Common Questions

My friends and family know that I like tea but the extent of that affection becomes apparent when they come to my home. At first, there are usually a few side glances which I assume are furtive searches for other signs of hoarding (hundreds of cats etc.). When their worries around pathological collecting subside, guests usually start to get curious and ask questions. I love this part so I thought it might be fun to put some of the most common questions together:

 

What tea would you recommend to someone who only drinks ordinary tea bags?

3 teas line-upWithout a doubt, this is the most common question. The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “ordinary tea bag” but here in Ireland it means blended CTC black tea. I like to think I can match people with tea (like Vianne in the book Chocolat!!) but don’t want to be too dictatorial about it so I let people smell different types of tea while I secretly guess what they will choose. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t (when I get it wrong the explanation is that smelling dry leaf isn’t a good way to choose tea).

 

 

What is your favourite tea?

My choice of tea changes with the season, the weather and my mood (all very variable). Some teas are seasonal for me: Rooibos with orange and cardamom (Christmas), Chai (Autumn), Darjeeling (late Spring). Throughout the year, my every-day tea is ripe pu-ehr (shou). This is closely followed by dark oolongs. For tisanes, the number one slot goes to rooibos with chamomile and mint probably tying for second.

 

Does tea really have less caffeine than coffee?

Vital TeaI wrote a full article on caffeine content but the short story is that instant coffee, Chinese white tea and loose leaf Assam are all comparable in terms of caffeine. Indian green and Darjeeling black have a little less. Tea doesn’t give a jittery affect because of the L-theanine that it contains. The affect of tea is alert calmness rather than edgy agitation. Having said that, alert calmness does not translate to restful sleep for me so I drink all my tea in the morning and switch to herbal tisanes (zero caffeine) in the afternoon and evening.

 

Why is green tea so bitter? How can I make it taste better?

Green tea is bitter when it is oversteeped. This is a common mistake for Irish people (see article on steeping). They love strong black tea and get into the habit of steeping tea for long periods of time in boiling water. That doesn’t work for green tea. Loose leaf needs a gentler temperature (80°C) and a steeping time of just 1-2 minutes if made in a teapot (less for a cup).

Sometimes people are tempted to sweeten over-steeped green tea in the hope of cutting that bitterness. Adding sugar to green tea will make it taste even more bitter. Green tea is best taken with salty food to bring out the floral sweetness. An interesting experiment is to eat a pinch of sugar before drinking green tea and notice the taste of the tea. Then do the same with a pinch of salt instead. The difference in taste is incredible.

 

Do your teas not go off? Is there a best before date for tea?

Bancha Close-upUnder proper storage, most tea can stay fresh for about a year. Black tea and darker oolongs last longer than green or white.  Pu-ehr is the exception and in the correct conditions (temperature, humidity, air flow etc.) can be aged to improve the flavour. My travelling teapot friend wrote an excellent article on expired tea.

In order to keep tea fresh, it needs to be stored in an environment that is protected from strong smells, light moisture, air and heat. For this reason teas that are kept in a kitchen will deteriorate quickly. I have open tea shelves in my kitchen but luckily there’s a high turnover 😉

 

I’ll try to remember some of the other questions for future posts or if readers have any questions…

Yixing stoneware

I mentioned Yixing in this post on ceramics but these stoneware teapots warrant their own post. Yixing teapots (zisha) are unglazed porous stoneware teapots made from clay that comes from the region of Yixing in Southern China. The Yixing clay has a very unique, iron-rich composition and the resultant stoneware is durable and a good insulator. More importantly, Yixing clay absorbs the flavour of its contents and over time develops a lining of tea deposits that enriches the flavour of tea.  Over years of use, the teapot changes in colour and flavour and these teapots are valued because of the fine teas they have brewed. Each Yixing teapot can only be used for one type of tea and it needs to be seasoned before it is used to clean it and to remove any firing/baking smells.

Yixing teapot

Yixing teapots date back to the 11th century but became popular in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when tea leaves instead of powder become popular. Today they are mostly used for pu-ehr and oolong tea and there is no doubt that tea from these teapots is noticeably richer and more interesting. Making pu-ehr in a Yixing teapot is a little bit like serving white wine (or champagne 😉 ). Of course you can serve white wine warm in a plastic cup but if you have spent good money on a nice bottle, you will want to put in an effort to chill it and serve it in a proper wine glass to bring out the flavour.

 

Judging the authenticity of a Yixing teapot can be difficult. For this reason, I tend not to buy expensive Yixing (especially online). The tell-tale signs of real Yixing are solid dull colour but with sparkling flecks throughout. It has a rough surface (not smooth or shiny) and the inside should smell of earth rather than chemicals.

 

There are a huge variety of shapes and sizes but generally speaking they fit into three categories.

  1. Geometric forms – this is the most popular category and cubes and spheres are the most popular geometric forms
  2. Natural – these teapots incorporate elements of nature either by sculpting the teapot based on a natural element or by decoration
  3. Striated – usually the body resembles a flower by building symmetrical segments (petals) into a unit

Decoration (if used) usually takes the form of engraving, inlaying or slip painting.

The price depends on the quality of the clay (zisha or mixed), manufacturing (handmade or moulded), age, size and shape. It will range from €20 for a basic moulded teapot to hundreds of thousands for antique artisan teapots.

The video below shows Chinese yixing artist, Zhou Guizhen, creating a teapot:

 

 

When you drink the water, remember the spring (proverb)

Tea is ~99% water so there is no doubt that the quality of that water will make a difference to the flavours of the cup.
Tap water here is very “hard” so it leaves limescale on teapots and kettles and doesn’t taste great. Buying water is a complicated business though. Bottled Water is so heavily marketed it is difficult to disregard the branding and get a true comparison of the products. Here is a breakdown of the main types of water that are found here in Ireland:

  • Public mains water – goes through a set of treatment process before it is distributed to ensure that it is filtered and sterilised and fit for drinking. The main stages in water treatment are screening, flocculation, sedimentation (clarification), filtration, chlorination, fluoridation and pH adjustment. Chlorine is added to kill bacteria and afterwards ammonia is sometimes added to the water to reduce the taste left by the chlorine. Fluoride is also added to prevent tooth decay.
  • Filtered water – Filtering tap water with a simple jug filters will remove visible solids and most of the chlorine. They will improve the taste but it will not remove fluoride or change the mineral content significantly and so it will not soften the water.
  • Purified/distilled water –Water that has been produced by a process such as distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis or other process. It will have no minerals.
  • Spring water – Comes from underground source but naturally flows on the earth’s surface. It is naturally filtrated by passing through layers of rocks and soil. Spring water may be treated by ozonation, UV light and chlorination and unlike mineral water does not need to have a stable composition.
  • Natural mineral water – Natural mineral water come from natural mineral water springs and contains at least 240 parts per million Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). Natural mineral waters are pure at source and are distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level of minerals. It originates from a protected underground water source. No minerals or chemical preservatives may be added to the water.

Tasting water and matching it with food is a whole other world (see Bottled Water of the World). There is a range of factors that are considered in the taste of water but the mineral composition and the acidity level (pH) are two of the main factors for still water. Acidic waters have a pH of less than 7 and alkaline water have a pH greater than 7. Alkaline water tends to taste sweeter and softer than neutral or acidic water. The Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is the sum total of all the mineral in the water (most commonly Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium and Potassium). These minerals give water a heaviness and it correlates with the hardness of the water.
Below is an interesting graph of pH and TDS plotted for the main water brands (source).

Mineral Water Comparison (Source)

Mineral Water Comparison (Source)

For tea making, we are looking for water that is not too mineralised and doesn’t have any dominant mineral that stands out. Distilled water (that has no minerals) is not good either because it is too flat. Ideally tea water would be neutral pH 6-8, have no chlorine and have total dissolved solids (TDS) of ~100ppm.

Still confused about what’s what with water? Interestingly, there are some good explanations in Bret Easton Ellis’s book “American Psycho” (excerpt here)!