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From Issue #3 November 8, 2012

My Cup of Tea

The forgotten art of proper tea.

By Dan Moren Twitter icon 

Coffee drinkers complain all too often about how tough it is to find a decent cup of coffee. Pfft. You know what’s tough? Imagine this: You’ve just finished an elegant dinner at a fine establishment. The service has been excellent. The food worth every penny. The waiter returns, sets down a mug of hot water…and dumps into it a heaping teaspoon of Folgers Crystals.

This is what it’s like to be a tea drinker.

It’s an embarrassing state of affairs for a drink whose consumption dates back to the 10th century B.C. We’ve known how to make a proper cup of tea for thousands of years, but in the last century or so it’s as if our collective cultural tea-brewing knowledge has been whacked over the head and thrown into the trunk of a car. Filled with coffee.

Unsurprisingly, that century mark coincides with a singular event in the history of tea: the rise of the tea bag. If anything has contributed to the downfall of tea in society, I’d argue that it’s this “invention,” which came about more or less as the result of idiocy. Around the turn of the 20th century, tea merchant Thomas Sullivan would send samples to his customers packaged in small silk sachets. The customers, unaware of their purpose, dunked them right into the hot water. Thus, the tea bag was born, and the beverage’s long slide into commoditization and second-class citizenry began.

And so, order a cup at many an otherwise admirable restaurant, and you’ll be given an eyebrow raise usually reserved for those who ask for ketchup to go with their filet mignon. Why are tea drinkers an afterthought? Tea has a long and distinguished history in America. Nobody protested high coffee tariffs by dumping it into Boston Harbor. (We may have done ourselves a disservice there, as some argue that the tense relationship between the U.S. and Britain during the Revolution only served to increase coffee’s popularity.)

Though it may have been popular among our forefathers, to many today tea seems old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy—perhaps even a bit froofy. And it’s clearly not strong enough for the caffeine-driven needs of today’s office workers; those who drink tea must do so because they just can’t stomach coffee.

But ask yourself: When was the last time you had a real cup of tea? Not a cold mug of lukewarm water and a limp bag of Lipton’s, but a well-and-proper freshly brewed pot. Never? Here’s your chance. If you can boil water, you can make a cup of tea. (If you can’t, watch for my forthcoming article “How to Not Burn Water.”)

The tea: It all starts with the tea. Tea all comes from a single plant species, the leaves of which are processed in different ways to make a few types that dominate: black, green, and white. (Other outcomes include oolong, yellow, and post-fermented varieties.) Black teas tend to be stronger in flavor than green teas, with a higher caffeine content. White teas generally have the lowest caffeine content of all.

Bag the bags: The tea bag has taken some of the mystery and ritual out of the tea process, but, more than that, it brews a less pleasant cup of tea. That is in part due to bagged teas traditionally relying on the leavings of the tea-making process: small pieces called “fannings” and a powder referred to as “dust.” These smaller pieces have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio, which leads to an insipid or stale taste as oils evaporate more rapidly than with larger pieces. Avoid tea bags in favor of loose tea whenever possible. Mail-order options abound, or your town may have a tea shop or two, while a natural-foods store may also sell tea leaves. But if resort to tea bags you must, there are some acceptable options, as more and more tea purveyors offer longer-leaf tea in pyramid-shaped bags that mimic the traditional brewing process.

Infusion confusion: Instead of a bag, you’ll probably want to use an infuser. They come in numerous varieties, made from materials like mesh, ceramic, or perforated metal. Ideally, you’ll want a larger one that allows tea leaves to move freely as they brew; it produces a better flavor than if the infuser constrains and compresses the tea. Otherwise, the choice of material depends mainly on your cleaning habits. I tend to favor ones I can just rinse out, as soap can leave an unfortunate aftertaste. If you’re going the truly traditional route, there’s nothing wrong with putting the leaves right in the pot (as is often done in Chinese restaurants), as long as you don’t mind drinking some leaves. (Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. Much.)

Don’t use too much tea: You’re using loose tea—great! Unfortunately, some people seem to think that quantity is more important than quality, so you might be tempted to spoon in half a container. This does nothing but mar the experience and waste perfectly good tea. The rule of thumb: one measured teaspoon per cup—not a literal teaspoon with which you stir tea. If you’re making a whole pot, add one more teaspoon for the pot itself.

Warm the pot/cup: Pouring hot water into a cold cup is a good way to end up with a room temperature cup of tea. Providing a hot mug—not a “teacup,” the wide, shallow shape of which tends to more quickly bleed off that heat—will help the water stay hotter longer. Iced tea is one thing, but cool tea is nobody’s friend. Fill your cup with hot water from your kettle, or even from the tap. Let it sit for a few moments, and then dump it out when you’re ready to brew. Traditionally, the Chinese pour the first cup of tea into mugs to warm them, then dump it out; the first cup of tea, it’s said, is for your enemies. These days, I find there are never enemies around when I need them.

The water should be boiling: Note that I didn’t say the water should be boiled—we’re not trying to sterilize surgical instruments, make potatoes, or prepare for a home birth in the 19th century. As any tea drinker worth his salt will tell you (not that you should put salt in tea), an infusion like tea requires boiling water to correctly release the properties of the dried leaves. There are a few exceptions, depending on the tea itself. Both green and white teas require lower boiling points, in which case it’s recommended that the water be boiled first, then be let to cool briefly.

Steep, but not too steeped: Every tea has its own ideal steeping time. Most black teas run about three to five minutes. You can certainly keep steeping after that, but the bitter, astringent result may be more suited to scrubbing scuffs off your hubcaps than consumption. Follow the instructions on the box.

Add nothing: This one is personal preference. Some people like adulterating their tea with sugar, milk, or lemon. To each his or her own, I suppose, but I highly recommend trying a cup without anything at all, to let the innate flavor come through. Otherwise all you really end up tasting is sugar, milk, or lemon. (My one exception? Tea with honey is a great way to soothe a sore throat.)

And there you have it: a real cup of tea. Maybe I sound a bit obsessed, but I’m not alone in my fixation. Tea can count no less than Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams, and George Orwell among its ardent defenders.

Of course, the real dirty secret of tea is that you can ignore almost everything I’ve written if you decide you want to drink it another way. That is, after all, why it’s your cup of tea.

Dan Moren is a writer whose work has appeared in Macworld, the Boston Globe, and on his parents' refrigerator. He's also a regular panelist on the award-winning podcast The Incomparable, a would-be novelist, and an occasional Dungeon Master. Shhhh.

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