Monday, February 13, 2017

Keeping tea simple

An online tea friend recently commented that some tea enthusiasts and vendors may make tea seem more complicated than it really has to be, potentially putting some people off trying loose tea.  There is something to this idea.  Among tea drinkers we tend to see a broad divide between people drinking tea from tea bags and flavored blends, and more "serious" tea drinkers digging deeper into all sorts of aspects, and preferring countless types.

Why is this even a potential problem?  People make of tea whatever they want.  What could be getting lost is the potential middle ground, the appeal for people that don't want to research their hobby, or put a lot of funding into teaware, or time and study into perfecting difficult brewing steps, or into learning which teas they like best.  I see my own interests in drinking tea and learning about tea as two separate interests, but it would be natural for some people to only want to drink tea, not to study the subject.

even a one-year-old can do it (but this girl is a pro)

Let's be clearer; what kinds of complications am I talking about?  These (in part):

-learning about tea types:  general categories, specific types, sources, cultivars (plant types), processing-related information, organic versus non-organic teas, hybrid styles, regional variations and related variables, plant age issues

-related to tea brewing:  Western versus Gongfu style basics, gear issues (essentially bottomless on its own), water temperature (optimum for types, etc.), weighing versus measuring tea, variations in water, advanced tea brewing practices (ceremonial, plus countless variations), variations beyond basic approaches (Grandpa style brewing, cold brewing)

-tasting related:  identifying flavors, optimum brewing for types, identifying "feel" aspects (and related jargon),  trueness to type (learning flavors profiles for specific teas)

-other:  health effects of tea, health risks of tea (caffeine, pesticides), cha qi / tea drunk / other effects, fair trade issues, tea culture (traditional and online discussion group related), matcha-related, pu'er aging, historical background, references and training, preference curves, when to add milk or sugar (or why to never do this), direct sourcing (or relatively more direct), pricing and value related (an incredibly broad concern)

I think tea can be simple, that someone could catch a lot of the experience without braving much learning curve.  People can pick and choose the direction they want to go related to drinking tea, and could keep it simple and still drink decent tea. 

At it's simplest brewing tea is about putting dried leaves in hot water, and then straining that to drink it after three or four minutes.  But the general impression one might get is that it's a bottomless subject, that without taking classes or extended study one simply couldn't identify, purchase, or prepare decent loose tea suited to their own preferences.  No one is saying that--almost no one--but it could be identified as implied in lots of different content, or in many types of discussions.

At worst one gets the impression--even in some sales content--that a tea consumer (customer) has to be educated enough to appreciate teas, or else they're not worthy of drinking it.  Learning and preference curves are a real thing, so there could be something to that, beyond that unnecessarily negative framing.

I try to share my own experiences with tea through writing, and not infrequently through giving away tea, a lot of which would only be of interest to others with similar interest and some degree of subject background.  But I'm also concerned with reaching out to people who are just starting out.  I've just implied the sort of sharp divide I'm more or less rejecting, didn't I?  It's hard to completely avoid that.  It's also hard to fully describe (review) teas without implying that a bottomless set of variables is worthy of consideration.  I hope both sides come across in my writing, that I do like those layers of details, but also that I'm sort of advocating winging it, trying out different things but also just going with whatever works.

I tried to explain that general perspective through publication of some basic ideas in the Zester Daily food-news page (the last article of which I'll completely re-print here).  There's an odd twist to that part:  Zester Daily is going off-line within the next two weeks, just some months after I signed on as a contributor.  The Wikipedia summary of their mission spells out the back-story, with an odd foreshadowing of that latest change:

Zester Daily is a food and wine online magazine, published by a team led by Corie Brown, a former writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times. The site, founded in August 2009, was launched with the statement, "In the face of the bleak news of Gourmet magazine's demise and newspapers' financial struggles, a collection of award-winning journalists has banded together to create Zester Daily, a pioneering news site covering all aspects of what we eat and drink."

Online and print-media publications are competitive now, a tough business, for some obvious reasons.  I won't pursue that tangent further, but I will cite the last article I wrote for them.

You might note that the tone is shifted a bit towards popular media language use, with ideas translated for an absolute beginner.  Those parts were interesting to experience, one context shift and one writing style change (and related editing).  Eventually tea could become a media "story," beyond the ways in which it already has.  But to some extent it also needs to remain something so simple it doesn't really need much telling, perhaps similar to how people experience better coffee, or maybe that's also complicated.

Lin Mao Sen teaware selection (Taipei, Taiwan shop)

Zester Daily article "Simple Steps to Brew Loose Tea" (by me)

Brewing loose tea is easy, and it is also one of the most crucial factors in drinking better tea, beyond starting with better loose tea in the first place. It doesn’t take long to make, no longer than brewing a pot of coffee. Let’s get started with the basics.

Mix tea with hot water

Tea and hot water are all you need, along with time to wait three to four minutes and straining the tea leaves back out. Water temperature, gear issues, proportion, variations related to types — all of that is secondary, and not as critical as it might seem. In the end, adjustment of all the factors to match preference is the key.

Chinese style pot (credit Wikimedia)

Necessary gear

A teapot — an English-style ceramic pot, like someone’s grandmother would own — will work. For simple brewing, which is referred to as the Western style, adding a teaspoon of leaves per a cup of water is typical, along with one extra spoonful for the pot.

A French press (or plunger, in British English) is another good alternative because it also covers straining and can allow for making one cup at a time, or a lot of tea with larger versions. Another close functional alternative would be a pint beer glass covered with a saucer (to seal in aromatic components), or you can use any of the numerous custom tea tumblers, infuser devices or simple push-button devices similar to a coffee pot design.

Water temperature

Expert input varies a little on optimal water temperature for brewing tea. The consensus is that black tea can brew at boiling point or close to it, and green tea needs much cooler water to offset astringency (like bitterness, just not exactly that), in the range of 170 F (75 C). Oolong teas and white teas brew in the middle of that range. To really pin down specifics, various online tea resources offer more input, and variable-temperature kettles help adjust this more precisely.

Boiling water is a crucial step; microwaving is not recommended because dissolved air stays in the water and interferes with the infusion. Simple, inexpensive electric kettles can boil water quickly, or using a teapot on a stove works.

Brewing proportion/multiple infusions

Beyond the general recommendation of a teaspoon of tea to a cup, making adjustments suited to how you like your tea is important. Leaves can be brewed two to three times, or more if a higher proportion of tea is used along with shorter infusion times. This is essentially the guidance of the other main brewing approach, called Gongfu-cha (or “tea technique”). Gongfu brewing uses a much higher proportion of leaves to water, short brewing times (a few seconds to well under a minute) and multiple infusions, possibly more than 10.

Regardless of approach, different teas brew differently, and use of progressively longer infusion times for both approaches can offset the leaves “brewing out.”

old-school tea timer


It doesn’t sound like this is as easy or as fast as brewing a pot of coffee, does it?  Even heating the water takes time. But after three to four minutes of contact with water, the tea is ready, and after another three to four a second cup is. Of course, you can buy a device to do all this automatically, but either way the actual labor involved is next to none. Letting the tea brew for twice as long isn’t ideal, but many people use timers for that.

Of course, all this is the simple version of brewing tea; people tend to talk about specialized clay pots dedicated to tea types, or using specific water (which does make a difference because of mineral content) — the list goes on and on. Getting started is the main thing, and getting comfortable with a bit of learning curve. It’s not self-study in the sense picking up a foreign language is long term, and the rewards of making tea suited to what you like are immediate, mostly delayed by three minutes of brewing time. Overbrewed tea can be diluted a little in many cases, or not much is lost in the worst case when it all goes badly, perhaps more related to the delay of restarting as the expense.

Most important, of course, is starting with a tea you like — the type and specific version.

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