Hello, my name is Shirley and I’m a tea snob!
I would like to believe that this confession would come as a surprise to people, but I have a strong feeling that my friends have already guessed that about me. Of course, I wasn’t born a snob, my mother raised me better than that. It came on slowly and when I realized it, it had ballooned out of control. I finally faced reality while talking to an English friend, another tea drinker. For some reason that I don’t remember anymore, I mentioned that we had a water filter. Since this conversation happened during the height of the Flint water problem, he asked me if I was afraid our water was unsafe to drink. I replied that I was very confident that our water was safe, that wasn’t the problem. I just used the water filter to eliminate the chlorine taste that interfered with the flavor of my tea. Wasn’t it the same for him? I was stupefied to learn that not only did my friend not mind the taste of chlorine in the water, but he also used a generic brand of black tea bags.
It’s not like I’m an expert on tea matters, it’s just that I’m very picky. As I said, I wasn’t always like that. My tea affair started when I moved to the United States. I had been a coffee drinker in Brazil, but I moved to this country just before the Starbucks boom. The only coffee available at that time was American coffee, which my mother playfully calls chafe, a contraction of the words cha (tea) and café (coffee), and is supposed to mean “a liquid between tea and coffee”. Since this was very different from the coffee I was used to, I opted to drink tea instead. Soon, I realized that my body became unused to caffeine, so that nowadays I very rarely drink coffee. As a matter of fact, I usually start my day with black tea and move in order, depending on the time of the day, to teas with less caffeine. From black tea, to green tea, white tea, and finally at the end of the day to either rooibos or herbal tisane.
Of course, as you know, herbal ‘teas’ are not considered to be teas at all, hence my use of the word ‘tisane’, a term usually used in Europe. Real tea is the product of the Camellia Sinensis plant. Generally speaking there are four kinds of tea, all coming from the same plant: white tea, green tea, oolong tea and black tea (red tea). Their differences are due to the variety of cultivars, when the leaves are picked and what process they undergo before reaching your cup.
White teas are young leaves collected early in the Spring. As such, they contain less caffeine and less essential oil. It is similar to what happens in your herbal or vegetable garden – younger leaves usually have a milder taste than their grown up counterparts. Because of their delicate nature, white teas have a refreshing lighter taste and are, therefore, very often combined with other mild aromas (fruits, flowers and herbs). They require the lowest temperature when brewing in order to not dissipate their aroma. White teas should be brewed for 1 – 2 minutes only, at 149 – 158 F (65 – 70 C).
Green teas are obtained from mature leaves of the Camellia Sinensis which are dried quickly to maintain their color and flavor. Naturally, the flavor of green tea comes mainly from the type of cultivar of the tea plant, but things like when the leaves were collected, the health of the plant, the age of the plant, where it was grown, etc., contribute to the quality of the tea. It is like growing grapes for wine – the year, the weather, the soil, all affect the taste of the product.
Growing up, my mother always had green tea in the house. Bancha, Sencha and a Jasmine tea with little flowers that opened up while brewing were her favorites. Green teas have a more assertive flavor than white tea and I find that in the Summer months, Jasmine tea, a very fragrant tea, can keep its flavor even in cold temperatures, making it a perfect iced tea, sweetened or unsweetened. Green tea should be brewed no more than 2 minutes at 167 – 176 F (75 – 80 C).
Oolong and black tea (red tea as it is known in China) are obtained from special cultivars of the tea plant and the leaves are purposefully allowed to wilt and oxidize. If you, like me, has ever dried your own herbs, you know that if you take your sweet time after you collected your leaves and let… no, let’s be candid, forget your herbs in the sun, the leaves will wilt and turn brown when dried. A similar process happens when making oolong and black teas. The heat makes the leaves wilt and breaks the chlorophyll, then the leaves release tannins and oxidize. This process is called fermentation in the tea industry, even though there is no real fermentation happening. Another process used to further oxidation (fermentation) of the tea leaves is manipulation, or in fact, bruising the leaves. Although nowadays the tea industry has developed mechanical ways to manipulate tea leaves to obtain uniform fermentation, some of the best oolong and black teas are still hand manipulated. If you have ever seen tea pearls, you have seen a type of manipulation.
For oolong tea, leaves are partially oxidized. Fermentation in oolong tea can vary anywhere from 8% to 85%, meaning that certain oolongs can be very similar to green teas, while others are very close to black teas. Oolong tea should be brewed for 2 – 3 minutes at 176 – 185 F (80 – 85 C).
Black teas have completely oxidized leaves and the ones with stronger flavor are the ones with more tannins. Black tea’s bolder flavor is often matched with equally bolder ingredients to create well known tea blends: Earl Grey tea, a combination with bergamot oil, and Masala Chai tea with Indian spices are just two such examples. There are also tea blends that are a combination of different kinds of tea cultivars: English Breakfast tea blends teas from Assam, Ceylon and Kenya; Irish Breakfast tea is a blend of black teas most often from Assam; Russian Caravan is usually a blend of oolong, keemun and lapsang souchong teas. When dealing with some black teas with a lot of tannins, I find that milk will mellow the taste of the tea. Just make sure you don’t overwhelm the taste of the tea with cream. Black tea should be brewed at 210 F (99 C) for 2 – 3 minutes.
Now, some of you might be wondering if I really measure the temperature of the water before making my tea. I admit that I don’t, I might be a snob, but I’m a lazy snob. I do let the water cool down, though, when making green and white teas. I also don’t time the brewing process although I realized while writing this article that I unconsciously follow those guidelines pretty closely. This is due to the fact that I find it really important not to over-brew your tea, as it will lend a bitter taste to your cup. One of my pet peeves is being served bitter, over-brewed iced tea in a restaurant and then at the end of the meal having to pay for that beverage. I also don’t have a fast and firm rule about sweetening my tea. I tend to drink white, green and oolong teas unsweetened and black teas sweetened. But that might change depending on what food I am having with my tea.
In the same way that dry herbs used in cooking will lose their flavor after some time, white and green teas will lose their flavor after 1 – 2 years. The fermentation process protects the flavor of oolong and black teas, generally extending their shelf life to between 3 – 5 years.
Being a tea snob means that I mostly use loose tea that I buy in bulk. Obviously, you can find tea for sale pretty much everywhere, but if you have never been to the Teahaus, in Ann Arbor, you should treat yourself to a visit to their store. They have a variety of teas that you can smell, drink and often eat in some of their desserts. If you plan to visit San Francisco, take time to visit Chinatown and one of their Chinese tea stores that offer appreciation of tea classes. Chicago also has a Chinese tea store that offers a Chinese Tea Ceremony and tea appreciation.
Last but not least, I found out a couple of years ago that the vessel you use to drink your tea is equally important. A bone-china cup (see Jennie’s article in the IN Newsletter from February 2018), a Chinese or Japanese porcelain cup or even a ceramic artist cup will greatly enhance the experience. I had the good fortune to find a contemporary design set of cups and saucers made of borosilicate glass (think chemistry lab beaker). Because the cup is made of transparent and very thin glass, and the cup’s mouth is wide enough that my nose will enter the cup and smell the tea as I am sipping it, my brain somehow erases the existence of the cup. The cup itself disappears, and I feel I am experiencing a cup made of tea. All my senses concentrate solely on the flavor and scent of the tea. Combine that with a little pastry, a seat before the fireplace, a cat companion snoozing nearby and I think I found paradise.
Like an unabashed drunkard or a debaucher, I’m not really interested in mending my ways and leaving my snobbery behind. Never mind my 12 step style opening confession – that was just to hook you in. I’m more interested in seducing you into joining me on a fragrant and warm path towards tea bliss. Now that you have read this article, aren’t you at least a little intrigued? Don’t you want to savor their flavor? Come little one, try a cup of tea… you will like it…!