Tea 101: A Beginner's Guide Part II The Basics

By pete, Mar 23, 2015 | |

  1. In Part I of this series I introduced you to the world of tea.  In this part we will explore the basics of tea; purchasing, storing and brewing.  Of these topics, brewing is the most complex, and this is where many opinions can be found, many of which claim that they are the best, or only way to brew proper cups of tea.  I try to not get too caught up in the minutiae as, to me, brewing and drinking tea should relaxing endeavor, but there are certain guidelines regarding steeping times and temperatures that do need to be followed in order to brew a good cup of tea.

    Purchasing – Discounting premade, bottled tea (which is beyond the scope of this article), tea basically is sold in 2 ways; bagged and loose leaf.  Here in the US, bagged tea is, far and away, the most popular way that tea is sold.  And it certainly is the most convenient.  Drop a tea bag in a mug, pour hot water over it, wait the specific amount of time, remove the bag and throw it away.  It doesn’t get any simpler than that.  This convenience comes at a price though and that price is quality.  I’m not saying that there aren’t tea bags out there that can make a good cup of tea, but the vast majority of tea bags won’t ever make a great cup of tea.  The best tea comes from leaves that have remained whole or mostly whole during processing and storage.  At its best, the process of getting tea into those small tea bags crushes the leaves.  At its worst, manufacturers of tea bags use the leftover “dust” after packaging their loose leaf teas.  Either way, what is going into those tea bags is not of the best quality.  This is starting to change though as some high end tea companies are starting to package bagged teas in larger, pyramid shaped bags, filled with high quality loose leaf teas providing customers with both quality and convenience.

    Loose leaf tea is less convenient, but the end product that you end up with will be of much better quality.  Of course, you will pay more but the difference in the end result is so much better, and on top of that, with many loose leaf teas you can get multiple steepings whereas with tea bags you are lucky if you can get 2 good steepings from a bag.

    The worst enemies of tea are sunlight, air, and moisture.  Keep this in mind when shopping for teas.  I’ve been in many tea shops that look beautiful with all their teas, in their various colors and shades, being displayed in large glass containers, but unless those glass containers are smaller and the product in them gets rotated out often, I usually skip these stores.  Instead I look for shops that store their teas in large, metal tins which will keep out all 3 of tea’s enemies.  This is less convenient than storing teas in glass jars, as you need to request that the sales person open the tin for you to look at, but it also gives you a chance to talk to the sales person about the tea, and from my experience most of the sales people in higher end tea shops are pretty knowledgeable and a great resource that you should take advantage of.  While looking at the tea, don’t forget to get a good whiff of it.  The tea leaves should be the appropriate color for the style of tea that it is. You are also looking to ensure that the vast majority of tea leaves are intact and/or processed correctly for the style of tea.  The aroma should be bright and fresh with no musty or dusty notes (there are a few exceptions to this rule but generally, musty is a sign of old tea past its prime).

    Finally, we should discuss the age of tea.  Even though tea is a dried product, it does have a life span.  In general, unless we are talking about pu-erh teas, tea should be used up within 1 year, just like dried herbs.  That means that you want to find a shop that does a good business, moving through their inventory on a regular basis.  You also don’t want to purchase too much tea at a time.  If you are the type of person who will only drink 1 or 2 types of tea, or drinks multiple cups a day try to keep your purchases under 4-6 ounces, and replace a few times a year.  If you are more like me and want to explore the world of tea, I suggest purchasing in 2 ounce portions, or if you really like a specific tea then maybe 4 ounces.  Considering that you usually get approximately 10-15 servings per ounce (more for teas that you can get multiple steepings from) that 2 ounces should be plenty unless you really enjoy a specific tea and know that you will be drinking it more often.  Considering that I have about 15 different teas in my pantry right now at 1-2 ounces each, I easily have enough tea to last me for the next 4-6 months or more.

    Storing – As I stated earlier, the 3 enemies of tea are sunlight, air, and moisture, so in storing our teas we are trying to avoid those 3 things.  Luckily tea shops have gotten wise and many of the best shops now package their teas in opaque zip top bags.  If that is the case with the tea you have purchased then it is perfectly fine to leave your teas in there.  Just store your packages in a cabinet away from the stove.  Many places, though, still package their teas in bags similar to the bags coffee comes in where you fold the top over and secure with the stiff band that bends to clamp the bags shut.  While this is an okay short term solution, for longer term storage it is best to move the tea to a tin.  These tins can be found cheaply, all over the internet and are a great investment as they will significantly lengthen the shelf life of your tea.

    Brewing – Brewing loose leaf tea isn’t complicated, but it does require a little more work than brewing tea from a bag and it does require that you pay attention to detail.  One of the most important lessons I learned early on is that different types of teas require different temperature water.  Not all teas should be brewed with boiling hot water.  In general, the more the tea leaf is oxidized, the higher the temperature of water should be.  That means white and green teas should be brewed with cooler water than oolongs and black teas.  I will discuss specific temperature ranges in the discussion of each style of tea in later parts of this series.  I also quickly learned to follow suggested steeping times.  Going longer than those times often results in teas that are too bitter and/or astringent.  If your tea is too weak, add more tea leaves, not more time to your steep.

    While some teas require that they be brewed a special way most teas can be brewed following to methods; the Gong fu (or Eastern) style or Western style.  The main difference between these 2 styles is the amount of water, the amount of tea used, and the duration of the steep.  In Gong fu style brewing a small, clay Yixing teapot or a small porcelain gaiwan (a small covered bowl) is used along with very small cups. Yixing teapots will usually hold less than 12 ounces of water while gaiwans typically hold only 4-8 ounces.  The vessel is filled, approximately, 1/3 full of tea teas then filled with water.  The steeping times are usually very short, anywhere from 30 seconds to just over 1 minute, depending on the type of tea.  After steeping, the tea is transferred to another pot from which guests are then served.  The concept behind this method of short steepings is that the flavor of the tea changes subtly from steeping to steeping.  It is not uncommon to get 10-20 steepings out one measure of tea using this method, although these steepings need to be done in close succession in order to get the full flavor and effect from the tea.  If you really want to explore the world of tea, this method, with its specialized equipment, and ceremony is a fascinating, and potential expensive subject, to explore as true believers claim that because Yixing pots are made of porous clay and will absorb small amounts of the tea, you must use each pot for only 1 kind of tea.

    Western style brewing is what most people, in the US and Europe, are familiar with.  I usually start with approximately 1 heaping teaspoon full of tea for every 8 ounces of water.  I steep for the recommended amount of time and then remove the leaves from the water.  Unless I am only brewing 1 cup of tea I prefer not to use those standard tea balls that come with many older teapots.  They are just too small and don’t allow for the leaves to expand so that you can’t extract the most flavor from them.  I prefer to either use a teapot with a large mesh strainer that I can pull out after the steep is over, or I will just place the leaves right in the pot and drain all the tea into another pot, using a strainer, when the tea has finished brewing.  Currently, my favorite brewing vessel is a 2 cup clear brewer that I put the leaves right in.  I then pour my water over it and after the allotted time I place the vessel on top of my mug.  The lip of the mug releases a mechanism that allows the tea to drain right into my mug.  Not only is it very convenient but by brewing in a clear container I can watch the tea leaves unfurl and expand, a relaxing endeavor in itself.

    Because of the higher water to tea leaves ratio you can’t get as many multiple steepings, out of a measure of tea, as you can with Gong fu style brewing, but I find that I can still get anywhere from 2-8 steepings, depending on both type and quality of tea.  Oolongs tend to give me the most steepings, while flavored teas tend to lose a lot of their flavoring after the first steeping and by steeping number 3 you are pretty much just left with the underlying tea flavor.

    Water – There are books, and people, out there that will go on and on about the quality of water that you must use in your tea.  I agree; water quality, to an extent, is important, but there is no need to seek out the highest quality bottled water sourced from a virgin spring located in the remote reaches of western China.  If you have well water that smells, city water in which you can smell the chlorine or very hard water, you may want to consider using bottled water for your tea, or at the very least, in the case of really hard water, invest in a countertop water filtration system such as one of those gallon pitchers with the filter on top.  You will be amazed how much of a difference using filtered water can make especially when it comes to teas with subtle nuances.

    When it comes to additions to your tea such as cream, sweeteners, etc., I will leave that up to you.  There are those, out there, that believe putting anything in tea is sacreligious and there are plenty of others that wouldn’t think of drinking tea straight.  And then there are those like me that have their own rules.  I tend to drink high quality, unflavored teas straight, while I tend to think that flavored blends, especially those with lots of fruit flavor, are enhanced with just a bit of sweetness.

    So that is the “down and dirty” of buying, storing and brewing tea.  Of course, you can delve much deeper into the subject if you want, but if you don’t want to, and just want to brew a good cup of tea you can do so with the information I’ve provided above and with the more in-depth information that I will be providing as I discuss the various styles of tea.

    The remaining parts in this series will focus on the various styles of tea, with the next part focusing on white and green teas.

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