There are a lot of types of tea people. Tea purists, tea snobs, tea ceremonialists, tea sippers, tea guzzlers, tea herbalists, tea totalers (okay — just kidding on that last one). Today’s commentary is on the tea absolutists.
I, like most tea drinkers, have my favorite way of preparing each of my favorite teas. You may well do it differently, and I really don’t care. If you walk into my tea bar and ask for a cup of lapsang souchong, I will make it the way I make lapsang souchong for myself: 1 tbsp of leaves per 16 oz pot, 195-200 degree water, 3:00 steep time, no sweetener or milk. If you then decide that you’d rather use a bit less tea and steep it a bit longer, and perhaps add some stevia and cream, that’s fine with me.
The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea! You see this all the time in books and magazine articles, and on the websites of many tea suppliers. “Use 5 grams of this tea for your 16-ounce pot (because we love mixing metric and English units). Use 195-degree water, and steep for 3:45. Dammit, don’t you dare steep it for 4 minutes or it will become too astringent. And boiling water will scald it. And if you add lemon, you’re a heathen. An uncultured heathen, I tell you!”
The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea!
I am especially amused by the water temperature absolutists. They’ll come into my tea bar and ask if my water is 210-212 degrees. “Well, no,” I explain. “We’re at 5,550 feet altitude. You can’t get water that hot.” They’ll insist that they have to have boiling water, and I’ll explain that water boils at 202 degrees here. Yep, the water is 10 degrees cooler than boiling water at sea level, but by golly it’s still boiling.
I think the absolutist attitude has done much to turn people away from the enjoyment of tea. If someone says they don’t like black tea because it’s too bitter, it’s probably because they’ve been pouring leaves (or dropping bags) into a pot of boiling water and leaving them in there for ten minutes. I’ve had several people who “didn’t like black tea” get very excited about a nice first flush Darjeeling steeped for a scant two minutes. There’s still plenty of flavor, just a tiny bit of astringency, and barely any bitterness.
Darjeeling absolutists are probably starting up their flamethrowers as they read this. “How can you steep it for only two minutes? You’re not getting any flavor out of it!” A quick Google search shows recommendations anywhere from 90 seconds up to 6 minutes for a first flush Darjeeling (I’m one of those 2:00 to 2:15 people), and the majority of them are convinced that their answer is the one and only true answer. If everyone else just followed their procedure, the world would be a happier place.
The correct steeping time for your tea is the steeping time that produces a cup of tea that you like. You. Not me, not the tea expert in the shop down the street, not the guy that wrote that book on your coffee table (or tea table, I suppose). Ditto water temperature. Ditto quantity of leaves. Ditto sweetening. Ditto the type of cup. Ditto lemon, milk, cream, or whatever else you may enjoy putting in your tea.
At our tea bar, we really want people to enjoy the teas we serve. We’re not worried about making it “right,” we’re worried about presenting it well and making it so that our customers enjoy it. It’s very easy to lose track of how long your tea has steeped, so we take care of that for you. We use tea timers and a chart based on our own preferences. But we ask people, how strong do you like it? On their next visit, they may say, “I liked that sencha last time, but it was a bit strong.” So this time, we’ll use a little bit less, and steep for 3:00 instead of the 3:15 that I prefer. Hopefully, the customer will say, “That’s fantastic! Give me a half-pound bag!”
At home, you may prefer delicate porcelain teacups. Here, we use sturdy glass mugs, because they show off the tea well, and they don’t break easily. We keep whole milk, 1% milk, soy milk, and half-and-half at the bar rather than telling customers what we think they should use. We have locally-grown honey, but we also supply sugar and several artificial sweeteners.
When people are trying a new tea, I encourage them to let me make them a cup first, and then take an ounce home to experiment. Sometimes the “guess what I tried” stories I hear later give me ideas for new things to do with tea.
So, tea absolutists, I encourage you to be as anal-retentive as you like when preparing tea for yourself. But lighten up and let everyone else enjoy their tea any way they like. Please?