Each of my tea columns generates a certain number of queries about my tea-brewing practices. I figure I should devote a column, then, to how I drink tea, not what I drink. Before I dive in I want to state that I think most of the import of personal tea rituals is psychological. That does not make it less real nor less important!
Partly it's the placebo effect. For a remarkable range of physical ailments, if you tell people you're providing them with a treatment that will address their illness, a surprising percentage of them show physical improvement or even a complete cure. This is solely due to the "power of suggestion," but it makes a real physical difference; convincing their minds that the body is being treated causes genuine and objectively-measurable physiological changes.
This is why medical studies are only trustworthy when they're done in a double-blind fashion, where neither the doctor nor the patient knows if the treatment is real. Many drugs fail to pass clinical trials not because they don't produce marked improvements in the patients, but because ordinary sugar pills produce nearly the same degree of improvement.
(Of course, it's really important to make sure you're using a genuine placebo—some decades ago, the researchers who used lithium carbonate as an "inert" stand-in for the compound they were testing got quite a surprise...and opened up whole new areas of psychopharmacology.)
It's also why you can never disprove the efficacy of physically-nonsensical things like homeopathy and magnet-laden bracelets. It's been shown beyond any question that they cannot and do not have any direct physical effect. But, if you tell people they work a certain number of people will show improvement, hence the ongoing testimonials in their support. For some percentage of people, there will be genuine physical change, because they believe there will be change.
Of course, a lucky rabbit's foot would have just as good effect...if the patient had equal confidence in it. That's not the point. The point is that placebos work.
What's that got to do with tea drinking? Just this: if you genuinely believe your method of making tea produces a superior cuppa, there's a fair chance that it will actually taste better to you. It doesn't really matter whether a double-blind study would show that there is no objective difference.
And then there's aesthetics. If you don't think aesthetics affect taste and palatability, engage the following thought experiment: imagine I take your fresh garden salad and douse it with food coloring so it is all mottled dark olive-brown, gray, and black. Will it taste as good? For a few of you, maybe. For most of you, definitely not.
So, category: tea ritual; subcategory: mine.
I use tap water. Can't speak for the quality of other people's water but our local water is pretty good, and I've not noticed any difference between tapwater, bottled water, and filtered water. I heat it in a Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave. I take some of the hot water and give the leaves a quick rinse, 10–15 seconds, and pour that off. Supposedly this "wakes" or "freshens" the leaves. Me, I have serious doubts that it makes any genuine difference that a few seconds difference in brewing time wouldn't account for. I figure maybe it cleans a little bit of dust, dirt, and detritus off of the leaves, if there is any.
I do it for a more important reason. I hold the tea up to my nose and take a nice deep breath of the rich fragrance from the freshly-wet hot leaves. Mmmmmm, lovely! Primes my head and taste buds for that first cup of the morning.
Then I brew my cup, sit down with the morning paper, and enjoy.
That's what works for me.
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Featured Comments from:
James Sinks: "I always start my brew by sticking my nose in the bag/tin/tupperware and getting a good snootful of tea scent. I fill the tea bag with my fingers because I enjoy the feel of the tea leaves. I brew with tap water heated in an electric (and sometimes electrified!) kettle. I linger over the tea as it steeps, enjoying the smell of the strengthening brew. When it's done, I pull the teabag out, give it a gentle squeeze and either put it on a plate for a second/third/fourth brew or toss it onto the compost pile."
Mike adds: Generally I try to avoid sticking my nose too far into other authors' posts, since I get my own turn often enough. But I can't help recommending the Bonavita Electric Pouring Kettle, which I use for coffee. Seldom am I so completely satisfied by a product. A few buyers have complained of rust—Chinese metallurgy is always an adventure—so be sure to check yours while still in the return period. Mine has been constantly wet for a year and on close inspection shows not a speck of rust. This product works really well and is very convenient. I use mine every day and remain uncommonly pleased with it.
Peter Nigos: "Ctein states that (the effectiveness) of homeopathy and magnet labelled bracelets can never be disproved. As he enjoys his morning cup, perhaps he should consider the argument put forward by Bertrand Russell—that a rational man is not required to disprove nonsense. Russell famously suggested (probably in 1952) that there is a china teapot in elliptical orbit around the Sun somewhere between Mars and Venus. It is too small to be found by any telescope. You don't need scientific tests to disprove this hypothesis. As far as is known, Russell never considered whether the teapot was full or empty."
Andrew Molitor: "My favorite remark, usually applied to audiophiles but it works as well for pixel peepers and tea drinkers: Just because it's not there doesn't mean you can't hear it!"
Mike replies: Not sure which of today's posts this belongs under!
Bill: "A very interesting post. The placebo effect you describe applies as much to cameras as it does to tea. Take your sentence, 'If you genuinely believe your method of making tea produces a superior cuppa, there's a fair chance that it will actually taste better to you.' This can be slightly modified to read 'If you genuinely believe your Fuji/Panny/Leica produces a superior picture, there's a fair chance that it will actually look better to you.' Which is partly why we see so much partisan language on different internet forums."