Tea for Two…or Three or More

Last week I completed work on two articles for Gardener’s Supply; one on a salad herb garden and one on planting an herbal tea garden. That got me to thinking about how best to brew a cuppa, the types of tea, blending one’s own herbal tea mix, and so forth. So here goes – my tea omnibus post.

Brewing a Cup of Tea

There’s not much to brewing tea, really – just heat, dunk, and wait. The thing some people neglect is to use fresh water that has no funky taste. By “fresh” I mean water that hasn’t been boiled before. When I was in college I kept a RevereWare tea kettle on the stove at all times with water in it. During study breaks I’d turn on the stove and wait until the thing began to whistle. The bad part of this was not using fresh water out of the tap. Water that has been heated before has had much of the oxygen boiled out of it, making the resulting tea flat (less flavorful). It also meant that the minerals in the tea kettle would leach into the water while it waited on the stove for me to make the next cup.

Those were the 70’s before the advent of the now-ubiquitous microwave oven. Today I pour filtered water in my teacup (a mug, really) and heat it with a quick push of a button. Notice I said filtered water? If you live in an area that uses well water, you may have water with a distinct taste, and I’m not talking about a pleasant taste let me tell you. If you have this problem, buy filtered water or, better yet, a water filtering system. Even if it’s just one of those gallon pitchers with a fancy filter the resulting water will improve the flavor of your tea.

The third and final item to discuss in making tea is the brew time. This varies considerably on the type of tea you are making and your personal taste. Black teas (like the generic Tetley’s or Lipton’s tea bags) should probably be steeped no more than 30-40 seconds. If you go beyond a minute or two, the resulting tea will be strong enough to go 18 rounds with the heavyweight champ. Quality black tea will take about a minute to brew properly. Beyond that it starts to turn bitter. Oolong or green teas require a slightly longer steep time, 2-4 minutes depending on how strong you want it. For jasmine green tea, my all-time favorite, I brew about five minutes. Herbal tea is more variable in brew time than any other tea. Some ingredients release bitter flavors quickly. Start with 2-3 minutes of steeping. Add more time as needed for the strength you want.

TeaLeavesTypes of Tea

Black Tea – When most Americans talk of tea, they are referring to black tea. This is what is in the ubiquitous bag of generic tea. Black tea is made from fermented (or oxidized) leaves of Camellia sinensis, an Asian member of the camellia family. Of all the teas, this type is fermented for the longest time.

Oolong Tea – Also made from tea leaves, oolong is not fermented as long as black tea but still gives a dark color to the water when brewed. The flavor is somewhere between black and green tea.

Green Tea – This is the tea that has been the darling of the natural foods fans. Green tea is not fermented and still has some of the original green color of the leaf. It also has more anti-oxidants and less caffeine that black or oolong tea. My personal tastes lean heavily toward green teas, especially my all-time favorite Chung-Hao Jasmine.

White Tea – A recent addition to the American tea scene, white tea is made from immature leaves and unopened buds of the tea bush. It has the highest levels of antioxidants of any tea available so this is the one for those of you working on longevity. Despite the name, white tea does tint the water a light green. For my money this type of tea is highly overrated.

Red Tea – This is an African tea made from rooibos (Aspalanthus linearis), a member of the broom family native to the western parts of South Africa. This tea is caffeine-free, reddish-brown in color, and somewhat sweet with a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon.

Herb Tea – This is a catch-all name for any beverage made from steeping leaves not from China tea (black, oolong, green, and white teas). Strictly speaking all herb teas are tisanes, a word that fell out of our vocabulary sometime in the last 100 years. Herb teas predate China tea in the Western World as they were originally consumed as a medicine and not as a beverage for pleasure or thirst quenching (a task usually relegated to beer or ale).

Maté – From South America comes another steeped beverage known as maté. The leaves of the yerba maté tree (llex paraguariensis) are infused in hot water through a rather complicated process that I won’t get into here. Maté is said to enhance physical endurance and aid digestion. I recently learned that this is a favorite beverage of the new pope who hails from that part of the world. To learn more about maté, click here.

Creating Your Own Herbal Tea Blend

Combining two or more herbs into a tea blend is a little like painting – you have to have some idea of where you want to go. Interested in a calming brew for a quiet evening? Or do you want a real eye-opener for early morning consumption? Start with the first flavor that comes to mind. Let’s focus for now on a soothing tea blend for sipping while reading a good book with your feet up. Start with a lemon-flavored herb – lemon thyme, lemon balm, or lemon grass come to mind. Now add in a flower note. ChamomileHow about chamomile or lavender? You might want to add in some oomph (my technical term for “something with a strong flavor to give it body”) to make it interesting. I’m thinking cinnamon basil, or rooibus (see below), or perhaps…well, I’m sure you get the idea.

Start with equal parts of the herbs you want to combine – probably a tablespoon each. Now do a taste test, with and without sweetener. Then try it with different proportions. Once you’ve got a reasonable basic flavor, imagine how it would taste with a spice or fruit added in – cinnamon, cardamom, lemon peel, dried cranberries. Do another round of taste tests. Keep a pencil and pad handy through the process so you can record what worked and what didn’t.

Time For Tea

Well, I’ve certainly said quite enough about my favorite drink. I hope you discovered a thing or two in the process. So next time you feel like a nice cuppa, break away from the “black tea syndrome” and try something new.

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