I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.
I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:
Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.
Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!
Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.
With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.
Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.
When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.
Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.
I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).
When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.
Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.
You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).
If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.
Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!
Before we address the topic at hand, may I take a moment to get something off of my chest?
Today we are discussing a tea called masala chai. The word “masala” refers to a yummy blend of spices, often containing cardamom, ginger, and pepper. The word “chai” means “tea” in Hindi (and Urdu, and Russian, and Bulgarian, and Aramaic, and Swahili, and a variety of other languages). Therefore, when you refer to “chai tea,” you’re talking about “tea tea.” Although most Americans call masala chai just “chai,” they really should be calling it “masala” or “masala tea” if they don’t want to say “masala chai.”
We can thank the coffee industry for confusing our terminology a couple of decades ago, as they coined the phrase “chai latte” to differentiate masala chai (traditionally made with milk) from coffee lattes. Your other word of the week is “latte,” which just means “with milk” and has nothing whatsoever to do with coffee. Tea made with heated and frothed milk is a latte, too!
Thank you. I feel better now. On to the aforementioned topic at hand:
I would never presume to tell you the right way to make a cup of tea. As I’ve mentioned so many times before, there is no single right way to do it. In this post, however, I will talk about one of the traditional ways to make masala chai. In India, where this concoction (or decoction, if you prefer) originated, it is almost always made with milk and sugar.
In a coffee shop, masala chai (which they usually call a chai latte) is almost always made from a pre-sweetened concentrate. It’s quick and easy to make, and it tastes pretty good. But it doesn’t taste like authentic masala chai.
In a tea shop, masala chai is usually brewed fresh from a blend of black tea leaves and masala spices. If they add milk, it is usually poured in after the tea is brewed, unless the tea shop is specifically set up for lattes. You get that fresh-brewed taste, but somehow the spices don’t seem quite right to me (my tea bar does it differently, but that’s a topic for another post).
At home, you can make it the way they do in India.
The masala spices
First of all, the masala spice mix and the tea (chai) are usually purchased and stored separately. Just as many Americans have a family chili or soup or cookie recipe, many Indian families have their own masala recipe handed down through the generations. You can research and experiment to come up with your own, or go to your favorite tea shop and see if they have a blend for sale. Many tea shops (including mine) will sell you the masala spice mix they use in-house without the tea.
If you’re really serious about it, you’ll make each batch up fresh, grinding cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and whatever other spices you use as needed. I know a few folks that do it that way, but not many. I’d recommend starting with a mix that you like.
In India, the tea leaf of choice is usually a rich black Indian tea like Assam. It’s brewed pretty strong so that you can taste the tea through all of the spice and milk and sweetener. That doesn’t mean you need to use an Assam, but it’s a good place to start.
Milk serves a definite purpose in masala chai. You can extract flavor from many spices much better in fats or oils than you can in water, as any chef will tell you. Steeping the spice blend in milk will result in a richer, more nuanced flavor than steeping it in water. In India, the milk of choice is typically water buffalo milk, which can be difficult to get hold of here in North America. The usual substitute is whole milk, although 1% or 2% is common with the more health-conscious crowd. Nonfat milk is rather pointless, as the fat is the main reason for using it.
Sugar. Some drink their masala chai unsweetened, but if there is sweetener, it will typically be sugar.
That said, when I’m making masala chai at home, I usually use honey or agave nectar.
You’ll need a pan, a stove, and a strainer to do this. This is my recipe for making enough for you and a few friends. Adjust accordingly if you’re drinking it by yourself.
- Heat up a pint (16 oz) of milk in the pan, but do not bring to a boil!
- Add 1-1/2 tablespoons of masala spice mix and simmer for five minutes, stirring gently
- Bring a pint (16 oz) of water to a boil in a kettle or microwave
- Add the water to the pan along with 1-1/2 tablespoons of tea leaves
- Stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey
- Allow to simmer for another five minutes, stirring occasionally
- Pour through strainer to remove leaves and spices, and serve immediately
Put out more sugar or other sweetener for your guests. That single teaspoon is a lot less than a traditionalist would use, but I prefer to let everyone choose their own level of sweetness.
For best results, enjoy with your favorite Indian foods. Masala chai does a wonderful job of cutting the spiciness of curries. You can also use your masala chai tea in your Indian cooking: see my post on Chai Rice.
NOTE: The resulting masala chai will not look like the latte in the picture above. To get that look, I frothed up some milk and placed the foam on the top of the cup, and then added a dash of cinnamon powder.
India: the world’s second-largest producer of tea. Our third stop on the tasting tour explored the world of Indian estate teas, focusing on three large and well-known tea regions in the country: Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri. Red Lodge Books & Tea imports directly from estates in Darjeeling and Assam. We compared single-source estate teas (think single-malt Scotch) from Glenburn, Khongea, and Tiger Hill estates to a blended 2nd-flush Darjeeling using tea from Marybong, Lingia, and Chamong estates.
We also explored the rich history of tea in India, from the British East India Company through the modern independent tea industry, and looked at the rating system used for Indian teas, which I wrote about last month here on “Tea With Gary”
The teas we tasted were:
- 1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
- Organic 2nd Flush Darjeeling — Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates
- Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
- Green Darjeeling — Glenburn Estate
- Assam Leaf — Khongea Estate
- Nilgiri FOP Clonal — Tiger Hill Estate
As I mentioned above, India is the 2nd largest producer of tea in the world, but 70% of their tea is consumed domestically, so they don’t play as big a role in the export market as countries like Kenya.
Darjeeling is the northernmost district in North Bengal. Of the 1,842,000 people who live there, over 52,000 make their living through tea. Darjeeling tea, often called the Champagne of Teas, is made from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the Chinese varietal of the tea plant, unlike tea from most of the rest of India, which is made from their native Camellia sinensis var. assamica.
Despite the generalization that black tea is always 100% oxidized (often incorrectly called “fermented”), most Darjeeling black teas are, like oolongs, not completely oxidized. While Darjeeling is known mostly for its black tea, there are oolongs and green teas produced there.
To be called “Darjeeling,” the tea must be produced at one of the 87 tea gardens (estates) in the Darjeeling district. Alas, the majority of tea sold with that name is not actually Darjeeling. Each year, the district produces about 10,000 tonnes of tea, and 40,000 tonnes show up for sale on the global market. In other words, 3/4 of the “Darjeeling” tea in the stores isn’t Darjeeling! That’s why we choose reputable suppliers at our store, buying most of it directly from the estate.
Darjeeling tea changes dramatically by the picking season, which is why we chose three different black Darjeelings for this tasting.
1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1
The first tea we tasted was a first-flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn Estate, where we get most of our Darjeeling teas. Glenburn was started by a Scottish tea company in 1859, but has now been in the Prakash family for four generations. The estate is 1,875 acres (with 700 under tea), and produces 275,000 pounds of tea per year. They are located at 3,200 feet altitude and get 64-79 inches of rain per year. Glenburn employs 893 permanent workers, plus temporary workers during the picking season.
2nd Flush “Muscatel” Darjeeling
Our next tea was an organic 2nd flush blend by Rishi, using Darjeeling teas from Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates. It was specifically blended to bring out the characteristic “muscatel” flavor and aroma associated with second-flush Darjeelings.
Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1
For the third tea, we went back to Glenburn and selected an autumn-picked tea. Unlike the first two, we steeped this using full boiling water for three minutes, bringing out the undertones one might otherwise miss.
To wrap up the Darjeeling teas, we tasted a green Darjeeling from last fall. It’s an interesting hybrid of Chinese varietal and processing methodology blended with Indian terroir.
Assam is a state in northeast India with a population of over 31 million and an area of over 30,000 square miles. If Darjeeling is the champagne of tea, then Assam would be the single malt Scotch of tea. Hearty and malty, this lowland-grown tea comes from the assamica varietal of the tea plant.
Assam Leaf Tea
The Assam tea that we tasted is from the Khongea Estate, which has 1,200 acres of land with 1,100 of that under tea. Sitting at 300 feet altitude, the estate gets 150-200 inches of rain per year, making drainage very important. They employ 1,202 permanent workers (again, more during picking), and produce 2,640 pounds of tea per year.
Since Assam tea is frequently used in breakfast blends, we tasted this one with nothing added and then with milk, as most English tea drinkers (and many Indian tea drinkers) prefer.
Nilgiri is the westernmost district of the state of Tamil Natu. It is smaller (950 square miles) and less populated (735,000 people) than Darjeeling, and quite high elevation, with tea growing between 6,500 and 8,500 feet altitude.
Tiger Hill Nilgiri FOP Clonal
The tea that we chose from Nilgiri comes from the Tiger Hill Estate in the Nilgiris (the “Blue Mountains” for which the district is named). They have 640 acres under cultivation, almost all of which is “clonal,” meaning that it was grafted onto other rootstock from a few mother plants. Tiger Hill has been producing tea since 1971.
This was the third stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.
Part of the fun of the tea business is the names. The names of the teas themselves are wonderful — from classics like Iron Goddess of Mercy to house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey — but the industry terminology is fun as well. Let’s take the “orange pekoe” grading system used for black teas from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India.
I can’t count the number of times someone has come into the tea bar telling me they like flavored teas. “You know, something like that Orange Pekoe stuff.”
“Actually,” I have to explain, “that’s not a style of tea, but a grade. And it has no flavorings at all. Nope. No orange in it.”
What I generally don’t go on to explain is how that whole pekoe grading system works. Let’s start with the words “orange” and “pekoe.” A pekoe is a tea bud, the unopened leaf at the very tip of a branch. A pekoe tea, then, would contain the buds and smallest leaves adjacent to the buds. To further confuse matters, the word “pekoe” in grading tea doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it means when speaking of tea buds. We’ll get to that in a moment.
“Orange,” as I mentioned above, has nothing to do with fruit. What it does actually mean is open to debate. It could refer to the color of the oxidized leaves. It could refer to the color of the brewed tea. It could refer to the Dutch royal family (the House of Orange). All that really matters is that in tea grading, any whole-leaf black tea qualifies as an Orange Pekoe.
So what about all those other letters? The joke in the tea business is that FTGFOP stands for “Far Too Good For Ordinary People.” In reality, it stands for “Fine (or Finest) Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.” Referring to a grade of tea as the “finest” isn’t good enough, of course, so there are actually several grades above that. Here are the basic grades:
- OP (Orange Pekoe): A whole-leaf black tea.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe): Long leaves with some tips (pekoes).
- GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): An FOP with more tips.
- TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): A GFOP with a whole lot of tips.
- FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Traditionally the highest-quality grade of black tea.
- SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Sorry, we needed one more grade.
For the true connoisseur, a grading system can never have fine enough gradations, so you can also elevate each of these grades another half-point by adding the number “1” after it. Thus, despite the industry joke, there are three grades of tea better than FTGFOP (FTGFOP-1, SFTGFOP, and SFTGFOP-1).
Let me reinforce an important point here: this grading system is used only for black teas, and only in a few countries. China, for example, rarely grades its teas using this system, although Kenya is doing more of it as their teas increase in quality.
Are there lower grades?
I thought you’d never ask.
The majority of tea consumed in the U.S. and U.K. is in teabags. In a traditional teabag, there’s little room for the hot water to circulate or the leaves to expand as they absorb water. The solution? Break those leaves into smaller pieces. That exposes more of the surface area of the leaf to water and allows more tea (by weight) to fit into a smaller area.
OP-grade teas use whole leaves. There is a series of grades below OP that include the letter B for “Broken.” BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe), FBOP, GBOP, and so on. There are also a couple of broken grades below BOP, including BP (Broken Pekoe) and BT (Broken Tea).
So that’s what’s used in teabags? Nope. Let’s drop another grade.
After the processing facility has sorted out all of the Pekoe and Broken Pekoe grades, what’s left is known as “fannings.” Grades like PF (Pekoe Fannings), FOF (Flowery Orange Fannings), and TGFOF (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings). These are the grades used in most decent-quality teabags (high-end teabags may use whole-leaf teas, typically in a sachet-style bag).
“Decent-quality teabags?” I hear you cry. “Are you implying there’s another grade below fannings?”
Yes. Yes I am.
The smallest-sized particles of tea — too small to be fannings — are called “dust.” There are different grades of dust, of course, depending on the tea leaves they come from. You may encounter PD (Pekoe Dust), GD (Golden Dust), FD (Fine Dust), and others. Typically, though, grades like that don’t make it onto commercial packaging.
So these lower grades suck?
No, I didn’t say that.
Fannings from an extraordinary tea will produce a much better drink than whole leaves from a mediocre tea. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, but the number one factor is your own preferences. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not a tea Nazi. It won’t hurt my feelings a bit if you prefer the cheapest grade of Lipton teabags to my shop’s whole-leaf FTGFOP-1 First Flush Darjeeling. In fact, it would be quite a waste of money to buy a tea you don’t like.
In a way, buying tea that’s highly-graded on the pekoe system is like buying organic. What it really tells you is that you’re dealing with a legitimate tea producer that cares enough about their product to pick it right and have it graded by experts.
Over the next couple of months, Red Lodge Books & Tea will be taking you on a world tour of tea with a series of tastings and classes focused on teas from all around the world. The events will be at our tea bar on Fridays from 5:00 to 6:30. At each session, we’ll taste five to seven teas from a different country as we explore a bit of the country’s geography and tea culture. I will put a quick summary of each stop on the tour up here on the blog for those who can’t attend or who don’t remember which teas we covered.
The full tour consists of:
Friday, Feb 15 — All the Tea in China
Friday, Mar 1 — Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. (England)
Friday, Mar 8 — It’s Always Tea Time in India
Friday, Mar 15 — Japan: Bancha to Matcha (notes Part 1 and Part 2)
Friday, Mar 22 — Deepest Africa: The Tea of Kenya
Friday, Mar 29 — The Oolongs of Taiwan
Friday, Apr 5 — Rooibos from South Africa
Friday, Apr 12 — Yerba Maté from Argentina
Friday, Apr 26 — China part II: Pu-Erh
Friday, May 3 — India part II: Masala Chai
Each class will cost $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
There will be more information posted on the tea bar’s Facebook page before each event, including a list of the teas that we will taste in each event.
UPDATE MARCH 9: As I blog about each of these experiences, I’m going to create a link from this post to the post containing the outline and tasting notes. I’ve linked the first two.
UPDATE MARCH 23: I changed the dates of the last two events. There will not be a tasting on April 19.
It’s a dilemma for anyone who owns or manages a tearoom: how many different teas shall I carry and how many of them should be funky house blends? Looking at sales for 2011, our top four sellers were very traditional teas: an earl grey, a breakfast blend, a masala chai, and a Moroccan mint (note that only one of those is unflavored). The next six were all creative flavored teas.
UPDATE March 2013: Results for 2012 weren’t much different from the 2011 results cited above.
Reading that may make you think that the classics aren’t important for the tea bar, but let’s look behind those numbers:
First of all, those only reflect our bulk tea sales, not sales by the cup. I don’t have a good system in place for tracking sales by the cup — especially since we make some special by the cup blends for our regulars — but I’d guess that a lot more of our cup sales are straight traditional tea than the bulk numbers indicate. When I’m behind the bar, I sell a lot of Darjeeling, assam, sencha, silver needle, dragonwell, Scottish breakfast, jasmine green, taiguanyin, and shu pu-erh by the cup.
Second, those numbers include web sales. On the web, there are many many sources for sencha or Darjeeling, and we compete against the huge Internet retailers who can undercut our prices. On the other hand, there is only one source for our house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey or Coyotes of the Purple Sage. We sell very little dragonwell on the web site compared to our house blends.
When deciding what tea to carry in your shop, the first thing to ask yourself is, who is your target audience? If you want to capture the Celestial Seasonings fan, you want to have a lot of flavored blends with colorful logos and clever names. If you want to capture the serious tea fan, you’d better have a good selection of unflavored tea of various styles and origins.
Of the styles, a casual shop would be expected to have black and green at the very least, with at least one white and one oolong. A more serious shop should expand the oolong selection significantly and add a couple more white teas and at least one or two pu-erhs. The sign of a teahouse that really caters to the connoisseur would be an extensive collection of ripe (shu) and raw (sheng) pu-erh in both loose and cake form, and a yellow tea or two.
When it comes to origins, a shop can go two different ways: specialized or generalized. It’s easy to put together a tea selection covering every style where all of the tea comes from China. It’s possible to cover the four basic styles from countries like India and Kenya, although the selection of oolongs and whites will be pretty sketchy. In my opinion, a generalized shop should have tea from, at the very least, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.
If you are going to offer house blends, I’ve found that they do best with unique names, preferably tied to your theme or location. Your customers can find English Breakfast and Moroccan Mint anywhere, and many would argue that you should use exactly those names so that your customers can find something familiar. On the other hand, hearty adventurers who find a tea shop in New York offering Buffalo Breakfast and Manhattan Mint are likely to come back for more if they like it instead of just grabbing generic English Breakfast and Moroccan mint at the next store they see.
You’ll want to offer some caffeine-free alternatives as well. It’s a philosophical decision whether you want to offer decaffeinated tea, naturally caffeine-free alternatives (e.g., rooibos), or both. Lately, we have a lot more customers specifically looking for rooibos. Most of them want flavored blends, but there’s enough demand to keep plain organic red and green rooibos available as well.
The bottom line is that your tea shop should reflect your personality. If people want a drab corporate-looking shop, they’ll go to Teavana. An independent tearoom should be unique, and the tea selection is even more important than the decor in conveying that uniqueness.
On January 12, 1946, the Evening Standard published an essay by George Orwell entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Like almost everyone else in my generation, I had to read his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in school. They told us a lot about society and a lot about English culture, but not much about tea.
Orwell was British, and born in 1903. These two facts tell you a lot about how he viewed tea. I’ve written before about “Tea Nazis,” who believe that their way of preparing tea is the only way to prepare tea, and this essay is a marvelous example of that philosophy in action.
He opens the essay by saying that if you look up “tea” in a cookbook it’s likely to be unmentioned. That was very true in 1946. It is less true now, but even though there are a lot of wonderful books about tea, mainstream cookbooks generally find it unnecessary to describe how to prepare a pot (or a cup) of tea.
Orwell continues by pointing out that tea is a mainstay of civilization in England, yet the “best manner of making it is a subject of violent disputes.” Judging from conversations I’ve had with British friends, I’d have to agree with that. His next paragraph sets the tone for everything that follows:
“When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:”
Since in my humble opinion just about everything related to preparing tea is subjective, I’d like to present my own take on Orwell’s eleven rules. Lets look at them one at a time.
“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”
Here, I must vehemently disagree with Mr. Orwell. Perhaps the fact that he was born in India is showing through here. There is excellent tea from China (and Japan and Kenya and Taiwan…). If you want a beverage that will make you feel “wiser, braver or more optimistic,” I would recommend tequila. If you want tea that tastes good, you can find it all over the world.
Incidentally, when Orwell refers to “Ceylonese” tea, he means tea from the country that was called Ceylon when he wrote this essay, but became Sri Lanka when it achieved independence in 1948. We still typically call tea from Sri Lanka “Ceylon” tea.
“Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia-ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”
He has an excellent point about the small quantities. To me, this means preparing it by the cup rather than by the pot, and there is a lot of excellent teaware available for that purpose. Although china, earthenware, and ceramic teapots do add something to the tea, using plastic or glass pots allows you to watch the tea steep. It also adds (and detracts) nothing to the flavor.
“Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.”
I agree that pre-warming the pot helps to keep the water hot as the tea steeps.
“Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.”
My biggest problem with this “rule” is the statement that “all true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong.” In fact, many tea lovers like a shorter steeping time so that the flavor of the tea isn’t overwhelmed by the bitterness and tannins that come out later in the steep.
“Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.”
Philosophically, he’s right. Allowing the water to circulate freely through the leaves does improve the infusion process. I do prefer not to consume the leaves (unless I’m drinking matcha), but a proper modern infuser will catch pretty much all of them.
“Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.”
Clearly, Mr. Orwell was aware of only one kind of tea: black. While boiling water is the right way to go for black and pu-erh tea, you get much better results with green and white tea if you use cooler water. I won’t get into the oolong debate at the moment…
The little aside that he snuck in here about freshly-boiled water is perhaps the biggest point of argument I hear from tea lovers. Does your tea really taste different if the water is heated in a microwave instead of being boiled in a teapot? Does the tea taste different if you reboil water that has been boiled before? In a blind taste test, I can’t tell the difference. Perhaps you can.
“Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.”
I confess. I do this.
“Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold — before one has well started on it.”
Your cup is as personal as your clothing or your car. Most of the time, I use a 16-ounce ceramic mug made by a local potter. When I’m trying a new tea, I make the first cup in a glass mug so I can see it better. I typically use a smaller cup for matcha, a bigger one for chai lattes, and a bigger one than that for iced tea.
“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.”
Unless I’m drinking chai, I do not add milk to my tea. I have made the occasional exception (I actually like milk in purple tea), but I generally prefer to taste the tea, not the milk.
“Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.
The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”
When I make chai, I don’t use either of Orwell’s methods. I find that the spices extract better with the lipids in the milk present than they do in water alone. In other words, I heat the milk and add it to the water while the tea is steeping. It changes the flavor considerably.
When I’m adding milk to any other tea, I typically put it in the cup first and then add tea to it.
“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”
Good point, Mr. Orwell. Now please substitute the word “milk” for “sugar” in this paragraph. Then go back and read rule nine. I don’t sweeten my tea (chai being the exception again — I like some honey in it), but I see nothing wrong with doing so. Adding a bit of sugar is no different than adding a bit of milk.
Oh, and by the way, tea was traditionally prepared in salt water in ancient China. And one of my favorite chai blends does, indeed, contain pepper.
“Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.
Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.”
Again, Orwell is speaking only of black tea here. I do not expect bitterness in, for example, a Long Jing Dragonwell green tea. And I would argue that there are a lot of fine black teas that have minimal bitterness: Royal Golden Safari from Kenya, to pick a favorite of mine.
If I had to pick one issue to argue in this essay, it would be that George Orwell considers all tea to be the same (after eliminating the majority of the world’s production by limiting himself to India and Sri Lanka). Even within the world of black tea, there is immense diversity. I don’t use the same preparation methods or expect the same results for a malty Assam tea and a delicate first flush Darjeeling — much less a smoky Chinese lapsang souchong.
My recommendation? Experiment. Try new teas, and try them first without adding milk or sweetener. Use your supplier’s recommended water temperature and steeping time. Taste the tea. THEN decide whether you want to steep it for a shorter or longer time; whether it needs a bit of milk; whether you’d prefer to sweeten it.
The best tea is your favorite tea, prepared just the way you like it.