How To Make Tea

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Also, I recently wrote a goofy titillating science fiction novella. It has an extensive section involving tea. Read it! It's free!

Why drink tea?

Tea tastes good

Well, it does! You might not think so at first, but that usually due to one of these reasons:

There's a vast variety of different teas to try. And if you include herbal teas, which aren't real teas, but still taste good, then the number of choices skyrockets.

Tea is good for you

There have been loads of studies lately showing a boat-load of good health benefits from tea drinking. Black, Oolong, green, or white, it doesn't matter. Each variety does good things to you, often different things. So drink lots of tea, and drink a wide variety.

Tea is not bad for you

There's very little in tea that's actually bad for you:

Tea gives you a feeling of well-being.

Yeah, I know, that sounds disturbingly new-agey. But it's true. (Am I'm about as non-new-agey as people get.) There's more than just the taste of the tea. Tea helps relax you and makes you feel content. The process of making tea also helps with this sensation.

And speaking of the process, let's make some tea.

What you need

So, what do you need to make tea? Well, having some tea would be a good start.

Finding good tea

Grocery store: Nope. Sorry. The grocery store does not have good tea.

Tea shops: If you have a tea shop in your neighborhood, then rejoice! You can pick up more tea whenever the fancy strikes. And you can buy as much or as little as you like. And they can, hopefully, help you pick tasty varieties. Here are some guidelines to separating good tea shops from not-as-good tea shops:

Good Tea Shop Not-As-Good Tea Shop
  • Tea stored in air-tight, opaque containers, under subdued lighting
  • Knowledgeable Staff
  • Relaxing atmosphere
  • Several dozen tea varieties
  • Wide variety of useful tea accessories
  • Tea stored in fancy, not air-tight, containers, directly under hot lights
  • Staff that doesn't know how many ounces are in a third of a pound
  • Ambiance overload
  • A couple dozen tea varieties
  • Wide variety of fanciful tea accessories

When in doubt, look at the pastry display. If the pastry display is bigger than the tea display, then you're probably not in the best place. (However, you might be able to score some great pastry.) If the pastry display looks like an afterthought, then good tea is there to be had.

If you're stuck, like I am, with a not-as-good tea shop, well, it's still better than no tea at all. Plus, my local not-as-good tea shop has great scones, in a great big pastry display. Even so, there are alternatives. Read on!

Online tea: Yes, great tea is to be had online. Unfortunately, you can't smell the tea, and you certainly can't just order a cup to see if you like it. But the variety can't be beat. Nor can the prices. Here are a couple places to try, to get you started:

Loose versus teabags: There are only two good reasons for using teabags:

  1. You're travelling and don't want to haul a bunch of hardware with you.
  2. You don't care if your tea tastes like crap.

Seriously, teabags are evil. Sometimes a necessary evil. But evil nonetheless. Tea needs room to move around and hydrate during the steeping process. Plus, some manufacturers pack their teabags with the poor-quality, crumbly stuff that remains after using the good tea for loose tea sales. After all, you can't see inside of the bag, so you can't really tell whether the tea is nice hardy chunks or just dust. Finally, some teas expand so much that they can't realistically be made in teabag format. Stick with loose tea. It's better. Yeah, enough better to make up for additional effort. (And the additional effort is part of the magic.)

So head off and buy yourself some tea, and then we'll move on.

What? What sort of tea should you get? How the hell would I know? I don't know what you like? Well, okay, I'll try to help. Here's what I like:

So, that's what I like. For further help, try TeaSource's excellent guide on How To Select A Tea.

Now that you've found some good tea, you need a brewing medium. Yeah, that's right, some water.

Finding Good Water

Ideally, you want clear fresh good tasting water. The idea is that the water should still have lots of oxygen still dissolved in it. The oxygen is crucial to the tea developing it's full flavor. Or so I'm told. In particular, the following variations of water will not have much oxygen still dissolved:

So don't use them.

If your tap water tastes good, use it. If it doesn't, run it through a filter first. (A Brita filter works fine. Tangentially, a Brita filter will also transform cheap vodka into something drinkable. Or so I read on the Internet.) You really should run the water through the filter immediately before making your tea. But I won't tell if you let it sit in the fridge for a little while.

Once you have your tea and your water, it's time for actual equipment.

The Tea Kettle

The tea kettle is what you use to heat your water. You have a lot of choices here. If you're going to be making tea often, an electric water kettle is your best bet. Nothing heats water faster than an electric kettle. It's fast than a stovetop. It's faster than a microwave. You fill it up, plug it in, and wait just a couple minutes.

There are alternatives to a dedicated tea kettle. You can heat water in a saucepan on the stovetop. You can microwave water as well. (If microwaving water, put a chopstick in the water. Very pure water, in a very smooth sided vessel, can overheat instead of boiling. It can then explode in the microwave, ruining the microwave. Or, worse, explode when you reach in for the vessel. It's not an urban legend. I did have a cup of water explode in the microwave. Scared the crap out of me.)

The Teapot

The teapot is what you brew the tea in. Teapots are generally made of one of two materials. Cast iron is often used because it can absorb and hold a great deal of heat. Iron teapots can be very beautiful. They can also be very expensive.

The other main teapot materials are ceramic and porcelain. These materials transfer heat very slowly. They're usually cheaper than iron. They can also be very colorful.

In either case, the goal is to have a teapot that resists having the tea cool down as it brews.

Other things can be used as teapots. I've used Pyrex measuring cups. (The 2-cup size is good for making single cups of tea.) Use your imagination, but keep in mind that whatever you use will be having boiling water poured into it. So be sure it's heat-safe.

If you buy a dedicated teapot, it will probably come with an infuser. This is a small basket-shaped filter with an edge that rests on top of the teapot while the basket hangs down into the teapot. Keep this. You'll need it, but not for it's intended use.

If used as intended, you would place your tea in the infuser, place the infuser in the teapot, then add the water. When the steeping time was up, you would simply pull out the infuser, leaving leaf-free tea behind. But it doesn't work well. Why? Because:

  1. There's not enough room in the infuser for the tea to properly steep. Tea is like pasta. It needs room to spread out. The water needs to circulate around and between the leaves. An infuser doesn't let this occur. Even if it looks large enough, given your quantity of tea, keep in mind that, as the tea absorbs water, it'll increase in size. Trust me. The infuser isn't big enough.
  2. The infuser hangs from the top. If you're making less than a full pot of tea, the infuser won't be completely submerged. Which will leave even less room for proper steeping.

So, why keep it? Because it makes an excellent strainer for straining out the leaves after the steeping is all done.

The Teacup

Finally, you need something out of which to drink the tea. In general, you want something ceramic, to keep the tea hot. Small teacups are quaint, but don't hold nearly enough tea for me. Coffee mugs work better. But tea deserves a nice mug. Don't use some ugly freebie mug you scored off some vendor. Don't use some mug with a once humorous, now clichéd saying on it. Find something nice. After all, this is tea, not bitter boiled bean juice.

When choosing a tea mug, I pay close attention to the handle. I make my tea in the kitchen. I don't drink it there. Look for a handle that lets you easily support the weight of a full mug. Most mugs have simple rounded handles that twist easily under load.

Am I too anal about my tea mug? Perhaps. But, after spending the time, effort, and money to make good tea, why spoil it by drinking it out of something undeserving of the honor?

Brewing the tea

Here we go! It's time to make the tea. First make sure you have everything ready. Let's double-check what you need:

Once you're sure you have everything ready, just follow these steps:

  1. Start Heating Water: Put some water in your tea kettle and turn it on. How much water? Well how much tea are you making? Put in that much water, plus a little extra. The tea will soak up and hang onto some of the water, so you need a little extra. While the water heats, go on to step 2.
  2. Preheat Teapot: Run your tap water until it's good and hot. Then fill the teapot. Fill the teacup while you're at it. Set them both aside. The idea here is that you're pre-heating them. If they're cold when you add the boiling water, then some of the water's heat will be used to heat up the teapot, making the water colder than desired. This is especially important with an iron teapot. Iron conducts heat easily. If it's cold, it will quickly suck heat from the water. Some folks swirl some of the boiling water from the kettle in the teapot and then discard it immediately before adding the tea. I don't like this method. The water in the tea kettle either cools during this period, or keeps boiling. Nether is desired.
  3. Wait For The Boil: Be patient. It shouldn't be long now. Shortly before the water comes to a boil, follow these steps in a brisk manner:
  4. Steep for the appropriate amount of time: For green tea, steep for 2-3 minutes. I stop at 2 minutes. For black teas, 3-5 minutes. I stop at 3. For herbal teas, 5 minutes or more. Longer steeping times make for stronger tea. But they also make for bitter tea. (Except for herbal teas, which aren't real teas.) If you want stronger tea, increase the amount of tea you use. Don't steep longer.
  5. Ready The Teacup: After the steeping time is up, discard the hot water from the teacup. Actually, you can pour this water over the infuser to quickly heat up the infuser, too.
  6. Pour The Tea: Pour the tea, through the infuser, into the teacup. Put the infuser into the teapot, so it doesn't make a mess.
  7. Drink: Drink the tea, duh.
  8. Clean Up: Clean up after yourself. Used tea leaves can be composted, or just run down the disposal. Rinse everything off and put it away. (Well, don't rinse off your tea. Geez, c'mon people, think!) Or, better yet, make more tea.

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