Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks a tea novice or even long-time tea devotee faces is how to serve tea, along with negotiating the array of tea paraphernalia, and when to drink different teas.
The first step to take, if you’re not already doing so, is to use loose tea, preferably from an on-line specialist or a shop that has a good turnover in loose leaf tea. No matter how impressive the brand, tea in bags just won’t provide the same quality, and in the case of green, jasmine, or Oolong teas, loose leaf is far more economical as the leaves can be infused several times before losing their potency. Also, the larger the leaf, the more intense the brew.
If you’re using an expensive tea you should also use filtered or still mineral water to preserve the flavour as the impurities and chlorine in tap water wreak havoc with the flavour compounds in high-grade tea.
The most critical factor in serving tea is the temperature of your water: the greener the tea, the cooler the water should be, preferably between 70-80 C.. This temperature ensures the gentle flavours of white and green teas are released, whereas boiling water will draw out bitter compounds, making the teas taste unpalatable. If you don’t have a temperature-controlled kettle (see below) or one in which you can see the water boiling you may find it easier to boil your water in a pan where you can watch the size of bubbles that rise to the surface
Oolong tea needs a slightly higher temperature for a perfect infusion - 80-85C - and the bubbles in the water will be slightly larger than for green tea, roughly the size of petits pois. Steam will also be rising more persistently.
With black and Pu-erh teas, you want large Malteser-size bubbles and plenty of steam to rise – the kettle will also be rumbling as the water hits 90-95 C, but the general consensus is not to let the water boil too vigorously as this will result in de-oxygenated water and a stale-tasting tea. (For the same reason you should never reheat water that has already been boiled) A good supplier will always advise the right temperature and time to brew the tea you have bought and how many times it can be infused or you can check out the Tea Council’s recommendations on www.tea.co.uk
In China and Japan there is a whole ritual to serving tea but don’t let that put you off brewing tea from loose leaves. You can enjoy real tea quite simply by buying an infuser mug (available from www.jingtea.com or a Bodum Yo Yo tea strainer) and simply remove the strainer once the tea has been infused.
If you’re looking to buy the right pot, clay pots breathe better than vitreous porcelain and are better for teas requiring cooler water temperatures. Porcelain tea pots are excellent for black or darker Oolongs, but can reveal the sharper flavours in more delicate teas such as green or white teas. It’s easier to control the amount of time a tea brews in a smaller pot than in a large one.
Glass cups, mugs and pots are visually appealing as you can see the infusion and in the case of flowering teas such as chrysanthemum, give the whole brewing process an aesthetic quality that makes glass cups ideal for post-dinner party tea drinking. (Most fine teas - and all green and white teas - are served without milk and sugar but don’t feel embarrassed to add it if that’s the way you enjoy your cuppa. You’ll probably find, as your taste for tea develops, that you prefer tea without them) Whichever container you use remember to warm it first.
One final important point: tea easily picks up ambient aromas, so you should store it in air-tight bags or containers. The latter are preferable as exposure to light will lead to a rapid deterioration in the tea’s flavour.
* There is a kettle which will heat your water to exactly the right temperature for your tea - the UtiliTEA variable temperature tea kettle. As far as we can make out it’s only available in the US at the moment. You can buy it from Adagio Teas - www. adagio.com. There's a similar appliance called the Zarafina TeaMaker on www.zarafina.com
Next: Where to buy - and drink - good tea.