Orthodox tea can be finicky. And it intimidates easy. But it shouldn’t if you ask us. The chemistry involves just two things – tea leaves and water. And yet, the seemingly little details, like the water temperature, amount of tea leaves and how long you leave the tea in, can have a significant effect on the taste.
Fortunately, there are guidebooks and expert wisdom to rely on. Unfortunately, they are not foolproof. In our experience, orthodox tea is an exercise in learning from errors. The more you tweak and rethink conventional techniques, the better your chances of identifying practices that work for you and your palate.
Experts may have worked out the ideals, but it’s really up to you to figure out how to best incorporate them into your daily tea routine. Here, we tell you three ways to go about it.
1. Find good teas
If you must buy tea, buy the best. That’ll take care of 50% of the flavor equation right there. And while you can make a nice cup of tea with just about any, you significantly improve your cup if you choose good quality leaves. And yes, while good tea may not come cheap, it pays off in better taste…way better taste. Here is our Tea Buying guide.
The process of making a cup of tea is all about extraction – you use hot water to draw out the flavors in the leaf. And better-quality leaves mean better flavor extraction.
And yes, it’s not easy to quantify quality, but there are markers you can rely on. Origin, for one, is a good place to start. Buy teas directly from the producers or retailers that sell under the producer’s name. Quite often, and especially in the case of mass-produced, mass-bagged brands, tea exchanges one too many hands and ends up as a generic blend of many different teas, where convenience trumps flavor nuances.
Secondly, you can insist on seasonal produce. Teas are made at regular intervals throughout the year, and every season, every year, there’s something new to look forward to, much like any seasonal crop. Also, buying seasonally ensures you get the most out of your tea, flavor-wise, benefit-wise.
Finally, seek out good grades. And if that sounds a little too daunting, simply look for teas that look even-ish, have pubescent tips in the mix and feel dense in the hands.
2. Spoon with caution
If you are looking to ritualize your daily cup, an easy way is to start using a scale to measure the amount of leaves, instead of a spoon. Much like how bakers use scales to weigh the ingredients in grams and ounces, it helps to weigh the leaves you use per cup. Scoops are arbitrary and there are no universal standards around it. And a lot depends on the density of the leaves – it takes roughly 1gm of large leaves make a scoop but 3gms of CTC Loose Tea to comprise the same scoop.
In case of loose leaf teas, 2.5grams of tea for 100ml water is considered ideal. But, for some reason, if this ratio doesn’t quite deliver, we recommend playing with the grammage. Use more leaves for a stronger cup, less for a lighter brew. Never play with time. The flavours in the leaves are finite; there’s only so much of it. Once they are all extracted, the leaves can only let out the tannic, bitter compounds in the cup. And that’s never desirable.
3. Use hot water, not boiled
Fresh spring water is ideal. But regular tap water will do just fine for making orthodox tea. Packaged drinking water tends to be rich in minerals and they inhibit proper extraction of flavours.
Next, ensure you heat the water but never to a rolling boil, unless making chai (which is required to be simmered and not steeped). The idea is to get the temperature high enough for the flavours to get extracted but not to a point where you cook the leaves. Most volatile flavours are extracted best at medium-high temperatures of around 80°C to 85°C, between 2-4 minutes.
This works best for tippy black tea, such as the Halmari Gold CTC English Breakfast, and most dark oolongs. Silver Needle White tea, being delicate and tippy, work best with water that’s just around 80°C. Green teas, too, are most palatable at around the same temperature and steeped for about a minute. Here is our another green tea buying guide.
Handy tip: In case of tea, temperature and time are inversely proportional. So, hotter the water, lower the steeping time.
Now, all this may seem excessive, especially if you sleepwalk your way through making a cup of tea. But improving techniques never hurts. You may just end up with a better tasting cup of tea.