tea. There's a good chance those who have sought that piece out are the choir to which I am preaching. Sixty-two years later, his wisdom is still sound. Nonetheless, I share my method with the hope that someone out there can experience a proper cup of tea.

Americans, by and large, drink coffee first and tea second. I don't mean this as a value judgement, certainly, but it means that good tea is harder to find. Certainly not impossible, though. The internet has many good sources. The brick-and-mortar establishments I most commonly patronize are Peet's and Imperial Tea Court. The former is good for everyday and premium teas; the latter is definitely high-end, ranging from $2/oz for everyday greens up to investment wheels of Pu-Erhs that can hit $45/oz or more. (Apparently, the Chinese treat Pu-Erh blocks like fine wines, with multi-year vintages going for exponentially increasing prices.) Since I still have to buy my own ammo and the former gives me an employee discount, guess where I do the balance of my tea shopping...

Teas fall loosely into a handful of categories, based on their level of oxidation - in ascending order, white/green, oolong, and black/pu-erh. Natural tea leaves are green; for black and oolong teas, the leaf is bruised or torn to bring the natural enzymes to the surface, where they interact with the air. Oolongs vary in level of oxidation, from almost green to almost black. Green teas are not oxidized, but they are processed; the Japanese use a steaming process, while the Chinese use several methods, such as pan-searing for Dragonwells. White tea is a very delicate variety, barely processed. Pu-erh is the polar opposite, a black tea that is pressed into blocks and left to ferment.

Picking a tea is a process that is a great deal of fun on its own, and would require its own volume to properly address. But in brief, for a good, stout, edifying cup, I recommend a solid black tea. Peet's Pride of the Port is damned near perfect as a breakfast-style tea - rich, malty, slightly floral, and with the slightest sparkling astringency. Their Darjeelings are brighter, good afternoon teas, while the Assams are richer and maltier. Indian is definitely the way to go. China blacks are sipping teas, to be sampled carefully, like fine wines. They aren't rocket fuel.

One must have the proper equipment. A good kettle is paramount. Water needs to be brought to a boil or slightly off boil efficiently, the user needs to know unequivocally when that happens, and the design should engender easy pouring. Furthermore, the kettle should only be used for water, for obvious reasons. Brewing and serving vessels should be made of ceramic or glass. These provide good insulation while not retaining flavors. Metal is a weak substitute, even as a drinking vessel; while I'll use a stainless travel mug as required, it doesn't compare to a good teacup. Also needed are a kitchen strainer and a timer. The timer needs to be precise to the minute. If you're really hurting for timing apparatus, I suppose you could use your Pocket Pro and set the par time for five minutes...

Good tea needs good fresh water. Water needs to be oxygenated (i.e. not flat). This seems minor, but makes a surprising difference in the final quality. I am lucky enough to live in a place with good tap water. Running the tap briefly purges any flat water standing in the plumbing. Any water that has been heated before, such as leftover water in the kettle, is definitely flat and should be tossed. I have no experience with purification systems such as Brita or using bottled water. They would doubtless be a distinct improvement on foul-tasting tap water, where experienced.

Black teas and pu-erhs need a full, rolling boil for maximum extraction. Greens, and especially whites, are a great deal more delicate, and will actually burn with boiling water, dulling the subtler flavors. Greens usually work best at 180 degrees, and whites down around 150-160.

There are a number of methods for steeping loose leaves. The most widespread, especially in the commonwealth countries, seems to be the 'leaves in the pot' method, whereby the tea is steeped directly in the serving vessel, and strained when it is poured to the teacup. It's not my favorite, simply because I prefer a bit more precision with regards to steep time, but it does the job, especially with stout blacks. A traditional method favored by the Chinese is the Gaiwan, which is a cup with a fitted lid. The tea steeps in the cup, and the user drinks straight from it, using the lid as a strainer. For sampling smaller quantities, especially of more delicate teas, the Gaiwan does good work. Commonly encountered are various 'spoons,' 'tea-balls,' and other devices made of slotted metal or mesh and designed to be dipped in the water. These are sub-optimal, because they are far too cramped for good blooming.

Tea needs room to move around when it is steeping. In fact, one indication of proper water temperature is that the tea is moving around in the steeping vessel. Without room, the resulting brew is going to be much less complex. Teabags produce functional but hardly edifying liquor for this very reason; they are by nature far too cramped. (Some manufacturers have produced high-end teabags that seek to rectify this problem.) When browsing tea-making apparatus, keep this in mind. If it has a removable basket or filter, does it restrict the tea to a small percentage of the volume of the vessel, or does it use the full space? There are plenty of devices in both categories.

I learned from a young age to skip the fancy devices and just use a measuring cup. Pyrex beats plastic every time. Glass doesn't retain flavors, and it keeps the heat in. The tea will not infuse fully if the temperature drops during steeping; this is especially true with blacks. The often-skipped step of pre-heating the brewing vessel ensures that cold glass or ceramic will not leech the heat out of the tea too soon. An instant hot water tap is a great way to cheat here, but absent that simply boiling a half-cup of water before starting on the tea will work fine. I throw a plate over the measuring cup; water vapor rising off the tea will pull out a great deal of heat.

I usually toss the pre-heating water from the brewing vessel into the teapot to warm it up. After the prescribed time (usually five minutes for blacks), remove pre-heat water, strain, pour, and enjoy. A batch will remain really fresh and sparkling for 10-20 minutes.

This process seems to work fine from one to six cups. I make two at a time, which is as much as I can drink leisurely in the optimal freshness window.

In summary:
1. Fresh water.
2. Pre-heat steeping vessel and pot.
3. Boil water. (or off-boil, for greens.)
4. Steep tea (5 mins).
5. Strain tea.
6. Drink.

Good black leaves can be re-steeped once. The second batch will not be as strong, or as complex. However, caffeine is very water-soluble, and nearly all is steeped out of the leaves in 30 seconds, so the second batch is decaffeinated. In fact, to make any tea decaf, steep the leaves for 30 seconds, discard the liquor, pour fresh boiling water, and steep for the normal time.

The first cup of a fresh batch of good black tea needs to be experienced by every man, woman, and child on this earth at least once. Beyond a modest equipment outlay, the price of leaves is infinitesimal compared to, say, beer, wine, or spirits - one ounce of tea can give you several cups of tea, at pennies a cup, and it's the best way to start a day, or as an accompaniment to one's daily activities.

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