The coffee industry would have you believe that the word “latte” means “espresso with steamed milk.” That basically is what “caffelatte” means, but “latte” just means “milk” in Italian. A tea latte is every bit as much a latte as a coffee latte, and the growing popularity of masala chai lattes has been bringing that point home to coffee drinkers of late. In the coffee world, a latte is typically made by preparing the espresso, mixing in the milk, and then adding foam on top. The milk is there to add flavor and to cut the espresso so it doesn’t taste as strong. In the tea world, the milk serves a somewhat different purpose. For the record here, I am not talking about Starbucks-style chai lattes, which are made with a sweet syrup. I’m talking about tea that’s fresh-brewed in milk and water.
Flavors and nutrients from tea leaves extract well in water. That’s why a straight cup of tea tastes so good. That’s why people who like milk in their tea traditionally add the milk after the tea is brewed. A lot of other things, however, don’t extract quite as well.
Many of the flavors in a masala spice blend (no, they aren’t chai spices — chai just means “tea” in Punjabi) are lipophilic. Directly translated, this means “fat-loving,” which means that they extract much better in fats (e.g., milk) than in water. That’s why it’s important to brew the masala chai in hot milk and water instead of just adding the milk later. In my tea bar, we’ve done side-by-side taste tests of tea lattes made both ways. We use a milk heater/frother instead of using the steamer that’s found on commercial espresso machines. We tried steeping the tea in water and then adding the frothed milk vs steeping the tea in a 50/50 blend of hot water and frothed milk. In this entirely subjective set of tests using our employees and customers, the lattes brewed with milk won consistently. I realize that our production method wouldn’t work in a typical coffee shop where people are rushing in and out on their way to work. They want their drink now. They don’t want to wait four to seven minutes for a fresh-brewed cup. But in a tea bar like mine, things are different. We make a lot of lattes — close to 1/3 of all of the cups we serve. We offer a choice of milk (nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, soy, almond…), and over 150 different types of tea.
The majority of our lattes are served unsweetened. For those who want it sweetened, however, we do the same thing we do when making traditional sweet tea: we add the sweetener when we’re brewing instead of at the end. Most of our customers go for either plain sugar or agave nectar, but we offer other options there, too: flavored hail sugars, honey, stevia leaf, stevia powder, and other artificial sweeteners. You can’t do something like this in a fast-moving production line environment, but you can do it at home. A milk heater/frother is less expensive than a high-end home coffeemaker. We started out with Keurig units, but found they didn’t hold up to commercial use. There were too many fragile parts, and most of them broke in the first six months (that Keurig unit didn’t even end up on this list of the top 10 frothers). We switched to the Capresso frothPRO and we’ve been quite happy with them. They aren’t the fastest solution, but they’re solid, reliable, and easy-to-clean. It’s also easy to switch between heating/frothing and just heating. If you don’t want to invest $50-$100 in a frother/heater, there’s another solution that works great at home. Just heat the milk in the microwave. Don’t let it go to a boil, but get it as hot as you can without boiling it. There are quite a few handheld battery-powered electric whisks available if you like it frothy; the list I linked in the previous paragraph includes three of them.
How do you know which types of tea work best in a latte? Experiment. One of the most popular tea lattes is called a London Fog. It’s very straightforward: just Earl Grey tea and a 50/50 mix of milk and tea. We usually start the tea steeping in water and add the milk halfway through. Make sure you use the right amount of tea leaf for the total volume of milk and water; if you’re using 8 oz of milk and 8 oz of water, use enough leaf for a 16 oz mug. Many of our blends with cinnamon make good lattes, as do fruity teas. We use sweetened matcha powder for our green tea lattes. Want something different? Try making a strong shu pu-erh latte with chocolate milk. Experiment, have fun, and then teach all of your coffee-drinking friends just how many kinds of latte there are!
This is part two of my article on the Japanese stop of our World Tea Tasting Tour. Part one was posted a few days ago.
The Japanese tea ceremony has been around for a very long time, but it was solidified into its current form in the 1500s by a man named Sen no Rikyū. He was an adherent of a philosophy called wabi-sabi, which honors and treasures simplicity, transience, asymmetry, and finding the beauty in imperfection. Rikyū applied this to the tea ceremony, developing what became known as chanoyu: the Way of Tea.
He removed unnecessary ornamentation from tearooms, typically reducing the decor to a single scroll on the wall and a flower arrangement designed to harmonize with the garden outside. Everything else in the room was functional. Chanoyu teaches four fundamental principles known as wa kei sei jaku, intended to be not only the core of the tea ceremony, but a representation of the principles to incorporate into daily life.
Wa (harmony) was his ultimate ideal. From harmony comes peace. Guest and host should be in harmony and man should strive for harmony with nature, rather than attempting to dominate nature.
Kei (respect) allows people to accept and understand others even when you do not agree with them. In a tea ceremony the guest must respect the host and the host must respect the guest, making them equals. The simplest vase should be treated as well as the most expensive, and the same politeness and purity of heart should be extended to your servant as to your master.
Sei (purity) is a part of the ritual of the tea ceremony, cleaning everything beforehand and wiping each vessel with a special cloth before using it. But that is only an outward reflection of the purity of the heart and soul that brings the harmony and respect. In accordance with wabi-cha, imperfection was to be prized here as well. To Rikyū, the ultimate expression of purity was the garden after he spent hours grooming it and several leaves settled randomly on the assiduously manicured walkway.
Finally, Jaku (tranquility) is the ultimate goal of enlightenment and selflessness. It is also the fresh beginning as you go back with fresh perspective to examine the way you have chosen to implement harmony, respect, and purity into your life.
There is a long list of implements that are used in the preparation of matcha, which is the powdered tea used in the tea ceremony. The four that I concentrated on in this class were the bowl, scoop, whisk, and caddy. It could be argued that others are as important, or even more important, but I chose to focus on the ones that are used at home when you make matcha, even if you are not participating in a tea ceremony. The link in the slide above is a great place to learn all about the ceremony itself, and the site contains a detailed list of chanoyu utensils.
In preparing matcha, the bamboo scoop is used to take tea powder and place it in the bowl. After adding water, the whisk is used not only to mix the powder, but to aerate the mixture, leaving it slightly frothy.
Of all of the tools of chanoyu, the bowl is probably the most personal.
We were lucky enough to have Karin Solberg, who created the matcha bowls we sell at our store, talk about the process of creating and decorating the bowls. Karin has done some lovely work, and we enjoyed learning from her. There is a picture showing some of her bowls in part 1 of this article.
I have said many times before that tea is a very personal thing. Nobody can tell you what tastes good to you. The “right” way for me to enjoy a particular tea could be quite different than the “right” way for you to enjoy that same tea. To Rikyū, however, the tea ceremony was not about what made your matcha taste the best. It was all about using the ritual to clear your mind and help you to see things more clearly. It was about achieving harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.
Outside of the ceremony, however, I would argue that your way of relaxing is the right way of relaxing, whether it means sitting on your front porch with a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey, preparing a delicate silver needle tea to enjoy with a friend, or laying back in the bathtub with a fragrant jasmine green tea. Tea should be a pleasure, not a chore, and the ceremony is about sharing that pleasure with your friends and guests.
If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).