Steeping tea

I realise that my last post where I describe the preparation of Tieguanyin was probably confusing (my readership of two lodged their complaints!) so I’m going to try to clear things up today. The preparation of tea is called steeping and involves soaking the tea leaves in water to extract the flavour.

Yellow teapot

Traditional style teapot used here in Ireland

Here in Ireland (and in all Western countries that I have been to) steeping involves putting tea leaves (or tea bag) into a large teapot and then adding in boiling water. The tea is served from the teapot into cups after around two minutes if you like ‘weak’ tea and or after several minutes if you like ‘strong’ tea. After about five minutes, the tea leaves and the liquid need to be separated or it will over-steep and becomes bitter. If this happens, it is usually addressed by either adding more water to dilute or starting over and making a ‘fresh pot’. I’ve seen variations on this process where people add the tea leaves, add the water and then heat up the teapot on a gas hob. The teabag-in-a-cup is a another variation – the teabag  is put in the cup, water is added and the teabag is removed and discarded once the tea looks strong enough.  There are lots of variations but the basic process is consistent – the flavour of the tea is extracted by steeping the tea once (i.e single steeping).

Yixing Clay Teapot [Source]

Yixing clay teapot [Source]

However, in China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, there is a different way to prepare good quality tea that involves several short steepings rather than one long steeping. To do this we add the tea to the teapot (usually a very small teapot) and add the water but instead of steeping for ~five minutes, we steep for maybe 30 seconds (it depends on the tea). After the 30 seconds, we separate completely the leaves and the water by pouring off all the tea from the tea pot into cups. It may seem like a short time at first but don’t worry, it works. When we are ready for more tea, we re-steep the tea by adding water to the teapot again (with the same leaves). This time we will wait a little longer – maybe 40 seconds before pouring off all the tea. This is the second steeping and will taste and look different to the first steeping. We can repeat this several times, increasing the duration of steeping each time. During each steeping the water opens the leaf a little more and the colour, smell and taste of the tea will vary. Eventually, it will start to loose taste and colour and then we know to stop. Using this method we get smaller cups of tea but more of them with a variety of flavours and the tea does not over-steep. It is not unusual for a good quality Pu-erh to have ten steepings and it can go to 20 steepings or more.

Brew basket

Brew basket

The re-steeping technique does not need a teapot. The same result can be achieved if we put a brew basket in a cup, add the leaves and water and then wait thirty seconds before removing the brew basket. When we are finished drinking the first cup we put brew basket back in the cup, add water again and wait say 40 seconds for the second steeping. Again, this can continue for multiple steepings, increasing the duration with each steeping.

I hope that helps to clear up the difference between single-steeping and re-steeping. When I post about individual teas I’ll describe the steeping preparation that I’ve used, including timings. I have deliberately left out factors like water-type, temperature, rinsing, utensils and volume of tea. I’ll come back to those in future posts.With all that said, tea is meant to be enjoyed so don’t feel under pressure to prepare your tea a certain way. Experiment and see what you think!

Ti Kuan Yin – Iron Goddess Tea

I seem to be on an Oolong kick at the moment and this Ti Kuan Yin (aka Iron Goddess or Tieguanyin) is my tea-of-the-minute. I love it because it has a clean, fresh taste and sweet after-taste that is both strong and gentle at the same time. This tea is a variety of Oolong tea and comes from Fujian Province in China (this type of tea is also produced in Taiwan). Judging by the look and colour, the one I have is not a high grade Tieguanyin but it still gives a good idea why this tea is so popular. Apart from the taste, I like seeing the dark green semiball-rolled leaves expand out after it has steeped a few times but again, because this is not a high grade the leaves are chewy and broken rather than full green leaves when it is steeped.

Tieguanyin (5g) before and after steeping

Tieguanyin (5g) before and after steeping

This Tieguanyin is described as “old style” and is darker so it had medium to heavy oxidation (oxidation being the process that causes the tea leaves to turn brown).

Second brew of Tieguanyin

Amber colour of the second brew of Tieguanyin

Preparation: To prepare this tea, I put 5g of the tea in a warmed clay teapot (one that I keep for Oolongs). I add a little water that is just below boiling (when it makes the rumbling sound) to rinse the leaves. This water is poured off and disposed of, not drank. Then I add about 175ml of the hot water which is about the size of the teapot and let it rest for 30 seconds. This is the first brew and is pale yellow in color and has that lovely sweet smell but the second and third steeping are  even better with the colour turning to a deeper amber.  I usually leave these to steep for about 40 seconds each. The steeping time increases for each subsequent steeping and I find that I can get 4-5 steepings from this tea. The taste is clear and refreshing with a deeply sweet aftertaste.

If you don’t have a clay teapot or a gaiwan, don’t worry. Steeping this tea works just as well with a brew basket but if ever there is a tea that can’t be used with a metal tea ball, it is this one. The leaf expands so impressively, it would be a real shame to keep it in a confined space.

I bought this tea from Tea Palace, London and it was a reasonable £10 for 100g.

 

Getting sorted

I was setting up the categories for this tea blog and it got me thinking about the neatness of the tea classes. There are six classes or categories of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black and pu-erh) and I still find it fascinating (and handy now) that each of the thousands of different teas that are out there can fit into one of those six categories. Better again, all tea comes from the leaves of a single species of plant: Camellia sinensis.

Camellia sinensis

Camellia sinensis

Here are the categories that I have for the blog so far:

  • Tea:
    1. Black – almost fully-oxidised and mostly produced in India (Assam and Darjeeling), Kenya, Sri Lanka and China. E.g. Keemun, Zhenshan Xiaochung (lapsang souchong).
    2. Green – teas such as sencha, Matcha, Gunpowder, Longjing, Taiping Houkui that have had minimal oxidation and kept the green color of the leaves. Predominantly from China, Japan and Korea.
    3. Oolong – partially oxidised and complicated in production, this type includes Da Hong Pao (red robe) and Tieguanyin. Produced in China and Taiwan.
    4. Pu-erh – post-fermented tea from China and called ‘black tea’ in China. Comes as sheng (raw) or shou (cooked). My favourite!
    5. White – made from the buds of the Camellia sinensis and very lightly processed it includes bai mudan (white peony) and Baiho Yinzhen (silver needles).
    6. Yellow – these teas are not easy to find here so this category won’t be used too much to start with but it didn’t seem right to leave it out.
  • Buying tea & storage: looking at where to get good tea and how to store it or age it.
  • Tisanes: This will cover all the herbal drinks that are sometimes referred to as tea but are herbal infusions or herbal teas. This covers peppermint, chamomile, ginger, fennel etc.
  • Rooibos & Honeybush: Technically these are tisanes but they get their own category because I love them so much!
  • Out and About: This is where I post about going for afternoon tea or lunch to see what the tea is like out there.

I’m sure there are plenty more categories that I’ll need to add as I go along but theses will do for a starting point.

I’m running out of space!

For years now I’ve thought about starting this tea blog. I’ve spent so many sleepless nights (mentally) rummaging through the tea press looking for the perfect tea to start with. And yet, I’ve put this little project on a very long finger. I think the main reason for not getting started is that the more I drink and learn about tea, the more I realise how much there is to learn and how many more teas I have yet to drink. For years I have been waiting to have enough knowledge to get started but those goal posts seem to just keep moving.

So what happened to kick-start me? It’s not very exciting but the motivation has come from a lack of space. Tea is running a bit of a monopoly in the kitchen storage department. Apart from online, I buy tea pretty much wherever I go (and hubby does the same). Often, it’s not practical to buy a second time or I don’t like it enough so I save just a little bit at the end of the box so I can taste it again “when I start my blog”. The result is scrappy tasting notes and a lot of nearly-empty tea packages that are taking up way too much space. On top of that I’m pretty sure that some of them are loosing taste. I’ll talk more about that in another post but for today it’s great to have this tea-blog officially started.

 

Tea shelves in the kitchen

Some of the open tea shelves in the kitchen