Preparing For the Perfect Cup of Tea

While it’s interesting to learn about tea plants, cultivars, tea types, and water, these details alone won’t bring you any closer to the true beauty of tea: the pleasure of sipping a delightful cup. To enhance your tea-drinking experience, consider the following factors.

1. Choosing a tea

To create a refreshing cup of tea, one can infuse the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant with water. However, selecting the right tea to use can be a daunting task. Tea companies often offer an overwhelming selection of teas, leading to the paradox of choice – making it harder for people to make a decision. As a result, choosing a tea should be stress-free. Unfortunately, most teas available in supermarkets and tea shops are not even tea, but rather tisanes, herbs, or low-grade tea with added flavorings. For someone new to tea, selecting a tea type from the various options such as green, white, yellow, oolong, black, or dark tea, and then choosing a specific type such as Chinese, Japanese, or New World green tea, can be overwhelming. To simplify the selection process, here are some quick and easy rules to follow to help choose the perfect tea.

Here are a few easy guidelines to help you choose which tea to try:

1.1. Tea is an agricultural product

Remember that tea is an agricultural product, and certain seasons are better suited for drinking different types of tea. Green, white, and yellow teas have short shelf lives, and should ideally be consumed within three to four months of processing. As most classic teas are harvested and produced in early spring, they are ideal for consumption in the spring and summer. Therefore, if you’re looking for a delicious green tea, you’re better off not searching for one in February!

The famous paradox of choice is demonstrated in an experiment by psychologists Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar. Psychologist Barry Schwartz describes the experiment in his book, The Paradox of Choice. In the experiment, a gourmet food store offered samples of exotic jams and a dollar off coupon for a purchase. One condition featured six jam varieties, and the other had twenty-four varieties available. Although people tasted the same number of jams on average in both cases, more people were attracted to the large array of jams. However, the smaller array resulted in thirty percent of people buying a jar, while only three percent of those who saw the larger array made a purchase.

1.2. Seasonality of tea

Tea production is influenced by the weather and growing conditions of each year, and different regions have varying tea harvesting seasons. March is when tea production usually begins, with India and Nepal starting to pluck leaves for black teas, and China for some of its premium teas. April is the busiest month for tea production, with China dividing it into multiple periods based on the lunar calendar and spring rains. May is the end of spring, when tea producers in East Asia shift their focus from green and white teas to black teas. Early summer sees the production of oolongs and lower-grade black tea, while in mid-winter, Sri Lanka begins the production of Ceylon black tea, and southwest China plucks for various green and black teas. Ceylon black tea production is different from other tea-producing countries because it depends on the monsoon rains, which do not fall on all parts of the island at the same time. Ceylon production usually starts after the monsoon rains in July or August and goes on until the winter months.

1.3. Tea’s warmth and coolness

In Chinese culture, tea is often categorized as having either warming or cooling properties that can affect the body’s internal organs. Green, yellow, and white teas are considered cooling teas and are best consumed during hot weather, while black, oolong, and dark teas are warming teas and are best consumed during cold weather. This concept is similar to how Westerners view certain foods, with watermelon and cucumber being refreshing during hot summers, and beef stew being comforting during the winter. Similarly, green tea is believed to provide a cooling sensation during summer, while oolong tea is thought to provide warmth during winter. To fully experience the traditional taste of Chinese or Japanese tea, choose a tea suitable for the season and savor it.

1.4. Capital “T” Tea

To truly understand tea, one must drink tea. Unfortunately, many people are introduced to tea through herbal blends, tisanes, and other concoctions that are incorrectly labeled as “tea”. If you wish to gain a better understanding of this drink that has spread Buddhism, played a part in the expansion of the British Empire, and become a cornerstone of Asian cultures, then you should consume only true tea. When shopping for tea, look for packages where the only ingredient listed is “tea”. If there are other ingredients listed, it is best to find another option.

1.5. Relax

Remember to enjoy the journey when learning about tea. It’s perfectly fine to come across teas that you may not like or understand. Don’t let that discourage you from exploring more. Your taste preference may change with time and experience, and you may find yourself appreciating teas you once disliked. Don’t worry if a particular tea is famous or highly regarded, but it just doesn’t appeal to you. Everyone’s taste is different, so it’s important to find a tea that you personally enjoy. Just relax and savor the moment.

1.6. Share

Sharing tea with someone you care about is a delightful experience, whether it’s with a friend, family member, business associate, or even a casual acquaintance. The pleasure of enjoying tea is amplified when it is shared with others, making it a truly social experience.

2. Choosing the right vessel

When selecting a vessel for steeping tea, it’s essential to consider four factors: material composition, size, shape, and quality.

2.1. Material

Teapots are available in various materials, including clay (glazed and unglazed), metal, enameled cast iron, and glass, each having its advantages and disadvantages for steeping tea. Your choice of teapot should be based on four key factors, namely material, size, shape, and quality. The type of tea you want to steep will determine the type of teapot you use.

Glazed clay teapots: Porcelain glazed clay teapots are very thin and delicate. The porcelain’s thin walls and neutral taste make it ideal for steeping delicate teas with subtle aromas and flavors.

Metal teapots: Metal teapots come in various shapes and styles and are primarily used in North Africa and the Middle East to make strong tea concentrates infused with fresh herbs and spices. They are ideal for teas with strong flavors such as Moroccan mint tea, but they are not suitable for delicate teas from Japan and China.

Enameled cast iron teapots: Originally used in China to heat water, enameled cast iron teapots have become popular once again and are now used as vessels for steeping tea. Today’s enamels protect the tea from acquiring the metallic taste of the cast iron, making them generally suitable for any type of tea. However, it is difficult to find one small enough to make complex teas.

Glass teapots: Glass can be a preferable material for steeping delicate teas, particularly green, white, and yellow teas. It allows you to see the clarity and color of the tea and enjoy the dancing leaves as they unfold during steeping. However, glass does not retain heat and is, therefore, not suitable for oolong, black, and dark teas.

2.2. Size

In the Western world, the tea culture of England and the Netherlands has influenced the preference for using large teapots to steep tea. While these large teapots are convenient for steeping a higher volume of tea, it is generally better to use a smaller teapot for better tasting tea. A smaller teapot allows for more control over temperature and steeping time, and the ability to resteep the leaves to experience the changes and evolution of the tea over many steepings.

2.3. Shape and quality

The shape of your teapot is important because it can affect your comfort while preparing tea. Avoid using teapots that are too large or heavy for your hands, or teapots that make it difficult to pour your tea smoothly. The quality of your teapot directly impacts the quality of your tea. Higher-quality teapots tend to last longer and provide more consistent results from one steeping to the next. It’s worth investing in a good teapot if you want to enjoy the best possible tea.

Japanese Tetsubin

3. Specific types of teapots

3.1. Gaiwan

The gaiwan, a vessel for brewing tea, is one of the simplest in construction and design yet considered by many as the greatest. It has been in use since at least the Ming dynasty and is a ubiquitous part of Chinese tea culture. It consists of only three parts: a saucer, a bowl, and a lid. The lid can be used either to decant the tea or to block the leaves while drinking directly from the gaiwan. The underside of the lid is also a favored way of smelling the tea’s aroma due to its proximity to the steeping tea.

Constructed from glazed porcelain, the gaiwan is considered to be taste and aroma neutral, making it an excellent way to compare various teas. It does not impart any additional flavors or aromas into the tea. Moreover, a porcelain gaiwan is fairly efficient at retaining heat. Thus, gaiwans are used with great success for all types of tea. However, serious drinkers of black and dark teas find that gaiwans do not retain enough heat and are, therefore, not the prime vessel for steeping these types of teas.

3.2. Kyusu

The kyusu is a type of Japanese teapot that is easily recognizable by its lateral handle, which stands perpendicular to the spout. Unlike Western-style teapots where the handle and spout are aligned, the kyusu’s handle-spout alignment makes it easier and more graceful to pour the brewed tea. A typical kyusu has an integrated strainer to prevent tea leaves from clogging the flow of tea. High-quality Japanese kyusus are often made from clay with a high sandstone content, which is believed to enhance the flavor of green, white, and yellow teas. The kyusu is particularly suitable for the Senchado brewing method.

3.3. Yixing

Yixing pots are teapots made from stoneware, originating from Yixing County in China’s Jiangsu Province. These pots are ideal for steeping black, oolong, and dark tea. Yixing pots are traditionally unglazed and are made from the renowned clay found in Yixing County. The porousness of the clay enhances the flavor and aroma of tea over time, as the tannins from the tea create a coating on the inside of the pot. After multiple steepings, the Yixing pot is thought to enhance the flavor and aroma of the tea because the tannin residue begins to impart a unique aroma and taste into the tea. Due to the interplay between the tannin coating and the tea, individual Yixing pots should be used only for the same type of tea. In other words, if you use a Yixing pot to steep a black tea, you should only use that Yixing pot to steep black teas from then on.

Most Yixing pots are now mass-manufactured, making it challenging to find an authentic pot from Yixing. Traditionally, a well-crafted Yixing pot should have three characteristics. First, the tip of the spout and the top of the handle should be level with the rim of the teapot. Second, the lid of the pot should fit snugly and not move from side to side. Third, the handle and the spout should be aligned. Although most of the famous kilns in Yixing have shut down, these three variables should give you some direction in choosing between the Yixing pots currently on the market. However, because most of today’s Yixing pots are mass-produced, these variables are largely irrelevant, and all the pots will be perfectly aligned. In fact, with the market consisting almost entirely of mass-produced Yixing pots, it is now easier to look for a pot that has slight deviations because that is a sign that the pot was made by hand.

Before the introduction of gaiwans, kyusus, or teapots, the world drank its tea from a bowl known as a chawan. Unlike teapots, a chawan was used not only to drink the tea but also to prepare the tea. Nowadays, the chawan is used primarily in Japan for the preparation of Matcha.

3.4. Morden vessels

Glass is often used to showcase the beauty of certain teas, such as Silver Needle white tea. However, it is not the best material for teas that require longer steeping times as it doesn’t retain heat well. Nevertheless, in China, it is common to drink green tea throughout the day in a thick glass cylinder. They simply place a handful of dry tea leaves in the bottom, fill it with warm water, and continue to steep the tea all day. When the liquid level falls below one-third of the container, they refill it with hot water, treating their tea like how people in the West use reusable containers to drink water throughout the day.

4. Utensils

Discovering, trying out, and amassing a collection of different types of steeping tools is an incredibly gratifying aspect of tea drinking. As a result, nearly all tea shops showcase a range of steeping tools for you to buy. However, in the midst of this widespread marketing tactic, many useful accessories are overlooked that can make your tea preparation more convenient and pleasurable, as well as connect you to centuries of tea traditions. Here is a brief overview of several tea tools that you may find beneficial for your tea making.

4.1. Tea tray

If you’re looking for a useful accessory for tea preparation, a tea tray is a great option to consider. Unlike an English tea tray used for serving, the Chinese tea tray, also known as cha pan, is a must-have for formal tea preparation. Typically made from wood or stone, the tea tray is designed as a hollow box that catches excess water and tea. It allows you to prepare your tea without worrying about making a mess and freely pour water on your steeping vessels. If you find a tea tray too formal, you can also use a low-walled bowl and a nice towel to showcase your tea preparation. In case you’re using a Gong Fu style, consider using tea tongs (cha jia) to clean and present the teacups on the tray.

4.2. Tea plate

The tea plate, also known as a cha he in China, is a tool that serves as a formal way to present dry tea leaves. By using a tea plate, you can measure and prepare your tea leaves separately from the designated preparation area. This prevents the leaves from coming into contact with steam and water and also protects the remaining leaves in their original packaging. Pre-measuring the leaves onto the tea plate makes it easier to showcase and evaluate the tea that will be served.

4.3. Tea spoon

To transfer tea leaves from their original package to a steeping vessel or tea plate, there are various methods available, but the easiest way is through a cha ze, which is a spatula specifically designed for this purpose. The cha ze helps to gently retrieve and filter the dry leaves into the desired vessel. Other methods, such as using a kitchen spoon, can be challenging due to the spoon’s width, which may not allow for gentle retrieval or accurate pouring of tea leaves. Pouring the dry leaves directly from their package may also expose the remaining leaves to steam and humidity, while using fingers may introduce unwanted oils and humidity into the tea package.

4.4. Pouring vessel and filter

To ensure a consistent and uniform infusion, it is recommended to pour the steeped tea from the tea pot into another vessel. In the English tradition, this is done by preparing tea in a teakettle and then pouring it into a teapot. In the Chinese tradition, tea is often filtered into a small teapot called a cha hai. This not only creates a consistent blend of tea, but also provides a chance to strain any unwanted leaves or sediment. This is especially crucial when steeping high-quality teas that contain a lot of pekoe dust.

4.5. Tea pets

Tea pets, or cha chong, are clay figurines in the shape of animals that have been a part of Chinese tea culture since the 1200s. These cute and often mythological creatures are placed on tea trays, and their selection is based on their mythological powers that are believed to transfer to the tea drinker. Taking care of tea pets, such as pouring tea on them to keep them “fed,” is an enjoyable and meaningful tradition that adds to the overall tea-drinking experience. Although some tea pets may look kitschy, those made by experts from famous pottery regions like Yixing are highly collectible and are considered valuable works of art.

4.6. Indian tea strainer

Consider buying an Indian-style tea strainer if you enjoy creating your own blended teas. These strainers are specifically designed to fit a standard Western-style tea cup, which is typically an 8-ounce (235 ml) mug with a handle. They allow you to strain your tea blend directly from the pot into your cup, and a cocktail strainer can be used as an alternative.

5. Storing tea

The shelf life of tea is limited, especially for green, white, and yellow teas, which can last only up to three to four months under optimal storage conditions. Oolong and black teas have a longer shelf life, with some well-constructed black teas maintaining their quality even after being stored for more than three years. Dark teas, on the other hand, can be stored for a more extended period as long as they are not exposed to high temperatures and extreme moisture.

To preserve the taste and aroma of tea, it is crucial to avoid five variables in storage: sunlight, heat, moisture/humidity, odors, and air. Exposure to these pollutants can quickly degrade the quality of tea and diminish its flavor and aroma.

Tea has a high capacity to absorb odors and flavors of its surrounding. Therefore, it is best to avoid storing tea in refrigerators, spice drawers, pantries that contain food products with strong smells, and containers with a heavy paint or lacquer odor. The optimal way to protect tea from contamination is to store it in an opaque, airtight container in a cool, dark, dry, and odor-free place.

If storing multiple teas in one place, it is advisable to store each tea in a separate airtight container to prevent intermixing of their aroma, which can result in a flat taste. For individuals residing in areas with high humidity, they can add desiccants such as silica packets to each tea container to keep the tea dry even in very humid conditions.

Various containers are available in the market for tea storage, specifically designed for tea storage or general storage. However, it is best to use material that does not attract, absorb, or give off aromas to store tea.

5.1. Glass

While glass is often avoided as a storage container for tea due to its potential to let in sunlight, it can still be a viable option when stored in a dark place. Inexpensive glass containers, such as those used for canning and equipped with airtight seals, can be utilized to store tea effectively. Simply ensure that the container is kept in a dark storage area, such as a cabinet, desk, or trunk, to prevent sunlight exposure.

5.2. Plastic

While plastic containers are common and affordable, they are not ideal for tea storage. This is because plastic may emit gases that could harm the quality of your tea over time. Despite its convenience, plastic should be avoided as a storage solution for tea.

5.3. Ceramic

While a collection of ceramic tea caddies can be a beautiful way to showcase your tea collection, it is challenging to find a ceramic tea caddy that provides an airtight seal.

5.4. Vacuum-sealed tea caddies

Vacuum-sealed tea caddies are becoming more common and offer an effective solution for storing tea. These caddies pump out oxygen from the container and seal the tea leaves after every use. They are the best option for storing tea, but they can also be quite costly.

5.5. Using smaller quantities of tea

Purchasing only the amount of tea that you can consume in a short period of time is one of the best ways to preserve its quality. In the 20th century, tea companies focused solely on price, which led to the offering of large quantities of tea at low prices. Nowadays, even in the specialty tea market, the lowest volume of tea available is typically 100 grams, which equates to around fifty to seventy servings. This can be a lot of tea to consume and store, especially if you enjoy more than one type of tea. Therefore, if you wish to maintain the quality of your tea, consider buying it in smaller quantities to avoid the need for long-term storage solutions.

Proper storage is essential for dark tea to age well. To avoid degradation of its quality, it is important to store it in a cool, dry, and odor-free place, away from direct sunlight and extreme moisture. Unlike other tea varieties, dark tea requires exposure to air. As a result, it is usually packaged in light paper that allows the leaves to breathe. If feasible, store your dark tea in this paper wrapper to maintain its flavor and aroma.

6. Evaluating tea leaves

To determine the quality of tea, it is not only essential to taste and smell the tea liquor, but also to evaluate the dry leaves before brewing.

6.1. Know your tea

To evaluate the quality of tea, it is important to have a good understanding of the specific characteristics of each type of tea. For example, Taiwanese Bi Luo Chun tea should have a tightly rolled spiral shape, similar to a snail’s shell. If the rolling is loose or the shape is not uniform, it is an indication of lower quality. Gaining this knowledge requires experimentation and trying different variations of the same type of tea.

6.2. Inspect for non-leaf material

Before steeping tea leaves, it’s important to inspect them for any non-leaf materials such as sticks and twigs. Some tea processors try to increase their profits by selling more tea, and one way they do this is by adding these materials to the tea. These additions may not significantly alter the taste and aroma of the tea, but they dilute the quality and drastically increase the volume. To avoid purchasing low-quality tea, be sure to check for the presence of sticks and twigs, which may indicate a lower quality tea.

6.3. Evaluate leaf consistency

Assessing the consistency of tea leaves is another important factor in determining the quality of the tea. The best teas have fully intact and uniform leaves that are free from blemishes, insect markings, or discoloration. They are not ripped, broken, or contain any cracks. When evaluating the dry leaves of your tea, you should carefully inspect the leaves for uniformity and breakage. Some tea leaves may get broken during transportation, which is a common issue in the tea industry. However, if you notice a lot of breakage or the leaves are not uniformly shaped or sized, it may indicate that the tea is of lower quality.

6.4. Know date and regions of your tea

Being aware of the processing date and origin of your tea is crucial since it provides information about the duration before the tea’s quality starts to deteriorate. Additionally, knowing the tea’s origin may be significant to some people. For example, as Dragonwell tea becomes more popular and its price surges, more regions are beginning to cultivate the Longjing cultivar and process it into teas that resemble Longjing. While many of these teas are of excellent quality and taste delicious, they are not from the mountains surrounding Hangzhou’s famous West Lake—the birthplace of Longjing. Similar to the wine industry, certain teas are held in high regard not only because of their cultivars or processing but also because of where the plants grew. As a result, the tea’s prestige is not based on its taste, aroma, or appearance, but simply on its rarity. If you’re interested in trying a specialized tea, you may want to try one from the village where it gained popularity to understand why the tea is so famous.

Harvesting tea is a very laborious task, mainly due to the large quantity of leaves required to make a single cup of tea. While the amount of leaves a person can pick depends on the leaf size, an experienced tea plucker can harvest about 30,000 tea shoots per day. As it takes around 3,200 shoots to produce a pound of tea, an adept tea plucker can gather almost 10 pounds of raw tea leaves per day. However, after the tea leaves go through processing, they get reduced to only 2 pounds of tea.

7. Sensing tea

Tea can stimulate all five taste sensations, including saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, sourness, and umami. Historically, Chinese tea tasters described tea simply by bifurcating between saltiness and sweetness and commenting on how well these two sensations balanced for a particular tea. This system simplifies what one looks for when tasting tea and corresponds to the physiology of our taste buds, where saltiness and sweetness trigger different physiological phenomena.

As specialty tea gains popularity, tea companies are co-opting marketing language from other food and drink industries to describe tea’s taste. Instead of solely enjoying tea for what it is, consumers are dissecting their enjoyment into subcomponents. However, there are important physiological reasons why we experience tea as it relates to other foods. The five sensations only partially contribute to how we taste food, and we also experience flavor through our nose, textures, and temperatures. Olfaction, or smell, is the most influential of these physiological effects on our perception of taste.

The olfactory referral illusion refers to how our mind is deceived into believing that the odors are not just a smell but actually the taste. Smelling your cup of tea is fundamental to enjoying it because only after savoring the tea’s aroma, feeling its warmth, and allowing your mind to connect the tea’s aroma with its taste can you truly understand and enjoy a cup of tea. However, this enjoyment is not conducive to drinking tea at a fast-food establishment or while driving down the highway.

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