This is my tea shelf. You can only see about half of what I have; the jars are ranked three rows deep. The cardboard and paper packages contain my
pu-erh bings; the rest are various looseleaf teas in airtight jars.
Once again, we wander far afield from photography. If my off-topic columns are not your cup of...(oh, I can't say it), skip this column and tune in again next week.
My off-topic topic is tea. Expect several columns on this, because I'm a real tea geek. No, I'm not an expert, just a geek. I do not have a seriously refined palate and I don't know most of the descriptive vocabulary. I just really, really like my tea, and I insist upon good tea.
Tea's my major extravagance (other than living in the San Francisco Bay Area). I live on the stuff. Don't like coffee (except iced, when it's hot out). I can't abide the taste of alcohol, I don't smoke, and I've not used any drugs except theobromine. I am an effete, intellectual, elitist teetotaler, and I raise my pinky in your direction.
Lipton's, or one of its brethren, packaged in little tissue paper bags, thrown in a cup, boiling water poured over it, and steep until it's dead? That's the tea equivalent the coffee that's been sitting in the pot at your local gas station since ungodly-A.M. in the morning. It's no wonder you have to load it with mega-amounts of lemon or milk and sugar to make it palatable.
Good tea, properly brewed, is another matter. For a start, "properly brewed" generally means no boiling water (unless it's a pu-erh). Pouring boiling water on tea is a lot like making coffee by tossing the grounds in a saucepan of boiling water and cooking it for a while.
Depending on the tea, the proper brewing temperature may be anywhere between 140 and 190°F (60–90°C). Not that there's one right way to make tea. In my various books, I've seen brewing instructions for the same delicate green tea that went from 140° for 90 seconds up to 165° for 3–5 min. Still, a far cry from boiling water.
Speaking of brewing, here's a handy trick if you're caffeine-sensitive. My housemate, Paula, is very much so, as are several friends. They testify that this works. Take those unbrewed tea leaves and pour hot water on them for 30-45 seconds. Pour off that brew and toss it. Ninety percent of the caffeine goes away in that first infusion.
(Important: the results may vary considerably with the tea. While I have found this to work reliably, if caffeine is severely contraindicated for you for medical reasons, do not rely on this!)
My tea preferences lean towards the Japanese and Chinese teas, mostly greens, wulongs, and pu-erhs. Most of it costs real money. Tea prices have skyrocketed this century. Ten years ago I had an absolute upper limit of $100 a pound for tea. These days I often spend several times that, although I've discovered some wonderful and excellent teas in the $10–$50/lb. range.
Even at double digits per ounce, tea is still a remarkably cheap beverage. I describe it as an extravagance, but I'd be surprised if I spend over a dollar a day on tea and I drink about a liter a day. I need only a gram or two of high-quality tea in an individual infuser; 20 portions from an ounce is normal. I get anywhere from three to eight infusions from one portion. Compare that to the price of Starbucks, or even your local gas station coffee.
How do I brew tea? I am like a total fan of the individual PIAO 1 infuser. It makes brewing a fresh cuppa easy, no fuss and very little muss, and it's fun to play with. Measure in a teaspoon or so of leaf. Pour in water of the appropriate temperature. Let it steep for the appropriate time. Push the little button on the top and a ball valve at the bottom opens and filtered tea flows into the container. The leaf remains in the top part of the infuser.
Where do you get good tea? There are some good mail-order companies, especially ones that specialize in certain types of teas. For general offerings of all varieties and nationalities, I think Uptons is by far the best. Their catalogs are wonderful and informative. That's where I learned the decaffeination trick. You'll also learn what all the terms of art mean (Lipton's famous "flowery orange pekoe" is not some fancy varietal, it merely denotes a rather low grade of tea quality).
Unfortunately, while they're really quality teas, their tasters just don't have the same palette as I do. Consequently, I don't buy a lot from them. The very best thing about Upton is that they have small sampler packs (good for 2–3 pots) for just a few dollars apiece, so for not very much money I can try a whole lot of different teas. I regularly get samples from Upton to check out and every so often I hit on a winner, like their gyokuro kenjyo.
Most of my buying is from local fine tea shops that I visit, using the word "local" rather loosely. Here are my personal favorites:
San Francisco—Aroma—Haymen Da Luz and Ying Wu
San Francisco—Imperial Tea Court—Roy Fong
St. Paul—Tea source—Bill Waddington
Montréal—Cha Guan: La Maison du The—Daniel Ng
They all do mail-order, but the nice thing about shopping in person is that you can smell teas, often order a pot of something you want to try out, and discuss your tastes and preferences with the clerks and proprietors. Mail order, you're kind of working blind, until the proprietor gets to know your tastes. Look for one in your own city and you'll discover that a good tea shop is like a good bookstore; the proprietor will be knowledgeable, helpful, and enthusiastic about finding teas that you will especially like.
When I revisit this topic, I'll clue you in on those mysterious pu-erhs I mentioned. They are among my favorites. They were illegal in the U.S. 20 years ago and most people still don't know about them. They're simultaneously the biggest and most affordable bargains in the tea world along with being the easiest way to blow your entire family fortune. How's that for a teaser?
And now a quick free-associational, seasonal segue.
Best. Holiday. Album. Ever.
Not even close to your usual psuedo-carolly, excessively-treacly fare. It plays well year-round. Check it out.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Emily Cartier: "Sad, we can't share a pot. I much prefer black teas. I'm not terribly fussy about which exact tea garden grew it. If it's black, chances are there will be interesting flavors, and I'll be happy to drink it. Maybe we could share some herbal tisane instead? I am pretty flexible in my tastes there as well, tho' I have an abiding fondness for chamomile."
Featured Comment by KeithB: "I would have thought that you would like 'Tea, Earl Grey. Hot.'" [The favored drink of Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." —Ed.]
Featured Comment by Benjamin R. George: "I have to take exception to this generalization that 'properly brewed' tea generally means no boiling water. Green, white, and oolong teas are often ruined by boiling water, but many non-pu-erh black teas are great with it. Since you don't drink a lot of black tea, this is of little interest for you, but your readers should know that your advice is not fully general."
Featured Comment by Roger Bradbury: "I have to have two cups of tea every morning to raise my I.Q. above single figures."
Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "Another good Holiday album is 'The Bells of Dublin,' by the Chieftains, on which they host many guest artists."
Featured Comment by Gavin McLelland: "Mmm..I prefer the darker teas—I have always loved Lapsang Souchong—the smokey flavour goes so well with dates. Quite a treat."
Featured Comment by Richard Man: "Ctein, as you may remember, I drink a lot of tea myself. I'm glad to see a refreshing cup of, um, article this morning :-). As for the vast fortune wasted on Pu Erh, that's indeed quite a story. I won't spoiler it. Capitalism at its 'finest.' There are lots of stories about tea of course, but this is a fun one: all the tea, whether it's green or black, are from the same species of the plant. Green is unroasted while black tea is roasted and sometimes fermented (pu-erh). One of my favorite is Jasmine gunpowder. Strong and bold flavor. I confess that there is one tea that I could not like—the Lapsang Souchong—too much like drinking burnt BBQ wood, which is pretty much what it is :-)."
Featured Comment by Arne Croell: "Throwing away the first short brew was actually the standard procedure during several tastings in Chinese tea shops (Shanghai and Tunxi) that I had last year. The explanation at that time was not the reduction of caffeine but that the first infusion has a rough taste and the best flavor comes out actually in the third steeping (both for green teas and Oolongs). We could taste test side by side the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th steeping of several teas and the change of the flavors was certainly there. Personally, after trying out many teas in the last 39 years (I became a heavy tea drinker at 15), I've settled on Darjeeling first flush teas from certain plantations as my favorites."
Featured Comment by Willem: "This book really was my cup of tea: The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Heiss & Heiss."