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Preparing Tea

There are a variety of ways to brew tea, from the Mongolian practice of pulverizing tea leaves and boiling them with salted milk to the aesthetic Japanese ceremony of whisking powdered tea into a sea-green foam. Western tea drinkers follow the Chinese method of combining tea leaves with boiling water. While the method is simple and straightforward, there are several essential steps you should follow. Easy as they seem, they are crucial to a good cup of tea. On the following pages, each step is described in detail, along with some interesting information to help you make your perfect cup of tea.

MAKE SURE YOUR KETTLE AND TEAPOT ARE CLEAN

USE GOOD-TASTING, COLD WATER

USE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WATER AT THE RIGHT TEMPERATURE

USE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF THE BEST TEA YOU CAN BUY

BREW THE TEA FOR THE PROPER LENGTH OF TIME

SERVE IT FRESH

make sure your kettle and teapot are clean

The freshest water and the finest tea can quickly be ruined if your utensils aren't clean. Even though your kettle is used only for boiling water, it needs to be washed and dried occasionally, since constant use can build up mineral deposits, giving an off taste to any water you put into it.

Have you ever noticed a brownish haze on the inside of your favorite teapot or travel thermos? That residue adds a bitter taste to your brew. Washing your teapot in a mild detergent or baking soda, and using a soft brush, sponge, or cloth to wipe out the inside will take care of the problem. Make sure that you completely rinse out any detergent; otherwise, the delicate bouquet of your favorite Darjeeling will taste suspiciously like a pan full of sudsy dishes.

use good-tasting, cold water

If the water you use to brew your tea tastes good, you're halfway there. If you're using tap water, let the cold water run briefly before filling your kettle. Tap water loses oxygen when it's left standing in water pipes for several hours.

If you don't like the taste of your tap water, experiment with different bottled spring or filtered waters until you find one whose taste you enjoy. Brita makes a filtration pitcher as well as a device that you can add to your faucet that removes chemicals like chlorine, which give an off flavor to water. The pitcher is inexpensive and widely available. By the way, don't use distilled water, the kind you use in an iron. It lacks minerals and tastes like air.

After you have placed your kettle on the stove to boil the water, preheat your teapot with warm water. When your kettle water has almost reached a boil, pour out the warm water in your teapot and your cups, and add your tea.

use the correct amount of water at the right temperature

How much boiling water do you need to make a proper cup of tea? Many instructions simply state "Add a bag or a teaspoon of tea leaves per cup of boiling water." What is a cup? To many of us, it’s the 8-ounce mug we use at the office. To the tea expert, it’s 51/2 or 6 ounces. For the purposes of this book, we’ll stick to 6 ounces. To be sure your pot of tea is perfect, check to see how many 6-ounce cups it takes to fill it.

The correct water temperature for steeping most green tea leaves is between 160°F and 175°F, depending on the specific tea. Oolongs are steeped at between 180°F and 190°F. Black teas need a full, rolling boil (212°F). The first time you brew a new tea, use a simple candy thermometer to check the water temperature. After that, you,ll be able to judge it visually or by its sound. At 160°F, the water is restless but not yet simmering. At 190°F, bubbles are rising across the entire surface and the water is starting to steam. A rolling boil is self-evident.

use the correct amount of the best tea you can buy

Use 1 teaspoon of loose tea for each cup. The first time you try a new tea, use a measuring spoon. After you've measured the tea leaves correctly, place the leaves in the spoon you're apt to use every day. That way you'll always be able to gauge the right amount of tea and prepare the proper strength. And don't worry about adding an extra spoonful "for the pot." It's not necessary, and the end result is simply a stronger brew.

Unless the teapot has a built-in tea strainer, I like to use a stainless steel, wire-mesh tea ball to hold loose tea. I fill it only half full so the leaves have enough room to expand. (I'll use two balls if I'm making a large amount.) The ball can be removed easily when brewing is finished. After you have measured the amount of tea you're going to use and placed it in your pot, add the boiling water.

THE ROMANCE OF THE LEAVES. Tea bags screen from sight one of the subtle pleasures of tea drinking. Enveloped in filter paper, the finely cut leaves just lie sedately under the covers. But when loose tea and boiling water meet, it’s a full-blown romance. Tea leaves come in myriad shapes, sizes, and textures, and all it takes is a little persuasive hot water to unwind and unveil their secrets. It’s a performance worth watching, and it's always different, depending on the tea you use.

THE CONVENIENCE OF the TEA BAG. While most guidelines discuss brewing tea with loose leaves, the number of tea drinkers using tea bags continues to grow. More than 50 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is made from tea bags, while in the British Isles the amount hovers at 30 percent.

Whether you're at home or in a restaurant, tea bags offer no-muss, no-fuss convenience in today's world of fast-food eating. And many tea companies have responded to demands from knowledgeable tea consumers by using high-quality tea in their bags.

When you purchase tea bags, it's better to buy smaller amounts or individually packaged tea bags. (Not the best environmental advice, I admit.) The reason is that the finely cut tea leaves used in most commercial tea bags have a greater surface area and become stale sooner than whole leaves.

Whenever you purchase tea in bags, keep in mind that the best tea does not necessarily mean the most expensive. It's true that fine teas cost more, but it's also true that expensive does not necessarily mean top quality. Many tea drinkers pay a premium for those lovely, imported tins whose packaging proclaims their reputation, but well-educated American tea agents are buying directly from the same quality sources on the world market and selling their tea for less.

FOR THOSE WHO WANT THE BEST. Keep in mind that most teas, whether loose or in a tea bag, are not premium teas. Most are casually swallowed without a moment's concern. It's similar to drinking a cup of freshly ground canned coffee versus enjoying a cup of freshly ground Italian roast. However, once you taste the difference, it's hard to return to the inferior stuff. If you take the time to experiment with different teas and learn about the teas you like, you can make an informed decision about the kind of tea you buy. If you don't have a local tea shop that carries premium teas, a number of excellent sources of tea and information are available on the Internet or by mail-order catalog.

brew tea for the proper length of time

Don't simply dunk a tea bag in boiling water until the water turns brown. Tea leaves need sufficient time to open. Depending on the leaf size, that can be between 1 and 3 minutes for green teas, and 3 to 5 minutes for blacks. Even though the color of a tea is the first sign of brewing, its darkness doesn't necessarily reflect its strength. While black teas such as a Ceylon or Assam brew to a rich brown, a perfectly brewed green Sencha tea will turn only a pale yellow-green.

The time it takes for tea to brew really depends on the leaf size. The smaller the leaf, the faster the tea infuses. The smaller-leafed Assam and English Breakfast teas and the ubiquitous tea bag infuse within 3 minutes. The mediumsized Ceylon takes closer to 5 minutes. Green teas that are tightly rolled or twisted take longer than those that are open.

Using leaf size as a guide, you'll need to experiment with your own tea to find its ideal brewing time. Notice the aroma while the tea is brewing, but be sure to watch the clock. If you let your tea steep too long, bitter qualities will come through and the tea will taste stewed.

Serve it fresh

When it comes time to serve, remove the tea leaves by lifting out the tea bag or ball. If you put loose tea in your teapot, simply place a strainer between the spout and your cup to catch the leaves when you are ready to pour. Then give your tea a quick stir to blend the flavors and ensure an even strength. Serve in cups rinsed with hot water, and savor.

To keep tea hot temporarily, cover your teapot with a padded tea cozy. At work, I use a thermos-style carafe. It works very well-and therefore, so do I. By the way, I never keep coffee in my tea carafe. (I have a separate one for Juan Valdez's favorite brew.) Reheated tea loses its pizzazz and its flavor suffers. Once hot tea has turned cold, it's best to enjoy it iced-or make ice cubes out of it to give iced tea more flavor without diluting its strength or to give a surprising tang to fresh juices.

One more bit of advice. Whether you like black, oolong, or green tea, whether you use one rounded teaspoon or two, whether your water is at a rolling boil or a soft simmer, making a great-tasting tea is not about following the exact rules; it's about what tastes good to you.

Milk, lemon, sugar, or plain?

If well prepared, your tea needs nothing more than for you to enjoy it. Whether you add anything else is really a matter of taste and tradition. In China and Japan, people prefer their oolong and green teas plain, while the British serve their freshly brewed black teas with a pitcher of milk. In Russia, a dollop of raspberry jam makes the sweetest of teas, and a slice of lemon is often used to brighten Russian tea.

As a rule, you'll find that oolong and green teas are best served plain, while brewed black teas often are enhanced by additional flavorings. The most commonly used flavorings you're likely to come across are milk, lemon, and sugar.

Milk's popularity in tea dates back to a seventeenth-century British custom. Until that time, tea had been served in heavy pewter or earthenware cups. When porcelain cups came into British vogue, milk was added because it was feared that adding hot black tea directly to the delicate china cup would cause it to crack. This wasn't the case, but, like the porcelain cup, adding milk became a hard habit to break.

Milk reacts chemically with tea. One of its proteins, called casein, binds with certain polyphenols, giving your tea a smoother, less astringent taste. (Polyphenols-or tannins - determine the color, flavor, pungency, and medicinal value of tea;) With the full-bodied black teas grown in India and Sri Lanka, milk has a mellowing effect and, some say, actually enhances the flavor.

You'd think adding milk to tea would be a simple task, but entire essays and chapters have been devoted to the how and when of it. It all boils down to two choices: If you pour the milk first and then add the tea, they will blend without so much as a stir. If you add the milk afterward, you'll have more control over the amount of milk you use. Also, and this is getting picky, your cup stays warmer-and so does your tea-if you pour in the hot tea first, followed by the milk.

You'll find that it takes only a teaspoon or two of milk to flavor your tea. If you add more milk, the casein binds with all of the tannins and oppresses the character of the tea. If you run out of milk, don't try cream. It may come from the same cow, but it's no substitute. True cream doesn't have as much casein, so its effect is quite different. It doesn't bind and so does not really complement your tea.

Lemon has been used by the Russians for centuries as a flavoring for freshly brewed tea. Its use was introduced to the Western world by Queen Victoria in the late nineteenth century. The revered ruler of Britain discovered the fashionable and tasty flavoring while visiting Vicky, her eldest daughter, who was married to the Prussian king. While lemon complements the taste of scented tea, it also will brighten the flavor of a black tea.

Sugar, honey, and even raspberry jam have been used for centuries to sweeten tea. In Russia, there is an old custom of holding a cube of sugar between your teeth and sucking your tea through it. Honey, the main sweet food of ancient times, is another popular sweetener. While many commercial honeys simply add sweetness to your tea, others will impart additional aroma and flavor. The honey label will usually tell you the type of flower the bees harvested and what flavor you can expect to taste.

Storing tea

Although each type of tea has a different shelf life, it's best to use any tea you purchase within six months to a year. Green teas are the most perishable and begin to deteriorate within a year of harvest. Oolong and black teas retain their characteristics for several years.

Keeping the leaves stored in a cool, dry, dark place is the best way to preserve their freshness. Avoid clear glass jars, which expose tea to light. An opaque glass or ceramic container with an airtight lid is best. Another factor contributing to a tea's longevity is the way in which the tea leaf is rolled. Tea leaves rolled into pellets (Gunpowder and Imperial green teas) or twisted (like the black Yunnan) last longer than an open, flat leaf, because less of their surface area is exposed to air. Whatever tea you choose, remember to treat it as you would a delicate spice. Keep it away from heat, moisture, and, of course, other strongly scented teas or spices.