Steeped in the Joys of Tea

Bag the bags and get in touch with the true pleasure of a finely brewed cup.
Author:
Publish date:

With the first nip of autumn in the air, it's the best time to discover -- or rediscover -- the soothing ritual of preparing and savoring the perfect cup of tea.

Legend has it that the first drink of tea was enjoyed accidentally, more than 5,000 years ago, when a leaf from a wild tea plant fell into the Chinese emperor Shen Nung's cup of hot water. The curious emperor was enticed by the golden brew, and tea soon spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and finally Europe.

Along the way, each culture put its own spin on the rituals and accoutrements of tea drinking. In Japan's transcendent Cha No Yu, or tea ceremony, matcha (powdered green tea) is meticulously prepared, frothed with a bamboo whisk and poured through a series of specialized vessels. Russia's contribution to tea culture is the samovar, a large, ornate (often silver) urn with a spigot for pouring; the brew itself is enjoyed with honey, sugar (a cube of which was traditionally held between the teeth) or even with raspberry jam, as a folk remedy for illness. The English, who have embraced tea as their unofficial national drink since the mid-1600s, created the tradition of "high tea," which is served in the middle of the afternoon, accompanied by finger sandwiches and small cakes or pastries.

Some of the most recent tea traditions hail from America: iced tea, invented at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, and somewhat unfortunately, the tea bag, by a New York purveyor in 1908 who packaged his loose teas in silk bags for convenience in showing his product to clients.

Today, tea is the world's most popular beverage after water, a fact that may surprise many of us in the coffee-saturated culture of the U.S. Tea has garnered more attention here recently, however, due to a myriad of studies regarding its remarkable

health benefits. Claims for tea's bone-strengthening capabilities, boosts to immune-system functioning and even cancer-fighting abilities (due to the high levels of antioxidants found in the brew) have been touted by many.

Origins & Production

Black, oolong, green, white -- the varieties seem diverse, but in fact, all tea is derived from the same source, the Camellia sinensis plant. The difference in taste and appearance can be attributed to how the leaves are processed after harvesting.

Camellia sinensis

Black tea, the most intensely flavored, is subject to the most processing: the leaves are wilted and then rolled, which spurs fermentation by releasing their natural oxidizing enzymes. This oxidation is halted by firing, which heats the leaves. Oolong tea, which is only partially fermented, falls between black and green in terms of processing and taste. Green tea is treated more gently --- it is steamed, rolled and fired without being fermented, which maintains its vegetal taste. White teas, which actually are just the very tip of green tea leaves, are neither rolled nor fermented, so their light flavor is preserved.

And just for the record -- and to make you a total tea know-it-all -- red and herbal teas aren't really true teas at all, but rather, tisanes. Red tea hails from the rooibus bush, which is native to South Africa; herbal teas are blends of various dried herbs, spices or other flavorings. Neither contains C. sinensis leaves, so they can't technically be defined as tea.

One for the Pot

Being an expert on tea's origins and health benefits, however, will not help you much when it comes to brewing the perfect pot. This is essential if you're going to make the investment in premium loose teas. Much like wine, the intricacies and subtleties of tea's taste can be severely compromised depending on how it's prepared and served.

Figure on about one teaspoon of loose tea per cup of water, more if stronger brew is desired. And always start with fresh water -- whether it's from the tap, filtered or bottled is up to personal preference. The most essential step is the temperature of the water -- for black and oolong teas, it should be brought just to a boil, then immediately poured over the leaves.

For green and white teas, however, the water should be

under

the boiling point, 160 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. These two types of teas are less processed and much more delicate than black and oolong; therefore, boiling water will produce an overbrewed, "bitter" cup of green tea, which my unofficial polls reveal as the reason many people claim to dislike it.

A good guideline for those who may not have a food thermometer handy is to watch the water on the stove: As soon as steam begins to curl off the surface, the water is hot enough. Another option is to let fully boiled water cool for a few minutes before using it.

How long to steep your selection? Again, it depends somewhat on individual tastes, but there are some essential guidelines.

Black and oolong teas need several minutes to allow their strong flavors to develop, usually in the range of three to six minutes. For green teas, two to three minutes is sufficient to bring out their grassy, vegetal overtones. White teas need only brew for one to two minutes to preserve their delicate floral taste.

A few teapots that not only facilitate the brewing process, but also are stunning examples of kitchenware design, can be found at

Bodum.

The Shin Cha teapot, for instance, has a stainless steel inner chamber, large enough to allow a maximum amount of water to come into contact with the leaves. It also has a stopper to easily halt the brewing at just the right time.

Not serving a crowd? Try the Yo-Yo, an individual infuser that boasts a similarly ingenious design. I use it every single day, and have been known to bring it on vacation, even unabashedly pulling it and my stash out at restaurants during breakfast.

Not for the Hoi Polloi

For those of you who are most familiar with a dusty bag of Constant Comment, trying any of the teas below in their loose form will be an eye-opening experience. Be sure to buy in small quantities, and keep these special selections refrigerated to preserve their freshness and aroma.

Earl Grey (India): the classic black tea; strong and aromatic, due to essence of bergamot.

Darjeeling (India): alluring copper color; crisp black tea flavor both woodsy and lightly floral.

Golden Oolong (China): smooth, well-balanced flavor with a faint sweetness.

Wuyi (China): rich, complex-tasting oolong; unique, slighty smoky fragrance.

Sencha (Japan): an everyday aromatic green tea, refreshing grassy taste and bright emerald color.

Genmaicha (Japan): an unusual blend of green tea and roasted rice, resulting in a deep flavor with warm, nutty overtones.

White Pearls (China): tightly coiled white tea leaves that unfurl into a sweetly fragrant, pale golden brew.

And for the advanced tea drinkers only:

Uji Gyokuro

. Its sweet, vernal, creamy flavor may not impress the inexperienced, but this Japanese green tea, which is shaded by a veil for the last few weeks before it's harvested, is quietly outstanding. At over $15 an ounce, however, it's definitely the one to save for special occasions.

Check your local tea shop (on the off chance it hasn't been overtaken by

Starbucks

(SBUX) - Get Report

or visit

Ito En,

The Republic of Tea or

In Pursuit of Tea to order online -- the only danger is that you may never be able to go back to bags.

To view a video take on this installment of The Good Life, click here.