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.