Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world, after water. But it’s a second-class citizen in our nation of hot-liquid drinkers, no matter how much the tea numbers are trending upward.
That’s surprising, considering that tea was the go-to refreshment in America long before colonists dumped 340 chests of it into Boston Harbor. Contrary to popular opinion about a patriotic grudge that sent people on a coffee quest, they kept drinking tea after the Revolutionary War, too; they still had the pots and brewing paraphernalia.
These days, the tea bag rules here and in England. Problem is, it’s the coffee equivalent of instant granules. We can do better, America.
Nonetheless, Bruce Richardson sees progress. “We are enjoying a tea renaissance right now,” says the author of 14 books on tea, who says 20-somethings are flocking to sample single-plantation varieties and blends at his Danville, Ky., tea bar. “They appreciate the health aspects. ... When they want to stay up late to read, they should be drinking tea” – not coffee, he says with a paternal air.
Perhaps that’s because of tea’s comparatively mild jolt. Typical brewed black teas contain about one-third the caffeine found in coffee (55 vs. 150 milligrams in an eight-ounce serving), yet there’s a contradiction in the cup, as Richardson puts it. True Camellia sinensis, or tea leaves processed differently to create black, oolong, white and green teas, contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps the brain to simultaneously relax and concentrate. In other words, a little buzz with focus. No wonder tea drinkers feel good about pouring four to six cups per day.
Ask a coffee aficionado what he doesn’t like about tea, and the response might be bitterness – likely the result of over-steeping, which might entail using water that’s too hot and letting the infusion go on too long.
Which leads back to the tea bag. Ever since its invention in early 20th-century America, it has simplified tea making. Tea brewed via tea bags accounted for more than 65 percent of all tea consumed in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Tea Association of the USA.
“If more people took the time to steep and strain instead of dunk and dash, the world would be a better place,” says Linda Neumann, co-owner of four Washington, D.C.-area tea shops. “People think loose-leaf tea is too hard. But tea is really very simple.”
Getting familiar with tea brewing basics is key. Black teas are steeped with hotter water than green teas, and each type of tea has a recommended range of steeping times. A good tea shop will include specifics on each package.
Experts prefer stainless-steel strainers with deep wells rather than tea balls or chambered teaspoons, so the loose-leaf tea has more room to expand or bloom as it steeps, for optimum flavor. Some teakettles have markings that allow for matching water temperature to tea variety. Travel tumblers and cups for the office sport built-in strainers designed to sit on built-in resting pads.
There also is an acceptable alternative to the commercial tea bag: filling your own. Look for individual, biodegradable tea filters made of simple porous paper that are long enough to drape over the edge of a cup. They take seconds to put together. Pyramid-shaped tea sachets (also biodegradable) are gaining popularity, as well – a good choice that allows the leaves some room to steep.
To get in proper tea mode: Conduct a side-by-side tasting of loose-leaf and bagged teas at home, with discerning-palate pals and a shortbread cookie or two. And ask your favorite restaurant to start carrying loose-leaf tea options in addition to tea bags.
“Tea is part of a healthy lifestyle,” Richardson says. “It’s a choice more people are turning to.”
Different teas call for different water temperatures and steeping times. Here’s a primer on temps, steeping times and resting times (after the water has come to a boil). .
Black teas (not including Darjeeling)
Temp: 205 to 212 degrees
Time: 3 to 5 minutes
Resting time: None
Temp: 200 to 205 degrees
Time: 2 1/2 to 4 minutes
Resting time: 1 minute
Temp: 170 to 180 degrees
Time: 2 to 3 minutes
Resting time: 3 minutes
Temp: 160 to 170 degrees
Time: 30 seconds to 1 minute
Resting time: 5 minutes
Temp: 180 to 190 degrees
Time: 3 to 5 minutes
Resting time: 2 minutes
Temp: 180 to 200 degrees
Time: 3 to 5 minutes
Resting time: 1 to 2 minutes
Temp: 212 degrees
Time: 5 to 10 minutes
Resting time: None
Source: “Modern Tea: A Fresh Look at an Ancient Beverage,” by Lisa Boalt Richardson (Chronicle, 2014)
5 keys to great tea
1 Go loose-leaf: The tea in commercial tea bags is often inferior to loose tea leaves and provides less flavor and value, with more bitterness. So use a strainer or create your own custom tea bags.
2 Freshness counts: Some experts say it’s best to buy loose-leaf teas in 2-ounce amounts, so you’ll refresh your supplies in a timely manner. The tea should be kept away from heat, light and moisture.
3 Per-cup steeping: Ideally, loose-leaf tea needs room to expand in hot water, so a deep-welled, stainless-steel strainer is the best choice.
4 In hot water: Some electric teakettles have controls that allow for heating at below-boiling temperatures, which is desirable for some white, oolong, green and herbal (tisane) teas. Monitor your just-boiled water with an instant-read thermometer.
5 Time the brew: Some teas take longer than others to steep. Use a kitchen timer or the stopwatch function on your smartphone.
Technically, this is a tisane, not a true tea. Use a good-quality loose-leaf tea for best flavor. Adapted from “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes,” by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle, 2012).
3 1/2 cups water, preferably filtered
Level 2 teaspoons loose-leaf gunpowder green tea (may substitute Dragon Well green tea)
1 cup packed fresh mint leaves (may substitute a blend of mint and other fresh herbs), plus sprigs for garnish
2 tablespoons sugar, or more as needed
BRING the water to a rolling boil, in either a teakettle or saucepan over high heat; keep it at a boil while you make the tea.
PLACE the tea leaves in a teapot. Pour 1/2 cup of the boiling water over them. Let the teapot sit for 10 seconds, then swirl it for 5 seconds. Pour out that water, using a strainer as needed to make sure none of the leaves escape.
POUR another 1/2 cup of the boiling water into the teapot, immediately swirl it, then pour it out, making sure none of the leaves escape.
FILL the teapot with the remaining 2 1/2 cups boiling water. Add the cup of fresh mint leaves; use a spoon to press them down gently. Sprinkle in the sugar. Cover and let steep for 2 minutes.
POUR out a glass of tea, then return it to the pot; repeat that step two or three more times to dissolve the sugar and blend the flavors. Taste for sweetness and strength, adding sugar if needed and/or steeping a bit longer.
POUR the tea through a strainer into small, clear tea glasses. Garnish with the mint sprigs, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Couscous grains become extra fluffy when you spend a few extra minutes prepping them, as is done in this dessert recipe. Toast the nuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes until evenly and lightly browned, shaking the pan as needed to keep them from scorching. Serve with mint tea, as is the custom in Morocco. Adapted from “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes,” by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle, 2012).
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 2/3 cups warm water
1 1/3 cups fine-grain plain, dried couscous
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for optional garnish
1/8 teaspoon orange flower water
Scant 1/2 cup golden raisins
Ground cinnamon, for garnish
8 to 12 large pitted dates, preferably Medjool, for garnish
Scant 1/2 cup skinned/sliced or slivered almonds, toasted, for garnish
4 cups cold whole milk, for serving
STIR the sea salt into the warm water in a liquid measuring cup until the salt has dissolved. Place the couscous in a wide, shallow bowl and sprinkle it evenly with the salted water. Let it sit for 15 minutes, undisturbed, then check the grains; they should be tender and not mushy.
USE your hands to work in the butter, sugar and orange flower water until they have effectively disappeared, then blend in the raisins.
USE your hands to mound the couscous on a serving dish without packing it tightly or pressing it down. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and a little extra sugar, if desired, or use the two to create thin, decorative lines starting from the top of the mound. Arrange the dates and almonds around or on the couscous.
SERVE with bowls of the milk, for spooning over individual portions.
Per serving: 290 calories, 8 g protein, 43 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 19 g sugar
Yield: 8 servings