THE ART OF TEA – How to make a good Tea?

I start this article by saying an obvious fact: Water is the nr.1 refreshment, nutritous and necessary drink ever. Water is normally is just that: a transpartent liquid with nutritious minerals but it has no taste, no color, no smell, it must be is just clean and cool. Yet except water the nr. 2 drink in my opinion is TEA. Actually it’s not just my opinion, Tea is really the 2nd most popular drink in the world. Some people might probably say that Coca-Cola for instance is the 2nd best refreshment drink but remember how Coca-Cola started? It was also like a Tea; 🙂 so in fact Coca-Cola is nothing but a kind of tea but is served always cool, it has a lot of sugar and must be carboanted, and of course is not healthy. I’ve never understood why Coca-Cola is considered like that but apparetnly it is. However not for me. I do drink it sometimes but I always prefer a cup of water or a cup of good tea.

Real tea instead is mostly served hot, it’s not necessaty sweet and is a very old refreshment drink. The history of tea spreads across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to the 3rd century AD. With the tea plant Camellia sinesnsis originating from the land between today’s northeast India, north Burma, southwest China, and Tibet, one of the earliest tea drinking is dated back to China’s Shang dynasty, in which tea was consumed as a medicinal drink. It first became known to western civilization through Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the early 16th century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century. The British introduced tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea and since then it continues to be like that. We drink tea everywhere – usually in the morning at home, at our workplaces, and is also the most served type of drink when for instance we travel by plane. People drink tea in every European country but Tea is known in Europe as the official drink of Britain. For me too I love tea and I am not british 🙂

Yet when I was in London for the 1st time many years ago, I have experienced a new way of drinking tea. In my regular tea drinking routine I drink hot tea with a little spoon of sugar or honey and sometimes I add a piece of lemon. But in the UK they also drink it with milk. Hmmm…. to me that is new. But I tried it and was good. However, I’ll keep my tea drinking habit simple, just tea, without milk.

The Tea is indeed a special refreshment drink. If you only make yourself a cup of tea that’s ok, you know better what’s good for you. But if you do it for someone else then it must create an relaxing experince and making good tea is an Art, you must know how to do it. I sometimes drink tea when I travel by plane, too. I do it mainly before boarding but when the flight is long I order my cup also on the plane. In one of my trip to USA from Europe the following scene happened:

I was sitting on my spot when the flight attendants started to serve refreshments on board. When they were close to me one of the flight attendand asked me: “Tea or coffee, sir?”. Most of the blinds were down in the aircraft cabin, but the gloom was punctuated with shafts of light from a few uncovered windows, revealing an unsetting sun outside. We were 6 hours into an 11-hour flight; a general feeling of lethargy prevailed. I like coffee; in fact, I love coffee. But I drink it black, as a stimulant, not for refreshment. At 12.000 meters altitude, I didn’t feel like being stimulated. On the other hand, tea made by someone who doesn’t know how to make it is worse than a bad cup of coffee. Why is that?

To me tea must be made with hot water when served. So I asked: “Is it hot? I mean is it made with really hot water?” but becasue there a was a noise in the cabin from the plane enginees I guess the flight attendand either ignored me or just didn’t hear my question he started to pour the tea in a cup and served me.

But What should a cup of tea taste like? What I’m looking for with my first sip is a savoury briskness that ignites all my taste buds: not in a show-off cappuccino-with-froth-and-chocolate-sprinkles kind of way, but in a subtle, determined wave of lapping pleasure, the kind that elicits an involuntary, audible ‘ah!’ of satisfaction. Colour is important; a black tea needs to be gloriously golden and transparent, and not so dark
that I can’t see the bottom of the cup. Ideally, I’d like to spot this before the tea has been served to me, while it’s being poured out of a teapot. I also want to hear the gurgle of the liquid filling the cup, reminding me of all those moments in my life when I’ve been at home with my family, drinking a cup of tea at the kitchen table. With all that anticipation brewing, I took a sip. It was horrible. The tea tasted like a warm cup of flat Coke, but without the sweetness. I tasted it again to see if l’d missed anything. This time I got a twang of the unpleasant plastic taste of the cup.

But tea is reputed to be the most popular hot drink in the world after water. Although getting reliable facts on the topic is difficult, in Britain for instance it is estimated that 165 million cups of tea are drunk on average every day. That compares to 70 million cups of coffee. The picture is similar in many other countries world-wide. So what does tea offer that coffee does not? And more importantly: why is tea often made so badly?

My cup of tea started its life as some new shoots on a seemingly unremarkable evergreen shrub that thrives only in tropical or subtropical climates. You could walk past this plant and never know it was the source of so much delight -our ancestors did so for thousands of years. The shrub likes humidity and rainfall, but not high temperatures, and so there are a handful of places that are ideal for growing it, like the high altitudes of Yunnan province in China, the mountains of Japan, the Himalayas of Darjeeling in India, and the central highlands of Sri Lanka.

The best tea in the world, or at least the most expensive, is Da Hong Pao from the Wuyi Mountains in China, which can easily sell for a million dollars per kilogram.

DHP tea plantation

The geographical location, the altitude and the exact conditions of the individual growing season all affect the taste of the tea leaves. One of the major headaches for tea manufacrurers is to figure out how to blend tea from many different geographical locations in a way that maintains a consistent taste for their product month after month, and year after year. Although there are many types of tea, they all come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. The difference between green and black teas (and the other variants such as white, yellow, oolong, etc.) is how the leaves are processed. Every season, all the new shoots of the tea plant are picked by hand. They immediately start to wilt, which triggers enzymes that break down the molecular machinery of the leaves, turning the green chlorophyll pigment first brown, and then black.

If you have ever left a bunch of herbs too long in your fridge, you will have witnessed this effect. Green teas are produced by heating the leaves immediately after picking. The heat deactivates the enzymes, and so keeps the chlorophyll intact, and thus the green colour, too. Often the leaves are then rolled, which bruises their cell walls, allowing the molecules responsible for the flavour to be easily extracted. The flavour palette of green tea is made up of astringency, from a family of molecules called polyphenols (you’ll remember them from the tannins in wine); bitterness, from the caffeine molecules; sweetness, from sugars; silkiness, from pectins; a savoury, brothy taste from the amino acids; and a bouquet of aromatic oils. It’s the careful balance of these different elements, rather than the maximum extraction of each, that yields a great cup of tea.

Black teas are produced from the same leaves as green teas – they are just prepared differently, In the case of black tea, after the leaves wilt, they are rolled and their enzymes help break down the molecular machinery through a reaction with the oxygen in the air. This is a process called oxidation and it changes the colour from green to dark brown, producing a different set of flavour molecules. Many of the polyphenols, like the bitter tannins, are transformed into more savoury and fruity-tasting molecules. Because these molecules that make up the flavour of black tea are the result of the oxidation, they are not so susceptible to being destroyed by subsequent reactions with the oxygen in the air. Thus, after drying, black teas can be stored for Ionger periods of time than green teas without losing their flavour. Job done, you might be thinking. Just add water to which-
ever of these teas sounds best, and you’ll have a refreshing drink. But tea can be ruined all too easily.

Another caffeine-based drink, such as Coke, will be very similar in taste wherever and whenever you drink it. This is because the brewing process is controlled in a factory, and the flavour of the drink is not significantly impaired by being stored and transported. Thus much of the potential for error has been removed. You can serve it at the wrong temperature (according to your preference), or in the wrong vessel (also according to your preference), but the chemical composition of the Coke is going to be reliably the same each time you order it. Inventors have long tried to do the same for tea by liquefying tea extracts to make an instant tea beverage that can be made in drink machines. So far, drinks made this way have never caught on, perhaps because they taste almost completely unlike a refreshing cup of tea. The reason for the difference is thought to be that so many of the key chemical components that give tea its distinctive flavour degrade and disappear soon after brewing.

Liquid instant tea products

The author George Orwell, while most famous for classics of political fiction like “1984” and “Animal Farm”, cared so much about the problem of bad tea that he published a treatise on the drink: his 11 rules for making a perfect cup of tea. These rules included the necessity of brewing tea using a teapot, the importance of warming the pot, and that milk should be added to the cup after the tea has been poured.

Science doesn’t offer a definitive view on what constitutes the perfect cup of tea, but does confirm the importance of some of Orwell’s insights. Basically, there are 4 key variables that can drastically alter the quality of a cup of tea:

  • the tea leaves,
  • the water quality,
  • the temperature of the brew and
  • the duration of the brewing process.

The more flavourful the tea leaves are, the more flavourful a cup of tea. But there is a catch. If we agree, even if George Orwell does not, that the best tea is the tea you personally enjoy the most, then if your favourite tea is brewed from standard tea bags, it’s safe to say that you’re not going to find tea made from the extremely flavourful and extremely expensive Da Hong Pao tea more refreshing. The notion of what is best is, ultimately, subjective – just as it is with wine, and indeed with most things. On the other hand, if you’ve never had the opportunity to drink a wide range of different teas (and there are approximately 1,000 types available) there may yet be a more satisfying type of tea out there for you.

Tea is as sophisticated as wine in terms of its flavour profiles, and the high prices reflect some of this, but it is also prone to some of the same snobbish vices of the wine industry, where scarcity and marketing are often used as a proxy for quality of product. There is also such an enormous breadth of tea – from green tea, to oolong, to the yerba mate of South America, to the black teas of Sri Lanka – that discovering what you like can be time-consuming.

Personally, my perfect cup of tea changes throughout the day. In the morning, when I’ve just woken up, I like strong breakfast tea with little honey – I find it comforting, alerting, but not too demanding. In the afternoon, I crave a black Earl Grey tea – the subtle combination of citrus and bergamot punch through the dreariness of a grey rainy afternoon.

The problem with people who aren’t tea drinkers is that I never know what to offer them when they visit me at home. “Would you like a cup of tea?” is the most welcoming phrase I know. It often rolls off my tongue before a visitor has even closed the door. The offer sounds trivial but its meaning is multifaceted; it means: “Welcome to my home”; it means “I care about you”; it means “I have these delicious dried leaves that were harvested and processed thousands of miles away in an exotic climate; aren’t I sophisticated?” – well, it used to mean that, when tea was first popularized in Britain in the 18th century. Since then, making a cup of tea has become the default British welcome ceremony, more customary than kissing, shaking hands, hugging or any of the other, admittedly more intimate, welcome rituals practised in other countries.

Hence George Orwell’s insistence on using a teapot; the teapot isn’t just a brewing vessel, it’s a physical manifestation of the sharing at the heart of a home. The care and attention lavished on it, the sounds of the pot being filled with hot water, its aesthetic appearance, the time spent waiting for the brew and the assembly of the cups are all part of the ceremony. When performing the tea welcoming ceremony you have to use good water. It sounds obvious, but it appears this variable has been overlooked even by Orwell, and given that tea is mostly water it’s easy to see how that ingredient would have a marked effect on the flavour. Water tastes different depending on its source. The vast diflerences in taste between a natural spring and a kitchen tap are obvious, but even from place to place tap water can taste radically different. The mineral content, the organic content and the presence of chlorine and other additives are the primary sources of flavour and
smell in a glass of water. If you want to brew a lively cup of tea, you’ll need to use water with a bit of mineral in it.

Distilled, pure water tastes flat. Too high a mineral content won’t work either; the flavour of the water overwhelms the flavours in the tea, which is true of highly chlorinated water, as well. Normal tap water is usually fine, but the pH of the water has to be neutral. Acidity often has a metallic taste from the corrosion of the metal pipes that carry water from source to tap, while alkaline water often tastes soapy. Mustiness tends to come from the by-products of microorganisms. Sometimes, especially in the mornings, water has been sitting in the pipes for a long time; if the pipes are old, or made from certain metals, or there is acidity, they can corrode a bit, giving the water an ‘off’ taste. If it seems like this is happening, you should just let the water run for a while before you fill the kettle. If you live in an area where the water is “hard” – meaning it has a lot of calcium dissolved in it, usually because of the underlying geology of the region – the calcium ions inside the water will combine with the organic molecules in the tea and form a solid film that floats at the top of the cup. This is called scum. Tea scum makes tea look less delightful; it can really ruin the welcoming tea ceremony. If you have hard water, you can get rid of the scum by filtering the water, or by using a teapot that captures it on its inside walls.

Once you’ve secured the right water, you’ve got to boil it. The temperature of the brew determines which flavour molecules will be dissolved into the water, and so determines the balance of taste, flavour and colour in the tea. If the temperature is too low, many of the flavour molecules won’t dissolve and the tea will not only be bland, but will have a weak colour too. But too high a temperature can be just as bad; too many of the tannins and polyphenols that give the tea its bitterness and astringency will dissolve. Green teas have an especially high concentration of these, so they’re best brewed at temperatures between 70°C and 80°C, if you want to avoid an excessively bitter or clawingly astringent cup.

Caffeine is a very bitter molecule and doesn’t dissolve easy in water. If you want a high-caffeine tea, then you should boil your water to higher temperatures, so more of it will dissolve in the brew. Fortunately, because black teas have been oxidized, they have a reduced number of tannins and polyphenols, which allows them to be brewed at higher temperatures without becoming excessively bitter, so you can have a highly caffeinated cup that doesn’t make you wince.

Black tea brewed for 5 minutes at 100°C will develop a dark, strong flavour, with a typical caffeine content of 50 mg per cup (compared to 100mg for normal coffee). This, though, is where brewing tea on board an aircraft can become problematic. At 12.000 meters height, the pressure inside the cabin is lower than the atmospheric pressure at sea level, which lowers the boiling point of water, affecting the flavour of the brew. It’s not just the initial temperature of the water that’s important for brewing tea. In order for the molecules responsible for taste and colour to dissolve successfully into the water, the leaves need to be in contact with the water for a specific duration of time. If the temperature of the water drops significantly during the brewing process, then fewer flavour molecules will be extracted. This will happen if you brew tea in a cold place, or if your brewing vessel is cold before you start steeping the tea, causing the hot water to drop in temperature as it warms the teapot. Hence George Orwell’s insistence that you warm the pot before making the tea. You can compensate for lower temperatures by brewing the tea for longer, but you won’t get quite the same ratios of salty, sweet, bitter, sour savoury and the thousands of individual volatiles that provide the complexity in a perfectly brewed cup.

Here’s the thing about tea: because it’s so complex, and there are so many variables that can affect its flavour profile (the kind of tea, the water, the brew time, and the temperature of the water), it’s quite easy to lose your focus, and as a result get a cup of tea that tastes completely unlike the cup you were hoping for.

And that’s exactly what had happened to the cup of tea I was currently drinking during my flight to USA. The air stewards had done their best, compensating for the lower boiling point of the water on the plane with a longer brew time, and by making the tea in a warmed, tall, stainless-steel pot, which kept the temperature of the tea high throughout the brew process. But it had taken them a while to get to me with their trolley, probably 15 minutes or so since they brewed the tea, and all that time it had just been sitting there, getting cooler and less flavourful by the second. When they finally poured it into my little plastic cup, it had lost most of its fruity and leafy flavours; it had plenty of savoury quality, but it was cold, bitter and acidic, and the cup itself had a distinct and sharp flavour. All of this meant that I didn’t get that refreshing, thirst-quenching experience I’d been hoping for; quite the reverse – it was borderline disgusting. I should never have ordered it. But then I made another mistake. I thought I might be able to rescue the cup of tea, from the disappointing, boring brown liquid into something palatable, by using the contents of the little plastic bag they’ d given me. As It was a british airline I ordered milk too so I opened the cylindrical tub of milk, and poured it into the cup, using the polystyrene stick to stir the mixture. The colour of the tea turned from dark brown to milky ochre – a very pleasing colour.

I usually don’t mix milk with tea. I drink milk sepeartelly but when sometimes I do take it with tea then I like milky tea Cow’ s milk is sweet and contains a good amount of salt and fat. The fat in milk is shaped in small droplets, about 1/1,000th of a millimetre in size, and they give a lot of flavour and rich mouth-feel to the milk. When milk is poured into
tea those droplets of fat disperse, dominating the colour and taste of the drink. They give it a malty, almost caramel flavour, and add a creaminess to the mouth-feel that opposes tea’s natural astringency. They also absorb a lot of the flavour molecules in the tea, reducing the fruitiness and bitterness, but making it creamier.

During my time in UK I’ve learned that when to add the milk to your cup is a BIG bone of contenion in Britain. There are those who advise adding it before the tea, on the grounds that the droplets of the milk will be gently heated as more and more hot tea is added. This keeps the milk proteins from reaching temperatures that would transform their molecular structure, denaturing them, and giving the milk a curdled “‘off” flavour. Some people also argue that pouring the milk in first protects ceramic tea cups from the thermal shock of the hot tea, thus keeping them from cracking; even if this was historically true, it’s no longer an issue, as modern ceramies are much stronger now. But, for others, the very notion of pouring the milk in first is anathema. In their perfect cup of tea, you put the tea in first, and then the milk.

George Orwell was in this camp, arguing that this allows you to add exactly the right amount of milk for your preferred level of creaminess. You might doubt whether adding the milk before or after makes any difference to the taste – it being such a subtle difference. But in his book “The Design of Experiments”, Ronald Fisher investigated this question rigorously, inventing new statistical methods to do so. In his randomized tasting experiments, he found that, yes, people can taste the difference between adding milk before or after the tea. The methods described by Ronald Fisher revolutionized the mathematical discipline of statistics. It unfortunately did not revolutionize tea making in Britain, so even now if you order a cup of tea in a cafe, very rarely will they acknowledge that the sequence of milk and tea makes any difference to anyone. This drives me absolutely mad.

Often, in a train station for instance, they just plonk a tea bag in a cup of hot water and immediately slosh in some milk. Then they hand it to you, as if to say, “I’ve added all the ingredients, so it must be tea.” “But, you haven’t asked me if I want the milk before or after,” I sometimes say when my inner rage boils over. Not that I actually want milk added before. I’m with George Orwell on this; I want the milk added after. But I still want them to ask. And I’m pretty sure George Orwell would agree with me on this – the current trends represent the nadir of the tea-making tradition in Britain. It’s still the national drink, but coffee may well replace it if this continues, because, unlike tea, the quality of coffee served throughout the country has gone up in the last few decades, largely because of a single piece of engineering: the espresso machine.

My cup of tea during that flight tasted terrible; the brewing temperature was too low, it was made from a bag, it had cooled down as the pot went down the aisle, the cup it was served in tasted of plastic, and the noise of the cabin dulled my senses so that whatever dismal flavour the tea had was muted. It was never going to give me that sense of contemplative stimulation I craved. In hindsight, I should have ordered coffee. Its stronger basic tastes stand up better to the cacophony of the cabin, its brewing temperature is more suited to 12.000 meters, and the filter method used on aeroplanes
produces a balanced cup of coffee, albeit not the deepest flavour.

If I would choose to make a tea I would sure consider the George Orwel tips but I would rather do it as follows:

RULE 1 = Try Organic: Organic tea is better for you and better for the environment, offering all the deliciousness of your favorite tea grown without pesticides. Your body and taste buds will thank you for it.

RULE 2 = Measure Your Leaves: If you opt to use loose-leaf tea, keep a close eye on how much you should use. An 8-ounce cup of water typically needs 1-2 teaspoons of leaves, but it can vary depending on the type of tea you’re using. Read the label and measure accordingly.

RULE 3 = Use the Right Tools: Tea strainers and infusers are essential for loose-leaf tea drinkers. Strainers rest at the top of the mug for a simple steep, while infusers keep the leaves packed in a tea ball or creatively shaped container, typically made out of mesh or stainless.

RULE 4 = Watch the Water: Make sure to use cold, filtered water when brewing your tea. Also, for best results, don’t re-boil old water. Start fresh every time.

RULE 5 = Temperature Is Key: Some teas need to be brewed/steeped at a boiling temperature while other flavors would be ruined at such high temperatures. Water used for making black, herbal, oolong, pu’erh, yerba maté and rooibos teas should be brought to a boil whereas green and white teas should not.

RULE 6 = Timing Matters: Most teas need to steep at least 3 minutes to obtain the right flavor. Over-steeping can cause some teas to taste bitter and undesirable. Herbal and rooibos teas need to steep the longest. As George Orwell said, “One strong cup of tea is better than 20 weak ones.”

RULE 7 = Consider Skipping the Milk: Tea enthusiasts argue the effect milk can have on a cup of tea. Milk proteins bind with the polyphenols (antioxidants) in tea and can, therefore, reduce the number of active antioxidants. If you insist on adding milk, wait until you’re about to consume it to ensure the highest possible amount of antioxidants. My personal philosophy is “when in doubt, leave it out”

RULE 8 = Add Flavor, Enhance the Benefit: Several tasty additions can go into your tea to boost flavor and benefit your health. A squeeze of lemon helps enhance tea’s antioxidant potential, thanks to vitamin C. This also works with orange or grapefruit. Also, not all additions are the same. For example, lemon goes well with white tea, while oolong and herbal teas are delicious when sweetened with honey or agave. The most popular additions to tea include agave, honey, lemon, basil, ginger, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, mint leaves, peppermint oil, lavender oil and coconut oil.

RULE 9 = Reduce, Reuse, Re-Steep: Save your leaves! Some loose-leaf teas can be re-steeped a number of times. Rooibos and herbal teas can be re-steeped an extra 1-3 times; 2-5 times for green, black, white, oolong and yerba mate; and go big with pu-erh for up to 10 additional re-steeps.

RULE 10 = Store Correctly: Find an airtight container to store your teas in. Keep the tea store in a cool, dark place away from sunlight, like a pantry shelf or drawer. The heat from sunlight can change the tea’s flavor over time. Also, be sure to keep your tea away from food with strong aromas such as cheese, onions, spices and other pungent items.

And that was another way of doin a good tea. Enjoy your tea always freshly made!!:-)

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