December 13, 2007
Why on earth, I can hear you asking, would anyone need instructions for making tea? Hot water + tea bag = finished product, right? Well, yes, you can make tea that way—but I’m going to try to convince you not to. With a little extra time and effort, you can improve your Earl Grey or English Breakfast immensely.
The first thing you should know about me is that I love tea. I make it almost every day, sometimes twice or even thrice a day. (As long as “thrice” is a word, why not use it?) I’m talking about black tea, by the way. I do love other teas, both real and herbal, but they’re prepared a bit differently and black tea is my staple.
George Orwell had eleven rules for making tea, almost all of which I agree with, but I’ll keep it to four golden ones. Besides, he wrote those rules before the advent of tea bags, which brings us to the first point.
Rule #1: Always use loose tea. That Twinings tin is full of nice, big, dried leaves. Don’t they look luscious? Okay, maybe luscious isn’t the word, but they’re certainly pretty. Most tea bags are filled with “fannings,” the dusty byproduct of sorting loose leaf tea. Fannings make a second-rate cup of tea. It steeps faster and takes less coddling, but it’s often stale, yields a cloudy brew, and just doesn’t taste that great. Loose tea is available at a lot of natural food stores, some mainstream grocery stores, specialty tea shops, and online (like here and here).
Rule #2: Make it in a teapot. Seems a tad obvious, perhaps, but there are dozens of tea-making implements that don’t require a pot: mesh tea-balls, cotton brew bags, etc. I’ve tried a bunch of them and nothing steeps quite like a pot. The leaves need plenty of space to expand and swim around. Some teapots have strainers over the spout and some don’t, so you may need to use a strainer as well. (Ideally you’d warm the pot with hot water before you steep the tea, but now I’m getting nitpicky.)
Rule #3: Use really boiling water. Hot water isn’t hot enough. It’s hot enough for green or other kinds of tea, but not for black. That means water out of hot taps on sinks or water jugs won’t do the job. The water should have just come to a rolling boil so that it’s hot enough but still has plenty of oxygen (important for flavor).
Rule #4: At least try it with plain, unsweetened soymilk. Okay, this isn’t a rule so much as a plea. Every time someone adds vanilla soymilk or a few heaping spoons of sugar to her tea, a little part of me dies. Or maybe just cries. Either way, it’s in pain. I don’t know if I’m going to convert anyone, but I second George’s advice: “Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.” Call me crazy, but I also think sweetened soymilk in tea tastes more soymilky.
This might sound intimidating or labor-intensive, but it’s really not! It takes five minutes and makes my day so much better.