Like coffee, wine, and beer, tea is a beverage connoisseurs feel it’s important to be selective about. If you want to wean yourself off coffee or you find tea’s touted health benefits attractive, you’re in the right place. Thankfully, it doesn’t take much time or effort to develop a basic understanding of what good tea is and how to brew it. Here’s a brief guide to knowing, selecting, preparing, and drinking tea.
Discover what tea is all about
According to Chinese legend, emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. Some leaves fell into the water, altering its flavor and making it something of a stimulant. The emperor liked what he drank, and tea as a beverage was born. If this inception myth is true, we can assume the caffeine and L-theanine in the emperor’s tea gave it its stimulating properties. L-theanine, an amino acid known for promoting mental acuity, treating anxiety and high blood pressure, and making cancer drugs more effective, is the reason many people drink tea and many others wish they did. Taste and ritual are two others.
Know your varieties
A little known fact about tea is that all true teas come from a single plant. Camellia sinensis, a gnarly looking plant known as the tea bush, is the mother of black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong tea. The differences between these teas stem from differences in the processing of the plant’s leaves. Herbal teas, while deserving of space on your tea rack, are not considered tea by definition.
Ditch the tea bags
Tea bags are convenient and make tea brewing easy. And some high-grade tea bags deliver an impressively well-balanced brew. But none of the best tea leaves are cut or ground for tea bags. And even if they were, the small size of the leaves or tea dust in the bags would compromise their flavor.
If you want to get deep into tea brewing, you’ll likely eliminate most tea bags from your collection. The chief problem with tea bags is the leaves they contain are too small to provide a rich tea flavor. By the time they are brewed, these finely chopped leaves have lost most of their essential oils and aroma. This is why tea made from so many tea bags tends to taste coarse and unbalanced.
A cup of tea can only be as good as the leaves its brewed from. To find the best leaves in your area, ask acquaintances and conduct online research. Tea houses are ideal for shopping, but local coffee and tea shops often have great loose leaf tea selections as well. Online specialty tea stores like Adagio Teas, Teavana, and MightyLeaf are also widely respected for the quality of their offerings.
Several tea brewing tools and accessories are available for purchase. None of them are necessary for a properly brewed pot of tea. You could simply pour hot water over tea leaves and filter them out as you drink after the tea has steeped. If you’d prefer to not to drink your tea this way, a simple mesh tea ball or tea infuser is the only tool you should need. If you want to embrace ancient Chinese tea culture, a gaiwan might also be a worthwhile investment for your apartment.
What matters most when brewing tea is the temperature of the water at the time it’s added to the tea leaves. For black teas, water should be between 208 and 212 degrees. For oolong teas, it should be between 180 and 190 degrees. And for white and green teas, whose leaves are most delicate after processing, the temperature should be between 170 and 185 degrees. Steep time is also important.
Savor the flavor and experience
Like fine wine, a quality cup of tea should never be thrown back in one gulp. In fact, there are many parallels between drinking wine and drinking tea. After steeping a cup of tea, give it a good whiff before taking you first small sip. Let that first sip sit in your mouth for a few seconds, acquainting yourself with its taste and how it makes you feel. Then swallow, and exhale slowly to appreciate the taste and feel of the finish. If you’re satisfied, enjoy the cup while it’s still warm. If not, steep the leaves a bit longer before tasting it again.
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