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Friday, August 05, 2005

For the love of tea!

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So, a few exchanges on the blog in the last couple days got me thinking about teas. There is something I really don't understand about this. Every time I mention that I don't touch tea bags, I hear snide comments about being a pretentious bourgeoise, a snob, or any number of variations on that theme. That is so not right. Not that I am not a snob or anything, but I hardly think it's due to my choice of teas: my penchant for red-soled shoes, perhaps, but certainly nothing to do with loose leaf teas.

It is such an effective myth created by tea bag manufacturers of the world, that myth that convinced you that tea bags were good, convenient, and even cheap. All of that, all of it, let me tell you now, is false. The entire world bought that lie, took the bait, hook, line, and sinker, the entire thing.

And why should you believe me? Well, I'm going to prove it to you. I'm going to channel Harold McGee and do a little tea taste, in honor -late though it may be- of Taste Tea, the cute little meme that instigated this new round of tit-for-tat for me. Because of this, my geekdom -which has taken a bit of a vacation since I left my nerdy job- has returned in full force in the last day or two. I spent yesterday gathering up evidence and did a couple of experiments. And this blog post here is the result. I am going to show you why you should stop buying tea bags and switch to using loose leafs. Well, or even if I couldn't convince you to switch, I'd at least make you understand that it's a choice, an aesthetic choice that has little to do with money, convenience, or reason for that matter.

The first part of the myth: tea bags are cheaper. I went around to a few markets and picked up a number of different teas, and did a little calculation to see if, on a cup by cup comparison, tea bags were really all that much cheaper? Shall we see? But first we should talk methods. I bought a few different brands of tea bags, from the "cheapest" and most readily available Lipton bags to the more upscale brands such as Numi and Hampstead (both bought at the fancy Sur la Table in Los Gatos.) For the loose leaf teas, I didn't need to buy any since I got quite a bit already. But there was a little problem, I didn't know exactly how much they were when I bought them. So, I decided to use as examples two grades of loose leaf teas from Adagio Tea (no affiliation, but I chose them because of their unsolicited offer of free teas to IMBB-Taste Tea participants.) From Adagio I chose two teas: one a regular grade, at $7 per 100g, the other a fancy first flush Single Estate Darjeeling which, at $16 per 100g, was one of the most expensive teas carried by that company.

First -my scientist hat firmly back on my head- I had to operationalize a few things before we could run our little experiment. What is a cup of tea? How do you effectively compare the price of bags and the price of loose leaf teas? Not by weight alone, certainly. A tea bag contains anywhere between 1.5-2.5 grams of tea. So instead of taking into account this variance, I thought we'd just say that a bag made one cup of tea, yes? Most tea bag manufacturers suggest brewing a tea bag in an 8 oz cup of water, so that's what I would use as the metric: a cup is 8 oz. For all intents and purposes that seems to be fine.

Things did get a little hairier when it came to loose leaf teas. The amount of tea to make a perfect brew varies, depending almost equally on the types of tea and the preference of the drinker herself. Common wisdom amongst connoisseurs of tea tells us to use between 1.5 to 3 g of loose leafs per 8 0z cup. So, again, since 2 was a good middle number - well, it's 2.25 precisely, but even I was not that retentive - so two it was. Just to test this little assumption, I pulled out my German-made precise scale and measured out 2 grams each of three types of tea, brewed each in a different cup, and tasted them - ok, perhaps I was that retentive. Yes, they tasted like fine teas to me, so 2 g. of leaf per 8 oz cup, that made the operationalized cup of tea in this little experiment.

Here's the breakdown. You might be surprised.

Teataste4

The tea list is sorted from the cheapest to the most expensive per cup price. The ones in Green and marked with (L) are loose leaf teas. Surprising, yes? Tea bags are not exactly cheaper. The Tea Forte stuff, especially, was just extortion. Shameless extortion. Granted, the cute triangular bag was a good idea, and I agreed it would brew a better cup of tea than the conventional bag, but at $2.50 for each bag, that's highway robbery!

Leafscomparison_1And do you know what you are paying all that money for? Well, let me tell you, the contents of tea bags are known in the tea industry as Fannings, or Dust, the two lowest grades of tea leafs, certainly not good by any measure. Fannings are tiny bits of leafs left over after the better grades and larger leafs have been sifted away. Even worse is the grade Dust, which -true to the name for a change- is literally the dust particles of tea leafs that are left at the bottom of the barrel during the manufacturing process. Remind anyone of Marmite? But I digress. Let's get back to tea. Unlike Dust which is always a by product, the Fannings grade is sometimes produced intentionally, by cutting the Broken grade leafs to even smaller size so that they can be brewed quickly in the tight little tea bags. Let's take a look inside them baggies, should we? BrewedbagleafscomparisonGo ahead, click on the photo on the left to see what they look like pre-brewing. For this I cut open a bunch of bags and laid out the content, in a side by side comparison with two loose leaf Darjeelings and a cheaper Twinning loose leaf tea - ok, ok, I certainly am that retentive, let's agree on that and move on, shall we? You can also click the one to your right to see what a few of them looked like after brewing, compared to the loose leaf one in the middle. And might I call your attention to the content of the exorbitant Tea For-tay "Floral" bag? The last I checked Floral didn't mean twigs, but then again I could be wrong.

PremiumleafsBut what do they taste like, that's the important bit, yes? Well, for that I might have to suggest you take Adagio up on their kind offer to send tea samples to you. Do your own side by side comparison of the taste, and hopefully you will see what I mean. Tea bags, in my opinion, brew into brownish liquid that taste more like tobacco than they do tea. Plus, they don't really brew as much as color the hot water immediately on contact, the resulting liquid lacks entirely the complex aroma of leaf teas that develops during the brewing time. Among the ones I tasted in this little experiment, only the fancier Numi and Hampstead, were fine. And though the bag contents of those two teas are decidedly more Broken and Fannings than Dust, at 26 and 29 cents, respectively, they are hardly a good deal, especially compared to the better graded Ceylon from Adagio, at only 14 cents per cup.

FiltersSo now that both the cheap and good myths are both done away with, how about the other one, tea bags are more convenient, no? Let us consider this carefully, shall we? How much more complicated is loose leaf tea, really? Perhaps the thought of brewing bag-less tea conjures up that quaint image of a little old English lady with her porcelain pot and a caddy and the fussy tea strainer and a pitcher of milk and bowl of sugar and all that. Well, quit it. That's just so not it anymore. Brewing tea is just like any other task in the kitchen, get a proper tool and you are half way there. All you need is a brewing basket or mesh ball, one that fits into your mug, the same beaker you'd use if you were still stuck with the tea bags, that's it.

TeaforoneThis what I do when I want a quick cup of tea in the morning. I have a mug that has its own large filter insert that fits perfectly, with a cute lid even. But you certainly don't need it. A mug and a tea ball would do. Not the tiny ones, nor cute fancy shaped ones with mini holes dotted here and there. Those things are far too small and have too few holes to allow the water the circulate, thereby restricting the leafs from openning up and brewing properly. You need a good mesh one, at least 2-inch in diameter, which would be big enough for an 8 oz cup though not for a pot. With a proper infuser to contain the leafs, now all you need to do is to fill it with a scant 2 teaspoon (the measuring teaspoon not your silver spoon) of leafs, add hot water, wait 3 minutes, and there you have it. How complicated is that? You don't even need to wash the filter or mesh ball, soap leaves nasty residue anyway so a quick rinse is enough. The only part that takes noticeably longer is perhaps the two extra minutes you'd need to brew the leafs properly, since they don't darken the water on contact like the dusty stuff in the bags do. So the tea leafs brew just a little longer, so it takes three minutes instead of one or two. So you are right, but so what? If two minutes mean that much to you, I'm sorry, perhaps loose leaf teas are really not for you.

4waycompareIt probably doesn't help that the tea industry is littered with tools that look cute but do not work properly. Don't get me started on huge tea pots with mini infusers! I cannot stress enough the importance of good hot water circulation to allow the tea leafs to open up and brew properly. That's how you get the best taste out of the tea, and the best bang for your buck. I did another little experiment to show you the difference in properly and improperly brewed leafs. I made four pots of tea with the same tea leafs, in the same temperature water, for exactly the same amount of time. Whyteaballisbad_2The only difference was in the infusers: a large pot insert and three mesh balls, 2, 2.5, and 3-inch. When only brewing with 8 oz of water, just for one cup of tea, there was barely a noticeable difference in the four cups of tea, since even the smallest mesh ball, the 2-inch one, was big enough to allow the leafs to brew properly. But when I tried the second time, with 16 oz water and 4 g of tea leafs, the difference was absolutely noticeable, as you could see in the photo on the left. (Clockwise from bottom right: pot infuser, 3" mesh, 2.5" mesh, and 2" mesh.) The photo to your right is a side by side of the leafs from the largest infuser and the smallest mesh ball. See what I mean?

TeapotswithfiltersBrewing up a perfect pot of loose leaf teas is really simple. There are a few general rules that you must familiar yourself with, and a few tools that you'd need to acquire, once you have those down you are all set. You will need a tea pot, and some sort of infuser to contain the leafs. Most of my pots have their own infusers, but that is certainly not necessary, a large mesh ball will work for any pot you have. It is important that the size of the infuser, whichever kind you choose, corresponds to the size of the pot. The goal here, again, is to have a large enough space to allow free circulation of water and for the leafs to unfurl properly. This means your infuser must be big enough for your pot, and must have enough perforation so that water could flow easily through. That means big ceramic or glass infusers with a few decorative holes will not work. You will also need to be able to remove the infuser from the pot after the desired brewing period, leaving the tea leafs in the pot will turn the tea bitter and astringent. Some types of tea leafs can be rebrewed, but they should not be left for an extended period in the pot.

WastefulAnd, as though you need any more reason to quit the bags, let me show you this photo. Do you realize how much waste is generated with tea bags? Here in this photo you could see the huge pile packaging materials needed for barely a half cup of tea. And imagine the energy that wasted on the manufacturing of those paper envelopes, bags, and box, not to mention the extra volume to be transported. I don't mean to be all sanctimonious about this, but considering how much waste we will generate in our collective lifetime, and how unneccesary this particular waste is, perhaps it's time to give it up? Time for a little change?

Frankly, the wonderfully complex world of tea is a great chance for people to get completely geeked out over minute details: water temperature, proper pot, brewing time, brewing style, or even type of water to use! And I'm quite sure I can tea geek just as good as anyone, but all of that is quite superfluous. All you need to know is a few basic rules that will get you started.

Water temperature: boiling hot for black tea, a little less hot for oolong, and even less for delicate green and white tea. And no, you won't need a thermometer for this, all you need to do is boil a pot of water. Use the boiling water immediately on black teas. Leave the boiling water to settle down for a minute or so before you pour it on to oolongs, or even couple more minutes longer for green and white teas.

Measure your tea leafs: How much tea leafs you need will vary, depending on your taste and the types of tea, but you could begin by using between 2-3g of tea leafs per one 8oz cup, and adjust the amount to your taste when you make it later. Different types of leafs vary in volume, but generally 2 g of leafs is about two teaspoons, the measuring teaspoon, not the fancy one in your silver set.

Prep your tea pot and infuser: I'm sorry boys, but size matters on this one: make sure the size of your infuser corresponds to the size of the pot. A good general rule of thumb here is the dry tea leafs needed for the size of the pot should fill less than half of the infuser, but bigger is always better on this one. Pour a bit of hot water over the pot before brewing to warm it up.

Brew the tea: Some people rinse the tea leafs first, by pouring a bit of water directly over the infuser and discard the water. This is to temper the leafs to the temperature of the hot water, as well as rinse out any dust or impurities. But you can easily skip this step. Pour hot water into the pot and set your timer. I suggest you begin by brewing the tea for 3 minutes, then adjust to your taste later. It is also useful to try it a few different times after brewing the tea for 2 minutes -which is generally the shortest suggested time. This way you could judge by yourself how long you'd like your tea to brew.

Remove the leafs: It is important to remove the brewed leafs immediately after the desired brewing period. You could set aside the brewed leafs to make another pot later, but it's not a good idea to leave the leafs in the pot indefinitely.

There you have it. Not that big a deal, is it?
Enjoy your loose tea, and DOWN WITH THE BAG!!!!

P.S. If you would like to get all truly geeky on this subject, I collected a bunch of useful bookmarks on del.icio.us. Check them out.

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