In order to gain a proper appreciation for the wonderful beverage that is tea, one must first have tasted an excellent cup. Unfortunately, most drinkers are unaware of the fine details that affect your infusion, and as such have sipped on teas that are bitter, sour, or simply unappealing. We aim to change this—and for this reason Manish Shah has devoted the first episodes of Steeping Around to the art of making an exquisite cup of tea.
“Surprisingly, the first tip that I give to most people about making tea has nothing to do with tea or the leaf itself,” Manish begins. Ninety-nine percent of any cup of tea is actually water, so it follows that water quality is of extreme importance. “It simply does not matter how expensive your tea or preparation vessel is, if your water is of poor quality, your tea will be of poor quality.” The ancient Chinese adopted very stringent guidelines regarding water used for tea. They required water taken from mountain streams caused by melting snow, and additionally that the water be collected from the center of the rushing stream rather than from the slower-moving banks. Today, very few of us have access to these pristine mountain streams, let alone the time or inclination to visit them before brewing our morning drinks, so how ought we determine the quality of our water from home?
Perhaps the easiest way to ensure your standards of water is to purchase it bottled. If you choose this tactic, beware: distilled water and even water processed by reverse osmosis will not optimize the flavor of your tea. Some mineral content is actually a good thing, as it balances and compliments the flavor of the leaf. Rather than seeking out the purest water available, look for natural spring or glacier water.
Now, while minerals are a crucial ingredient in your water, many of those present in average tap water will prove enemies. If you use your water at home, make sure that it is filtered. If it is filtered, make sure that you actually change your filter in some routine fashion. Here is the general rule of thumb: if your water tastes good to you at room temperature, your tea will taste good.
In addition to making sure that your water is of the right caliber, you must also determine that you are using the proper proportion of water to tea. In general, it takes about two to two and a half grams of tea for every cup of water. An important distinction: we are talking about an actual cup, six ounces, not the cup that you pull from your cabinet. “I challenge any of you to take the mug that you use to make tea and find out how much water it actually holds,” Manish advises listeners. It is common, especially in the United States, for tea and coffee mugs to hold anywhere from twelve to twenty ounces of water. Two grams of tea, or its teabag equivalent, will leave you with a thin, tasteless cup.
“But how do I know what two to two and a half grams of loose tea looks like?” you may be wondering. Not to worry—this is precisely the question that Manish answers during the ‘Question of the Week’ segment of the show. Two methods are suggested, each manageable from the comfort of your home kitchen, and neither involving complex scales, rulers, or immense effort. Press some tea leaves into the palm of your hand. For most varieties, you are seeking about enough to fill a half-dollar sized circle. For larger leaf varieties such as white teas, chamomile or peppermint, a slightly larger circle or a rounded top will do. Second, close your eyes. Place a penny into the palm of one hand and a small amount of tea into the other. When your hand with tea feels of close weight to the other, you have about two and a half grams of tea.
These are two of the most important aspects concerning the making of quality tea. Next week, tune in for two more. By the end of the next episode, your traditional morning cup of tea will never taste the same again. And that, my friends, is a good thing.
To listen to episode 2, click here.
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The first time I tried chai was in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and served by my younger sister. “You have to taste this—” she insisted, pushing a mug across the countertop to me. She refused to elaborate on its contents. The flavors, she said, would speak for themselves.
The quality of water affects the taste of your tea; this is beyond dispute. The relative quantities of mineral salts, oxygen and trace elements determine the relative "liveliness" or "flatness" of a particular cup. To that simple substance we add the basic flavor of the leaf itself or an herbal substitute.