By Alex Lee
Courtesy of Onward Consulting Group


When it comes to tea drinking, the United States is centuries behind the rest of the world. Perhaps our addictive love of and strong economic ties to the drinking and production of coffee has distracted us from the subtler benefits of tea. Or maybe we just rebelled against what the British were drinking (our most historic act involving tea, you remember, was the time we dumped loads of it in the Boston Harbor). Whatever the reason for our past disinterest in tea, Americans are now making up for lost time. In the past decade alone, tea consumption in the United States has shot up an astounding one hundred percent! Americans are now discovering what people around the world have long treasured: the personal tranquility, pleasure to the taste buds, and health benefits of drinking a cup of tea.

You can easily enhance your tea-drinking experience by understanding the basics of tea and the art of brewing it. Our lesson begins with the four major types of tea: Whites, Greens, Oolongs, and Blacks. Interestingly, all these teas come from the raw leaves of the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis. What distinguishes each category of tea is its processing method. The way the leaves are processed: steamed, fermented (oxidized), dried, or bruised gives the tea the special characteristics of its category. Tea spin offs, such as scented, flavored, or blended teas are produced using one of the four major types of tea as a base.

One term that has become part of our everyday lingo is "herbal tea". Since you now know that tea only comes from the tea plant Camellia sinensis, you may wonder how a tea can be herbal. It can’t. A product has to be either herbal or tea-based. In the tea industry, beverages made with herbs or flower parts instead of tea are often referred to as tisanes or herbal infusions.

Now that we’ve covered the basic varieties of tea and tea-related beverages, let’s talk about the difference between loose-leaf tea and tea bags. Loose-leaf teas are usually made up of whole leaves or broken leaves, while tea bags are usually filled with fannings or dust. During processing, raw tea leaves are graded from best (the bud and the first two leaves of the shoot) to worst (fannings). Many tea connoisseurs consider brewed whole-leaf tea the best tasting. A whole leaf does have more surface area for water to extract the flavor characteristics of the tea. Fannings and dust, on the other hand, do not have much surface area for this extraction. Of course, the tea drinker may also enjoy the aesthetic beauty of the whole tea leaf unfolding in the cup while infusing.

After you’ve decided what kind of tea you want to make, you don’t want to ruin it by overlooking the other major ingredient in your beverage. Yes, the water is very important! Start with fresh, filtered, cold water in your tea kettle or electric boiler. Bring the water to a rolling boil (approximately 203oF) and then take it off the heat immediately. Over boiling depletes the oxygen in the water and will make your tea taste flat. Before pouring, make sure the water is the correct temperature for the type of tea you are brewing. Check the tea packaging for instructions, or use the following temperatures and steeping times as a guideline:

Whites Temperature —185F: Steeping Time —7-10 minutes
Greens Temperature —160F: Steeping Time —1-3 minutes
Oolongs Temperature —203F: Steeping Time —5-7 minutes
Blacks Temperature —203F: Steeping Time —2-4 minutes

When the desired water temperature has been reached, carefully prepare the dry teapot by putting in the correct amount of tea leaves. The general rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon of tea for 6-8 ounces of water, but make adjustments to suit your personal tastes. Pour the boiled water into the teapot and let the tea leaves steep according to the suggested steeping time for that tea. Be sure not to over steep your tea, as this will make it bitter.

The traditional equipment for home tea brewing is the teapot. Asian tea drinkers typically use small clay teapots, one of the most renowned being the Yixing clay teapot. Connoisseurs may assign each tea its own clay teapot. That way, the teapot is "seasoned" and retains the flavor of that particular tea. In the West, the British-style porcelain "Brown Betty" teapot is probably the most famous and widely used for brewing tea.
Aside from the teapot, there are other less effective brewing vessels, such as the French presses that are normally used for brewing coffee. The problem with the French press is that they do not hold heat very well, so the tea leaves keep infusing and the tea is easily over steeped. Another tea-brewing device is the tea infuser, which is typically a circular mesh ball the size of a tablespoon that you drop in your individual cup. Unfortunately, most tea infusers are too small to allow for whole leaves to expand and infuse, thus limiting the extraction of flavors.

Now that you can appreciate the subtle selections and techniques that go into tea brewing, I’ll share with you a little trick for making a great cup of loose-leaf tea. Instead of pouring all the boiled water over the leaves at once, pour just enough of the boiled water onto the tea leaves to cover them. Then, pour out the resulting brew immediately, but not the leaves. This way, the water cleanses the tea leaves and stimulates aromatic production allowing for full flavor extraction. If you’re concerned about caffeine, do this "pre-infusion" cleansing technique for longer and wait about 45 seconds before discarding the brew. You may lose some of the tea’s flavor, but you’ll also lose at least three quarters of the caffeine content. When you pour the full amount of boiled water over the leaves for the second time, allow the tea to steep for the recommended time.

Now that you’ve learned the art of tea and tea brewing, it’s time for you to relax and sit back…..with just your cup of tea.

Alex Lee is president of Onward Consulting Group, a one-stop resource for coffeehouse owners who are interested in introducing tea and tea products into their establishments. A former owner and operator of a successful teahouse in San Francisco, Alex knows the ins and outs of the tea business. He enjoys putting his expertise and contacts to work for businesses entering the burgeoning tea market. For more information about Onward Consulting, visit http://www.ocgsf.com, or contact
Alex directly at alee@ocgsf.com.


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