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?
Without 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?
I 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?
Under 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…