“Tea is also a sort of spiritual refreshment, an elixir of clarity and wakeful tranquility. Respectfully preparing tea and partaking of it mindfully create heart-to-heart conviviality, a way to go beyond this world and enter a realm apart. No pleasure is simpler, no luxury cheaper, no consciousness-altering agent more benign.” –James Norwood Pratt
I love tea. It is my favorite drink, and I drink it every day. My love for tea in not just confined to the drink itself, but also to its long history and various intricacies and quirks.
The title of this post refers specifically to fine tea, because I assume that I don’t need to tell anyone how to put a teabag in water, or how to acquire tea from a supermarked. The following article is intended to teach newcomers to this wonderful drink how you can (quickly and not too expensively) brew a nice cup of tea, in terms that are hopefully easy to understand. It will also cover where to shop for higher-quality teas.
In order to brew tea, you really only need (at the bare minimum) water and tealeaves, and some vessel in which to brew these leaves. Of course, you will need some method for heating the water, but for convenience sake I will assume you are not a caveman and have access to a water boiler or a kettle (or a saucepan).
As for the vessel in which to brew, I would like to offer two alternatives. The first is simply to buy a strainer with a handle and brew the tea in a teacup. A strainer is really quite cheap and to be honest you don’t a teapot unless you plan to brew for others. A teapot is nice to have, but they can be rather expensive, and you don’t need one to enjoy high-quality tea. You simply place the strainer in the cup, portion the amount of tea you want (generally one teaspoon is enough for one cup) in the strainer and pour the warm or boiling water (more on that distinction later) over the leafs. Then you let the tea brew for the amount of time specified on the packaging; then you remove the stainer and enjoy.
The second alternative is the buy a gaiwan. If you do not know what a gaiwan is (odds are, if you’re new to tea, you do not), I will try to explain briefly what they are, and how to use one. A gaiwan is a tiny bowl with a lid, and often a saucer as well. The major difference with a teapot is the water/leaf ratio. In a gaiwan you use much more leaf than you would in a teapot, but you brew the tea for a much shorter time period; perhaps just 10 to 15 seconds. Then you can pour the tea into a cup for drinking (by adjusting the lid to just leave a haircrack opening, holding the bowl with one finger on the lid and one finger underneath, on the saucer) or you could just drink from the gaiwan itself. Gaiwans have many advantages compared to a teapot, and are much cheaper. One major advantage a gaiwan have over a teapot is that you can rebrew your leaves. With particularily high-quality leaves as many as perhaps 10 brews will yield good tea, so that is one thing to consider, in relation to prize.
All types of tea come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis; there are also other drinks often referred to as tea which do not come from the teaplant (such as chamomile), but as they are not from the teaplant, they are not technically speaking tea. The differences in the teas come from the level of oxidation and the climate in which the plant is grown. As for different types of tea; there are numerous and naming them would take me probably the rest of the day, so I’ll just briefly cover the major tea categories.
Firstly, there is green tea, which is completely unoxidized. Green tea is the most widely consumed type of tea in the world, and is the most popular type of tea in Asia. Green tea should be brewed using water that is less than boiling, usually between 70-80 degrees celcius. Secondly, there is oolong, which is tea that has been partially oxidized. Then there is black tea, which as you might imagine by now, is fully oxidized. By and large, most varieties of oolong and black tea should be brewed with boiling water. There are several other types of tea, but I will not go into them here, as this is intended to be an introduction to tea for the uninitiated.
As for where to get tea; if you have a teashop near you, by all means use that, as they no doubt will be able to help you with any questions you might have. They will also be able to offer you recommendations on what teas to try. I live in a rural area, and not close to a teashop, so I usually order my tea online. There are often rather exuberant shipping costs to ordering online, but there are purveyors who sell very good teas, so this is one option to consider if you, like me, do not live near a teashop.
I hope this will be of use to at least a few people.
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”-Henry James