I have been camping out in a hotel for a month and a half, and in order to still enjoy my whole leaf tea, I have my Teavana Tea Steeper and a small hot water heater. Local tap water here in Cincinnati is rather foul (my apologies on multiple levels to Cincinnatians), so I have been buying cases of bottled water for me tea brewing.
A couple of weeks ago instead of buying my usual case of spring water (no brand preferences), I went and bought a case of Niagara “purified” water, which appears to be pretty much pure water with nothing in it. I thought that would be better for my tea making, and certainly better for my hot water maker (which was constantly getting crusty with white mineral residue from the spring water I had been using).
However, over the last week I have noticed that the purified water produced much paler and weaker flavored teas (also lacking in aroma). This result applies to all the teas I have tried, but for me has been most apparent with green teas. Increasing the brewing times or steeping temperature makes no difference.
Today I switched back to spring water (Ice Mountain brand, in case that’s of interest), and voila, flavor and color had returned to my brewed teas, at normal brewing times and temperatures.
So, what I take away from this accidental experiment is that apparently a bit of alkalinity and mineral content is necessary for the water to release the full flavor and color of the tea. Interesting thing to learn.
I did some online research about the subject and came across this article (which is experiential, and not really scientific, but interesting nonetheless) – Water for Tea.
In any event, I have learned my lesson, and while the purified water resulted in a much cleaner hot water pot, it’s not something I ever want to voluntarily use to brew tea again. I’ll suffer with mineral residue in the pot in exchange for better tea brewed with spring water.
I thought the discussion of pu-erh tea I had initiated earlier this week had closed, but this afternoon, as I opened my birthday presents I discovered that my very thoughtful daughter had bought me several tea related things while she was exploring China with National Geographic Student Expeditions last month.
In addition to a beautiful porcelain tea set and a mystery loose leaf tea she really liked, Krystyana also gave me a hunk of pu-erh tea that she had found in Yangshao. However, unlike the pu-erh cake I picked up in Hong Kong, the pu-erh from Krystyana’s trip was in the shape of a bowl – round and hollow.
I had never seen pu-erh shaped in this way before.
The aroma of the dried leaves was a touch more earthy that the cake I have, and the flavor of the brewed tea a little stronger than the older leaf pu-erh I purchased in Hong Kong. A very pleasant tea indeed!
This time around, should someone be willing to translate the text on the wrapper, I’ve included a shot of it in its entirety.
My first introduction to aged Pu-erh Tea was at The Fat Duck restaurant in England a couple of years ago, when I finished my meal off with a nicely brewed chunk off of a 50-year old Pu-erh tea cake (the tea is usually packaged up in compressed cakes of aged tea leaves). It was heavenly.
I’ve since tried to find pu-erh tea cakes during my travels, but only found pu-erh in loose form, of questionable origin, and usually quite bitter and earthy. I will normally brew that stuff with chrysanthemum blossoms for a more pleasant blend – the blossoms sweeten the tea and overcome the earthiness of the low-grade pu-erh.
However on our recent trip to Hong Kong we found a couple of tea shops offering vintage pu-erh cakes, so I plunked down 800 Hong Kong dollars (just over US$100) for a cake I was told was 17 years old.
As I don’t read Chinese, I don’t know for sure if my pu-erh patty is from 1993, but the first bit of it I brewed was wonderful – it had a full, warm, rich flavor without a hint of must, and better yet, the tea is good for multiple brews (I did four on the small chunk I extracted from the cake), and each was as good as the second. I say that because the tea store owners I bought the pu-erh cake from suggested (mostly with sign language) that you quickly rinse the tea leaves with hot water and discard the water (the first brew), and then you can consume the subsequent brews.
If any of you read Chinese, I would love a translation of the front and the back of the pu-erh packaging shown above. I’m curious if I got a good deal or got taken as a Gweilo.
Update – August 16, 2010: I have just added the photo below to this blog entry per Kay’s offer in the comments on this post to have her sister-in-law translate. I didn’t realize how much text was under the folded wrapper. It does say 2001, so perhaps that’s the year of manufacture? We’ll find out soon!
About a year and a half ago, we took a private docent-led tour in New York City with Elizabeth Knight as part of a “History of Tea” tour arranged by Context Travel. Context no longer offers this tour, but you can still take custom tea tours and get tea training with Elizabeth via her own company, Tea With Friends. I highly recommend it if you are in New York City and have the time.
You might think that New York is a rather odd place for this, but as it turns out it was a brilliant choice, as it offers a broad range of cultural, historical, and culinary traditions that immigrants and business people have brought to this urban environment. Perhaps the most stunning thing we discovered even with all the diverse types of teas in the world is that they come from one type of plant – Camellia sinensis.
The base types of tea – white, green, oolong, black – are produced by processing the leaves and buds of the tea plant in different ways. There’s a great article on tea processing at Wikipedia.
Be that as it may, one of the things we learned with Elizabeth (and elsewhere) is that most tea-bag tea is made with tea “dust” or “fannings“, which are typically (but not always) lower grade leftover bits of tea leaves. In various tea tastings over the last couple of years we have also found that for certain types of teas, such as green and oolong, the flavor and aroma of brewed whole leaf teas is generally far superior to tea-bag teas. Subsequently we have raised our tea standards, as life is too short to drink mediocre tea.
While there are some great companies that specialize in tea bags with whole leaf teas, including Tea Forte, Mighty Leaf, and some of the teas from Harney & Sons, I generally find it more satisfying and less expensive to buy tins or bags of loose leaf tea and use the tea that way. The other nice thing about brewing your own loose leaf teas is that you can blend your own tea combinations to brew the perfect tea for the occasion.
Speaking of brewing, I have a drawer full of tea strainers, tea balls, and other tea infusion gadgets, but honestly I have not found anything which competes with the Teavana tea maker for properly and easily steeping and brewing tea.
Tea balls and infusers tend to be a pain to fill – leaves tend to fall out and things get messy. And tea strainers tend to be either too tough to clean after use, or have sieve holes which are too large and let tea bits through.
The Teavana tea maker, on the other hand, has a very dense pair of screens at the bottom which both prevents tea bits from getting through as well as getting stuck after brewing. Better yet, the tea maker also acts as a steeper so that you can steep and brew your tea for however long the tea requires and then drain the steeped tea into an appropriate vessel.
Let me diverge with a quick comment on steeping tea. The lighter the tea (e.g. white or green), the more delicate it tends to be, and thus the more care you need to treat it with when brewing. If you over-steep or use water that is too hot, you could burn the leaves and/or make it very bitter, thus ruining your tea experience. There is a nice basic chart to follow here.
For a while I was very anal retentive about measuring the water temperature of my hot water, but then an elderly Japanese lady in an underground market near the Shibuya Station in Tokyo showed me a cool (literally) trick. To get her boiling water cooled off to an appropriate temperature for the green sencha tea she was brewing for the tea samples she was offering, she would pour the boiling water into a room temperature tea cup, swirl it around, and then pour it over the green tea leaves (sencha) in the small teapot she used for brewing. That decanting into a colder container was enough to cool off the water temperature, and also served as a way to warm up the tea cup to avoid “shocking” the tea when it was poured for consumption a couple of minutes later.
So now, when I brew my white or green teas, I pour the boiling water into my cup or pitcher first, swirl it around a bit, and then pour it over my tea leaves to steep them without burning them with water that is too hot. For a 16 oz cup of tea I normally use a bit more than a teaspoon of loose leaf tea, while for a pitcher (almost two quarts) I will use about five (5) teaspoons of loose leaf tea, or even a bit more if I am decanting over ice to make an ice tea.
And my tea leaves are invariably in one of my Teavana tea makers (large to make a pitcher of tea, small to make a big cup of tea) as pictured above.
To heat my water, I have found the best thing is an electric hot water kettle like the one shown above. It’s faster than using a traditional stove top tea kettle, and easier to see exactly how much water you’re heating up. A microwave will do as backup for a cup of hot water, but I don’t have any assurance that I’ve reached boiling temperature in a microwave so I only use one when I don’t have a better way to heat my water (like in a hotel room).
My favorite teas are green teas – I particularly like the grassy nose of a decently brewed sencha, and also have become fond of oolong of late, with a splash of vanilla extract. In terms of blends, I like to steep fresh lemongrass and then add green tea leaves to it to produce my own lemongrass green tea. Oh, and I almost never sweeten my teas, with the exception of a chai-style blend.
I have been finding that more and more supermarkets appear to carry loose leaf teas now, but in a pinch you can probably find dedicated tea shops in a local shopping mall or town. Teavana appears to be the most populous in the U.S., with a very broad selection of teas. If ordering on-line, I have had great success with Teavana, Mighty Leaf, and Harney & Sons. I find the Japanese green teas to be best from Harney & Sons, but like Teavana’s Moroccan Mint and Masala Chai better than the equivalent products from Harney & Sons. Mighty Leaf has an amazing Orchid Oolong as well as the fragrant Celebration blended black tea.
All in all, I think if you have an interest in tea, once you go to loose leaf tea, you’ll find it hard to go back to plain old tea-bag tea. In fact, for my upcoming Antarctic trip, I bagged a bunch of loose leaf teas in my own tea bags because I didn’t want to suffer with normal tea, and couldn’t fit the Teavana tea maker in my limited luggage space. I also packed some low-sugar hot chocolate mix and my own datil and ancho chili pepper blend to make spicy hot chocolate to keep me warm on the inside. But that will have to wait for another blog post.
We recently completed a trip to The Netherlands and Germany, and found, to our delight, that many cafés offered fresh mint tea on their menus. We became fans of mint tea in Morocco last year, but Moroccan tea, made with dried mint leaves does not compare to the fresh flavor and color of tea made with fresh mint leaves.
After we got back home from our trip we attempted to make Fresh Mint Tea ourselves, and it was incredibly easy. Basically, you get a large sprig of fresh mint, put it in a large mug, add boiling water, and wait for it to steep. We find that muddling the leaves in the hot water helps add more mint flavor to the tea. We also like our mint tea sweetened, and use one or two packets of Splenda for that purpose instead of sugar (in order to avoid unnecessary carbs).
A small footnote about terminology: Technically, a “tea” is only a “tea” when it includes leaves from a tea plant or bush. Fresh mint tea is actually a “tisane“, a term used to describe hot drinks made from herbs and other non-tea plant leaves and ingredients.