It is not uncommon for a member of Maya Tea to be dubbed a “tea snob.” While the phrase, in its inclusion of the word snob, carries a negative connotation, it is not a label that we shy away from. Being a tea snob means that we understand the qualities and characteristics of a good cup of tea, and that we strive to ensure that every cup we enjoy embodies those things. In Steeping Around, our hope is that a bit of our snobbery rubs off on you. Every tea drinker, in our opinion, ought to sip on silky, smooth, sensational tea. With this in mind, “we’re going to go on our soapbox a little bit,” warns Manish Shah as he introduces his final tips for making an excellent cup of tea.
In his second episode, Manish emphasized the importance of water quality and proper portioning of water to tea leaves. This week, it’s all about “turning up the heat!” Manish focuses his tips on actual brewing techniques: heating water, required temperatures, and suggested steep times. And here’s where the so-called snobbery begins to peek out—microwaves are highly frowned upon as a method of heating your water.
For starters, it is very difficult to control the temperature of water heated in a microwave. Due to their unique heating process, it is very easy for water to quickly reach a temperature far too hot for tea. If, however, you do manage to get a cup of water to reach the right temperature, you are faced with another problem: once a cup is removed from the microwave, the temperature lowers at a rate significantly faster than that of water boiled stovetop. That’s not all—high levels of oxygen escape from microwaved water, leaving the resulting liquid a bit flat-tasting. It can also be unsafe…
We could go on and on.
On the contrary, heating your water over a stovetop is both easy and effective. For those of you who are beginning already to sputter about convenience, remember this: heating an equivalent amount of water over a stove takes only a few minutes longer than in a microwave. Those few minutes, in turn, add unique ceremonial value to your tea-making process. Amidst the hustle-bustle of day to day life, Manish advises his listeners: “We want you to enjoy your cup of tea. Enjoy the ceremony. Slow your day down a bit. Go ahead and heat your water… Give yourself a little time to tend to the water that will create that great cup of tea for you.”
And now, the nitty-gritty: different varieties of tea require different water temperatures and steep times to produce an optimal cup. For simplification, Manish divides tea varieties into five main categories: herbals, black teas, oolong teas, green teas, and white teas. As we go down the list, in this order, the temperature and steep time decrease.
For herbal varieties, which I will briefly mention are not in fact tea (but we will go into that later), you should use boiling hot water. Once the water has reached a rolling boil, remove it from heat and add your leaves. Allow them to steep for three to six minutes, depending on your strength preferences. Black teas should be prepared in the same manner. Oolongs should be brewed with bubbling water, not quite at boiling point. This usually occurs from 180-190°F. Allow the leaves to steep for two to three minutes. For green teas, heat your water to about 170-180°. You will see small bubbles starting to rise, one by one, on the sides of your pan. Steep for one to two minutes. Finally, for white teas, which are very delicate and should in turn be brewed delicately, use water that is only steaming. This will occur at about 150-160°, and you will begin to see small bubbles forming on the sides of your pot. Steep for only a minute.
If you are using a tea kettle, don’t worry—we haven’t forgotten about you. Place the kettle on your stove and walk away, as you normally would. Wait for the whistle, return, and remove your kettle from heat. If you are brewing an herbal blend or a black tea, go ahead and add your leaves. For oolongs, wait two minutes. By that time, the water will have reached an appropriate temperature. For green teas wait three minutes, and for whites, wait four. The same steeping times will apply no matter your method of heating.
Once you have allowed your tea leaves to steep for the correct amount of time, strain the liquid from them and into cups. Savor your sips—even the tea you have enjoyed countless times before will taste different, better. But don’t discard those soggy leaves just yet—you can use the same set of leaves for a second and even a third infusion. Manish details the art of multiple infusions during the Question of the Week segment of the show. To discover how exactly to pull flavor from your leaves time and time again, have a listen! And to all you future tea-snobs: Welcome. It’s nice on this side of the fence.
Click here to listen to the third episode of Steeping Around.
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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.