How to brew tea

Some tips for those with the desire for a good brew, but less time than needed for a full Japanese ritual.

What could be more important than preparing a fine cup of tea the right way? You've spent the time to find and the money to buy a good product. It should be prepared as it, and you, deserve. But most don't have time for a Japanese tea ceremony. A full ritual, with food and drink, can take up to five hours. So, for those with less time, but the desire for a good brew, here are some tips.

The first thing to examine is the water you use. Even the finest leaf can yield a less than stellar cup if the water is wrong.

It can be too heavily chlorinated, or full of minerals, or 'stale'. Yes, water can get stale, in the sense that - since it absorbs odors from the air - it can contain chemicals that lessen the quality of your cup.

Water can contain heavy concentrations of calcium carbonate. That's the white powder that builds up around the spout or on the tile in the kitchen or bathroom. It's not harmful. In fact, a certain amount of it is healthy. But it darkens the brew. Pure H2O will leave a cup much lighter looking. Water can also have a large relative amount of iron. Again, that isn't necessarily unhealthy, but it can alter the taste somewhat, giving it a metallic overtone.

Water temperature is important, too. Boiling hot water can be a little too 'aggressive' on a tea leaf. Water around 80°C/176°F, on average, is preferred. (Pure H2O at 1 atmosphere of pressure, around sea level, boils at 100°C/220°F.) The exact temperature varies a little bit with the type of tea, however.

Black teas do well with water that is nearer boiling. Oolongs are better at a slightly lower temperature. Green tea can become bitter if the water is too hot and white tea needs the lowest temperature of all. Some experimentation will be needed.

Adding the right amount of tea will take a little trial and error too. Start with one teaspoon per cup. Adjust to personal taste - some prefer a little stronger brew, others a lighter one. If you want a natural way of reducing caffeine, but don't want to buy decaf, use the same tea for a second cup and discard the first. Most of the caffeine will get into the first one.

Steeping time varies a little, but 2-3 minutes is about right for most teas and tea drinkers. If you're in a hurry and you use tea bags, you can speed up the process by dunking. But, beware. True aficionados will be horrified if they see you! Here again, personal preference will influence the time, since steeping longer brings out more flavor, color, tannins and caffeine.

If you add milk to your tea, and you should at least try it once, you'll want to steep a little longer. Longer steeping times brings out more tannins and other compounds that will get 'softened' by the milk. But you'll still want to drink something that tastes like tea, not like milk. It's tea with milk, after all, not milk with tea flavoring. If you use loose leaf, invest in a good pot and/or tea strainer to keep the leaf parts from falling into the bottom of the cup.

Now for the most important step: drink. Oh, and there's one final step... Enjoy!

Retain your busy lifestyle when you must. But take a few minutes on occasion to celebrate your efforts. Treat yourself to a truly fine cup of tea, and enjoy it without a dozen distractions. You've earned it.

Teaware everywhere

If you can't find the kind of teaware online that suits your particular taste and needs, you should invent your own. The reason is simple: there is more variety in teapots, infusers, strainers, cups and more than there ever were add-ons for photography buffs.

A teapot is central to the set and you will find yourself simultaneously frustrated and delighted at the options. You could consume a week just cataloging all the different choices.

Everything from chrome and plastic to ceramic to clay to glass is available and each has its pros and cons. There are teapots with in-built timers and thermometers, detachable base plates and handles... the list is endless.

Some look very much like ordinary traditional coffee pots. But even those have all sorts of extra, modern conveniences like a detachable pot from the heating base for example. Very handy for preparation and pouring.

Others have the look of a much older tradition - the look of ancient China. Yixing clay teapots, of the sort that have been made by fine craftsmen in China for centuries, are both functional and beautiful. Today they have the added advantage of being prepared in modern clay ovens with extraordinary quality control. They represent the best of art and technology combined.

Traditional porcelain teapots from Japan are both works of art and utilitarian objects. Strong, yet with delicate designs, these shining white and blue containers look great and function perfectly even in the most modern of kitchens.

Many American designs now emulate the best of Scandinavia, where tea drinking is an art done with the practical sense of the Danes or Finns. One elegant glass design has an oversized cup with a plate that sits on top and holds a strainer. The assembly on top makes it easy to prepare the tea to perfection, then lift off the upper components and carry the cup to your favorite easy chair for drinking.

The range of artistic styles, beyond the merely functional, would fill a museum. Along with the teapot, the tea devotee will find an equally abundant array of choices for other teaware.

Strainers or infusers, which are used to strain hot water through tea leaves, are essential for those who want to expand their choices beyond tea bags. These come in a variety of materials and designs. Pyrex, copper or aluminum, ceramic and other materials are used. Large mesh, fine mesh and everything in between are useful since you may want to use large leaves or even fine tea powder.

A tea caddy is helpful for those who like to buy in quantity or have on hand different types of tea. That would be everyone, wouldn't it? They come in a large range of sizes and designs. Some hold only one type, some have compartments for holding bags, leaves or powder in different chambers.

While you're buying, don't forget to look for that unique cup that fits your hand and tastes. Then, in about a year when you've reviewed one percent of what's available, you can actually sit down and brew a cup, then relax. After all that shopping, you'll need one.

Loose leaf versus tea bags

A modern dilemma. You're busy. You don't have time to perform a Japanese tea ceremony, carefully preparing each component, then drinking the result in a leisurely way. But you do enjoy a truly fine cup. What to do?

The dilemma may never be fully resolved, but the choice starts with exploring loose leaf versus tea in tea bags. Thomas Sullivan is reputed to have first introduced tea bags in the mid-19th century. He made samples of different teas carefully enclosed in a cloth bag for his customers, to help them select a tea. He intended them to open the bag and prepare the tea from its contents.

He soon discovered they were using the samples unopened in order to make their brew. The fine cloth mesh kept the tea leaf bits from making their way into the cup. That created the possibility of drinking it down to the last drop without having to ingest the leaves. The method was a hit.

More than a century has passed and bags and their contents have gone through much evolution, sometimes not for the better. Bags today are finer, stronger, and lighter weight. They're manufactured and inspected to the highest health standards. But the contents are not always the best that can be had in the world of tea.

In the 1970s, 'natural' became the watchword of all food and beverage products, especially those made from plants. Tea certainly qualifies. As a result, loose leaf tea was looked on as a superior alternative. And, in many cases it is. There are hundreds of truly fine loose leaf teas imported from many parts of the globe.

Loose leaf teas from China, India, Japan, and elsewhere can be as pleasing to the connoisseur as a fine wine. The gentle jasmine from China stacks up well against a sweet orange tea from Turkey. Or, one may enjoy an outstanding mint tea from Africa.

By contrast, many bag teas are made essentially from left-overs, called fannings. Scraps of tea leaf that remain from processing are fed into a machine that fills thousands of bags per hour. The result is lined up into a box that contains a hundred or more which is shipped off to a grocery store. There it sits until someone takes it home. By the time it is actually consumed, a tea that was never very high quality to begin with may be stale.

But simply being in a bag isn't an inevitable sign of low quality. Many vendors have evolved from the granola days to combine the high quality of a loose leaf tea with the convenience and other benefits of a bag. Though they often go by the more elegant name of "sachet," it's still tea in a bag. But the difference is that the tea is of the utmost quality and is sold fresh. That difference is important.