Tea. Cha. Tcha. Chai. It is incredible how there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ across the globe. Almost like the drink brings the world together binding it with an invisible string of flavours and aroma. Ever since tea leaves were first infused in China thousands of years ago, it has delighted us with its invigorating taste and potent health benefits. The flavours and fragrances offer something for everyone, whether you prefer spicy or sweet, mild or bold.
However, drinking tea is much more than simply soaking leaves in water. The history of tea, its importance in cultural ceremonies, and the myriad varieties all deepen the tea-drinking experience. For us Indians, tea is an integral part of our daily routine. We are accustomed to waking up with an energising cup of tea every morning, having it as a refreshing beverage each afternoon and serving it to guests. We are soundly convinced of being a race of tea-drinkers since ancient times—idyllically unmindful of how much we owe this pleasure to a few opportune findings in the Assam and Darjeeling valleys, and a devious Scottish mandarin who smuggled a tea plant into the country from China about 170 years ago. And thus, began the tradition of sipping on this wonderful drink that rose from humble beginnings and became one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world.
Types of tea
True teas are infusions made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. There are six true teas: white, green, oolong, yellow, black, and pu-erh or post-fermented tea. Even though these teas come from the leaves of the same tea plant, they differ greatly in flavour, aroma, and appearance. White tea is subtle and light while black tea is sharp-tasting and bold. How can these teas vary so much when they come from the same leaves? The answer lies in the production process.
Teas like oolong and black tea are oxidized. This process exposes enzymes in the tea leaves to oxygen, which results in a darkening of the leaves. Other teas such as white and green tea are impeded from oxidizing which brings out a milder, natural and earthy flavour.
How to brew the perfect cuppa
The secret to an exceptional cup of tea lies in the brewing methods. Many amateur tea drinkers think teas taste bitter because they don’t brew them properly. Tea is like any other food—it can burn and taste bad when cooked improperly. Different types of tea should be brewed using different temperatures to preserve the flavour. The quality of water you use and the steeping time can also affect the taste.
It’s always best to use high quality water when brewing your tea. Avoid distilled water and tap water. Distilled water won’t develop flavors well and tap water contains chemicals and additives that can change the flavour. Instead, use pure, filtered, or spring water.
The next most essential step to perfect tea brewing is getting the water temperature right. Not all teas should be brewed at the same temperature. The best way to nail down brewing temperature is to use a temperature-controlled tea kettle or a thermometer.
Alternatively, you can boil water and let it sit for a few minutes before adding tea leaves. Follow the temperature guidelines below for brewing tea: White/Green/Yellow Tea: 150–175F; Oolong/ Pu-erh Tea: 185-205F; Black/Herbal Tea: 212F
Sweeteners such as honey, jaggery or sugar should also be added when the water is hot to ensure that they dissolve completely.
Don’t steep tea for too long. The longer it steeps, the stronger its flavour. For some teas such as green, this results in bitter flavours that can be undesirable. Most teas should be steeped for 1 to 5 minutes. Or you can steep for 1 minute and then taste it every 30 seconds to find a flavour you love. Eventually you will be able to adjust the time to suit the type of tea you prefer.
White/Green/Yellow Tea: 1–2 minutes; Oolong/Pu-Erh Tea: 2–3 minutes; Black Tea: 3–5 minutes
Even the vessel you use to brew your tea makes a difference in the way it tastes. Commonly used tea vessels are made of clay, porcelain, glass or cast iron. Each of these materials has a specific feature that enhances the tea drinking experience. For instance, clay absorbs some of the tea concentrate, enriching flavour of your tea with each new brew while cast iron is the best option to keep large pots of tea hot for extended periods of time.
The writer is the founder and CEO, Teabox