Tea Essentials: What is essential and not essential for a good cup of tea?
There is so much talk about tea and its culture that one almost loses sight of what is important if one is to have a good cup of tea. Here, by way of attempting to provide a practical guide, we contrast some of the most useful with some of the least useful elements in ensuring you have a good cup of tea. So, what are the tea essentials?
Decent water: Yes
Tea is, after-all, mostly water and it is important that this is fresh and not tainted in any way. Fresh water has a good level of oxygen absorbed in it which ‘lifts’ the tea and avoids a dull flatness. A certain mineral content enhances the flavour of tea. Don’t use distilled water. Bottled water can be good, especially as it avoids chlorine which can have a pronounced taste in some areas. It is also likely to be softer, whereas high lime levels can leave a scum on the surface of tea infusions and give an unpleasant taste. To this end a water filter can be invaluable.
Quality tea: Yes
Loose leaf does make the best tea, especially if it is of a large leaf grade. This allows the tea to infuse correctly, to give balance to the different flavour components. It does take a little longer to achieve this so a little patience may be required. Small leaf teas quickly yield colour and tannins to the liquor so this prevents them being infused for long, so more subtle aspects to the flavour do not have sufficient time to dissolve.
Sufficient tea: Yes
Do not stint on the tea, especially if it is black. We tend to stick with the old adage of one teaspoon per person and one for the pot. We want to experience the tea and we don’t want dishwater as so often happens when visiting a tearoom. If you are taking your tea with milk make your tea a little stronger.
Infusion bags: No
Whilst these allow filling with a larger leaf compared to standard paper teabags the leaf is still small relative to many good loose teas. They are also a very expensive way of packaging tea and offer poor value for money. Go for loose leaf if you can.
A Tea infuser: Yes
A tea infuser can take the form of a teapot, a gaiwan, tongs or an infusion ball. These ensure the leaf is separated from the liquor on serving. Regrettably many modern ceramic teapots are manufactured for economy without a cage at the base of the spout to trap the leaves. This can result in the spout becoming blocked or excessive leaf entering your cup. The best teapots are glass with a removable infuser. These retain all the leaf and enable you to see when the liquor has brewed to the depth you like.
Having a lid, a traditional gaiwan captures the aroma of the liquor and the brewed leaf. It is designed for large, whole leaf teas. Tongs and infuser balls are useful when a teapot is too cumbersome for one cup, ideal for work.
A teapot: No
Try infuser tongs. For several people a teapot will be essential.
Hot water: Yes
Tea must be drunk hot, not easily knocked back. It should be sufficiently hot to require sipping. It is whilst taking small mouthfuls of tea that we fully appreciate the flavour of our chosen teas. For black teas the water should be at boiling poit. For green teas the freshly boiled water should be allowed to cool a couple of minutes, to around 80 dgrees C before pouring on the leaf. This will avoid scolding the leaves and causing bitterness.
Whilst not essential, a thermometer is valuable when making green teas and some herbal infusions. Green tea should be made with freshly boiled water that has come off the boil. Too hot and it may make the tea bitter. Our American cousins are very enthusiastic about making tea using a thermometer but for black tea this is not necessary, as the water should be boiling. It’s good for impressing your friends. But the tea better live up to their expectations!
A tea-cosy: No
This bit of tea tradition does have unpleasant connotations and rarely is it useful. A small pot will be drunk quickly so should remain hot. A large pot will get too strong if standing around. It could have a role to play with a glass teapot once the infuser has been removed. It’s really a question of style. Try at least to avoid those knitted versions with bobbles. I hope I haven’t offended anyone!
A candle-heater for the teapot: No
The tea will continue to infuse and become too strong. Best to make a fresh pot!
Most tea leaves will sink to the bottom of your cup. A strainer is only useful if there is the chance that a lot of leaf will head that way. This is particularly the case with modern teapots which have no cage so you may be forced to adopt very Edwardian habits and a liking for dainty silver-plated strainers. And where do you put those leaves – in a flower pot perhaps? Or a small bowl. But mind those drips.
A fine china cup: Yes
By cup I mean either one with a saucer or a porcelain mug which does not remove too much heat from the tea. For some elegant teas only the former will do!
Many teas are best without milk, especially if the tannin content is not high, such as with Darjeelings and many Ceylon or China teas. Milk can mask the flavour and prevent many aspects of the flavour from being appreciated. Milk is best for Assams, some full bodied Ceylons and only a few China teas.
Wean yourself off it. You know it’s good for you – and the taste of your tea.
Sugar tongs and bowl: No
I repeat, no. Are you in the theatre or enjoying a cup of tea?
A little time: Yes
Tea is a contemplative beverage and has been since the earliest Chinese herbalists discovered it. Relax, take a little time and do not distract yourself from enjoying one of the simpler and finer things in life.