I am a tea drinker. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t think there is anything wrong with drinking coffee. I used to drink coffee in high school and a little bit in college, but lately it kills my stomach, and I no longer like the taste. The smell of coffee is divine, if it only tasted as good as it smelled.
However, I am still in need of caffeine in the morning. So I started drinking tea. I used to use tea bags, but I eventually upgraded to loose leaf tea. Tea also has antioxidants, which seems to be the big deal these days. Also according to www.nursingdegree.com, tea will actually hydrate you, it reduces the risk of heart attack, protects your bones, improves short term memory, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, has no calories, helps in digestion, and basically is good stuff. Tea is also a whole lot cheaper than coffee. One pound (400g) of really good tea will set you back about $180 dollars, but you will get almost 400 cups of tea out of it, so it still comes out to less than $0.50 a cup. Most tea isn’t nearly that expensive.
Tea comes in four different types: Black, Oolong, green, and herbal. Herbal teas are not technically “tea” as they do not come from tea leaves. Herbal teas are brewed from other plant matter such as mint leaves, flowers, spices, herbs, etc. Most of these are not caffeinated and have different benefits, such as digestive or sleep aid, etc. The other three teas come from the Camillia sinensisi plant. All three tea versions come from this plant, specifically the top two leaves. Black teas have been aged before stopping the aging process by firing the leaves. Oolongs are aged less and green teas almost no time at all before the firing process. Generally, black teas have bold flavors, while Oolongs have a malty flavor, and green teas are definitely more mild flavor. There are also white teas, which are more mild than green, but I really don’t like them, so I am going to not even bothering mentioning them again.
Tea has a complexity much like wine. All teas come from the same plant, not even different varieties of the plant, it is the same plant. However, it is the environment that the plant is growing that gives each type of tea a distinct flavor. Some of the more famous tea regions are Darjeeling, Assam, and Yunnan. A “First Flush” tea, typically from a single region, is better than others, as it is from the first picked leaves of the season.
Tea makers will often blend teas from different regions to create the flavors such as English Breakfast, or add other herbs and spices to create other teas. The most famous tea blend would be Earl Grey tea, where bergamot, a citrus like fruit, has been added.
There are tons of tea blend varieties. Other breakfast teas, such as Irish Breakfast or Scottish Breakfast, are even bolder than English Breakfast. My personal favorite is Mt. Everest Breakfast Blend. It is a blend of Assam and Yunnan teas, and they claim it is ideal for mountain climbing. I am sure it is just psychological, but I think I breath better after drinking that tea. The Assam teas are grown in the Himalayas, and maybe growing in the higher elevations causes the tea to release something to open up the alveoli in the lungs. This is all my personal theory, and I have no scientific data to back that up. BTW, Mt. Everest Breakfast Blend is available at http://www.indigo-tea.com/mteverestblendtea.shtml.
The next thing to know about a good cup of tea is to start brewing loose leaf tea. Tea bags are mostly the leftover dust from the loose leaf teas. Loose leaf tea tastes better, brews easier, and can cost less tea bags. A ¼ lb (100g) of tea will brew 50-100 cups of tea, and will cost you between $5 and $20 (or as much as $60, but usually about $10). A box of 20 tea bags will cost you at least $4.95 at the supermarket, and won’t taste nearly as good. I bought 2.5 lbs (1.1kg) of a variety of teas two years ago for about $60, and I still have ¾ lb (300 g) left, and I brew a pot of tea daily.
Where do I get loose leaf tea?
You can buy tea by the ¼ lb (~100 g) in the mall at Teavana, or online for much cheaper. Peet’s Coffee and Tea sells loose leaf tea at fairly reasonable prices, and their tea isn’t bad (I like their Scottish Breakfast tea, it is bold flavored and smoky). Also, there are more and more independent tea shops/rooms opening up in some of the larger cities. If you can, try to find a seller that will sell ½ oz (12 g) or 1 oz (25 g) sample packets, either online or at a tea shop (Teavana has a 2 oz (50g) minimum. There used to be an online company called Special Teas that would sell those samplers for a dollar or two each. Each packet would make six batches of tea, at least. That way you could try something to see if you liked it. I haven’t found another online company that does that. The 2 oz (50g) is the smallest I can find, and there are only a few places that do that. Also check your local international market or tea shop, they may have some bulk teas you can purchase by the ounce.
The other thing to look for in loose leaf tea is the quality of the leaves. There is a fairly complex classification about tea leaf quality. The term “Orange Pekoe” has nothing to do with orange flavoring. It refers to the leaves being picked from the top of the plant. There are several other classifications that are better than Orange Pekoe (OP), but I am not going to get into them. Basically if it has more letters, it is better (It goes up to Super Finest Tippy Golden Flower Orange Pekoe – SFTGFOP). One thing to look for is “Broken” leaves. Some teas, like breakfast and chai teas, are supposed to have broken leaves, but this means they are more susceptible to over brewing and can have stronger (both good and bad) flavors. That said, if you are buying from a loose-leaf tea dealer, they will tell you what is going on with their teas.
One more type of tea are the tea “pearls” these are hand rolled groups of tea leaves shaped into pearls. These are more expensive, because of the work involved, but you can get multiple brews out of the pearls and the flavors are different each time. Teavana has “Black Dragon Phoenix Pearls” which are about the size of a peanut M&M and you can get four good brews out of them (I can’t find it anywhere else, and it is one of my favorites).
How to I make tea?
The instructions for brewing tea are as follows: take a teaspoon of tea leaves (or a tea bag) per cup of tea, put the leaves in the tea pot, pour hot water on them, brew for the allotted amount of time, and pour brewed tea into a cup. For the teaspoon, it isn’t the teaspoon you use to measure salt for baking, it is the spoon you use to eat your cereal with. You are supposed to use one teaspoon per cup of tea. I use a slightly heaping teaspoon for my tea and I brew 24 oz (750ml) each time.
If you want decaffeinated tea, dump the water out after 30 seconds and pour new water in, you will have mostly decaffeinated tea. When brewing tea, the first thing to come out is the color, then the caffeine, then the flavors, then other stuff.
Black teas should be brewed at or just below boiling for 3-5 minutes, Oolongs brew at 195°F (90°C) for 3-4 minutes, Green teas at 180°F (80°C) for 1-3 minutes. Typically, when you buy the loose leaf teas for brewing at home, they will include brewing instructions. One bit of advice, if it is a broken variety, stay on the lower end of the brewing time until you figure out your tastes.
Now, many people find tea bitter, and that is likely because they over brew it or brew it wrong, i.e. the “other” stuff came out. This includes many stores that have “tea” in there store name. Starbucks is horrible for brewing tea, Peets Coffee and tea is a little bit better, Coffee Bean and Tea leaf is a bit better still. The main problem with these places is that their water is too damn hot. The water seems to be more than 212°F (100°C). Also, many of the employees at these locations put too much tea into the cups. The tea has no room to expand in the bag and it squeezes out bitter components. With the super heated water, these components come out even faster.
Never, never, NEVER order Oolong or green tea from these stores, because they need to be brewed at well below boiling. Buy the tins of tea and brew it at home, but don’t have them brew it for you. At the coffee and tea shops, I always ask for a large tea cup, but with the amount of tea leaves for a small. I also try to watch the tea maker like a hawk, so I know exactly how long my tea has been brewing for. I am a snob.
What do I need to brew tea?
You need some way to boil water, a device to contain water and leaves, and some way to remove the leaves from the water when its ready. Having a timer is handy too. I typically use the microwave timer, or my cell phone.
For boiling water, you can heat up some water in the microwave, get a stove top kettle (you know, the whistling one), or get an electric kettle. The latter option is the more expensive ($40-$70), assuming you don’t have to go out and buy a microwave and/or a stove, but it is the better option. The electric kettle allows you to control the temperature of your water. If you become a tea-phile like me, you are going to want one.
For containing the tea leaves and water, you should get a tea pot of some sort. Ditch the tea spoons, tea balls, and similar items. When the tea leaves get wet, they expand and with nowhere to go, they will get squeezed and release bitter compounds that don’t taste good. Most tea pots will have some sort of screen to put the tea leaves in to strain them. Alton Brown says these are bad, but I don’t have a problem with them. I have four teapots that I know of (I may have more in storage). I have a nice cast iron one, the green one below; a stainless steel one I bought from the owner of a Chinese restaurant I was eating at (you can get them at food supply places pretty cheap); a glass one I got at Peets; and a plastic one from Teavana that is magic. No really. Once you are done brewing your tea, you set it on top of you cup and it drains into your cup. I used this at my old office and when I travel. Teavana has a bunch nifty brewing apparatuses.
When your tea is done brewing, pour it out into a cup. If you don’t have the strainer, or if the strainer holes are too big, pour the tea through a fine mesh sieve to get the small particles out. If you don’t, you may get some dregs in your tea. Most of the time, I don’t bother.
There is also the big fancy tea kettle that will brew your tea. It is the Breville One Touch Tea Maker. Now, I don’t actually have one of these, because they are pricey. But from what I hear, it may actually be worth it. Not only will it heat your water to the desired temperature, you can set a timer and it will lower a basket of tea leaves into the water for a set of time. Perfect tea, every time.
Once you tea is brewed you can add milk, cream, sugar, rock sugar, or my personal favorite, honey. I add about a tablespoon of honey to my 24 oz of tea. Honey is really good for you. If you buy local honey, it helps with allergies, and it is all natural with minimal to no processing. But honey is for another post.
I highly recommend drinking tea