Read on for History of Tea, Tea Grades, Storage, Brewing, Heat Transfer, and Serving:
People have been drinking tea (and/or tisanes – herbal infusions) for thousands of years. As for tea brewed from the leaves of the tea plant, that would have begun in the southeast Asia regions where tea grows natively.
Then tea went west when trade and exploration started becoming more interesting than sitting around at home, quibbling over the price of barley. A lot of the typical top teas that westerners prefer are Indian-grown black teas such as Assam and Darjeeling. But here’s something interesting – tea growing was brought to India, not something native to the area. This was mainly because Britain owned most of India and were tired of paying China for tea. Imperialist and generally impolite as this may have been, it’s why we have some seriously good teas today.
My personal preference and definition of “tea” is a good black tea. I will have herbal, “flavored” teas sometimes and occasionally will go for a green or white tea. Black tea is my “default” tea, anyway, and what I’ll be concentrating on through this series.
To get started, I’m going to share some general brewing tips, information, and terms that you’ll see throughout the series.
In Sins of Another, Padrig refers to his advocate Geoff as “a good mate who knows exactly what a good cup of tea is all about (and knows that a string and a paper tag are “in case of emergency” only).”
You know you’re a tea snob when a collection of letters like this: FTGFOP, means something to you. Let me break that down. It means, “Far Too Good For Ordinary People” and means you are on the right track! Actually, FTGFOP is a grade of tea which describes the quality of leaves used in a “loose” tea blend. Though some higher-end bagged teas like Harney and Sons or Tea Forte which tout “silk” bags will have higher grades of leaves, you don’t need to worry about tea grades when comparing Lipton and Tetley.
Grades are as follows:
Dust – You know what you have in the bottom of an empty tea box? That.
Fannings – Often what’s used in basic market bags. A box of fannings will often leave you with “dust” leftovers.
Pekoe/Orange Pekoe – No, this is not a flavor, it is a descriptor of the leaf used. When broken up to be used in bags, these become B(O)P and the bits that are left over are fannings and dust. So, really, even fannings of a highest quality tea can be better than a full-leaf of a lower quality or poorly stored tea. And even dust and fannings have their own grades.
I’m generally going to skip “broken” OP tea grades here and hop into whole leaf. You’re not brewing these from a bag, but from an infuser in your tea pot (or cup, I suppose, if you must). Anything “above” an OP grade is a higher quality tea.
The first grade above whole leaf OP is Flowery OP (FOP). Imagine at this point we’re an ant climbing up the top stalk of a tea plant and each level up is a “station.” As it goes up, so does the portion of “tips” in the blend. Flowery OP will have nice long tea leaves, but not a whole lot of tips.
The next stop up from FOP is GFOP, Golden Flowery OP. More tips than FOP.
On from that is TGFOP, Tippy Golden Flowery OP (note these vary between growing regions which won’t always produce one of each grade – Assams and Darjeelings usually come in TGFOP but rarely in GFOP). As the name implies, this is getting toward your best. Long, high quality leaves, and a good bit of tip.
Then we get to FTGFOP (that’s the “Far Too Good…” I mentioned earlier), Finest Tippy Golden Flowery OP. Quite a lot of tippage going on here. These highest grades will usually come from very early harvests referred to as 1st or 2nd flush.
Sometimes S(pecial)FTGFOP(1) is used, but that’s just getting affected and silly.
Remember that even FTGFOP isn’t going to be good if it’s not stored and brewed properly. A good tea probably won’t be cheap. A few ounces will probably run you at least 5USD and one of the few commercial FTGFOP’s I’ve seen (Republic of Tea’s 1st flush Darjeeling) comes in a 3.5 oz canister and goes for 25USD. Granted, a latte at Starbucks is getting around 4.50USD these days, but that’s one drink. You’ll get close to 50 cups out of 3.5 oz of tea, depending on how you like your brew.
That canister is good for storing in a dry kitchen cabinet. Tea shops will sometimes have similar tin canisters or boxes. These are definitely appropriate for storing tea whole, loose leaf teas. Sometimes you’ll see nice tea boxes (that usually come with some bagged brand such as Bentley’s or Taylor’s of Harrogate). Those are generally more than necessary for wrapped tea bags, but unless you’ve got little tins that fit in the slots, I wouldn’t use them for loose teas which need a seal. Sealed, “ziplock” style bags are also ok, but tins are really the best way to go.
I don’t imagine I need to say “don’t get tea wet” until you brew it. Keep it well away from the counter “spill/splash zones.”
So now you know something about the sort of tea you’ve got and you know how to keep it in good condition. That can all go to shit if you don’t watch what you’re doing when you make it.
First thing you need to know is how much you’re going to make. That’s alright if you’re brewing a pot for yourself (I gave up making tea by the cup a long time ago!) but if you are hosting a few people you’ll want to make it all at once. With this, I’m talking mainly about heating water and pouring it into a teapot with the tea in an infuser basket or tea ball (I recommend a basket). It should be safe to assume at least two cups per person, so for a party of four, one of those little two-cup pots isn’t going to work so well. You’ll want a nice big 8-cup pot (which works just as well for making yourself a couple cups when you’re in a rush).
How much tea to put in the basket? The general guideline has always been a teaspoon (see that?) per cup being made. Just personally, I usually only do about one heaping spoon per pot (which I make in about 3-4 cups at a time).
Heating the water. Traditionally this is what a kettle is for. You put the correct amount of water in the kettle (8 cups for that party-of-4 again) and either put the kettle on the stove or switch it on if you’re a modernist. Some people are charmed by that kettle whistling thing. That’s far too inexact for me. I boil mine in a pot on the stovetop (bonus: no scaling to deal with!) With electric kettles (fine and dandy for a cup of Lipton or hot chocolate or something) they often automatically shut off at a certain temperature (so you don’t burn the house down). But then you lose the proper brewing temperature. Far too inexact.
Little top tip: When boiling without benefit of automatic shut-off or screaming kettle… pay attention. Don’t wander off and do something else and forget for half an hour you’ve got something on the stove. The water will boil down to nothing and burn up your pot. Yes, I know that.
For a standard cup of most black teas, you want a good, fast, rolling boil. Greens, whites, and most herbals shouldn’t be brewed with boiling water as it tends to make the more delicate tastes bitter.
I’m going to say this once and only once (yeah, right) – do not microwave a mug of water, even if you are making yourself a single cup. We’ll talk about heat transfer in a moment.
Your water’s getting close to a boil. You’ve measured out your tea leaves into the infuser. Now, take the infuser out of your nice, clean tea pot, set it where it won’t get wet or topple over, and wash the pot out with hot water. Really. Run hot water from the tap, fill the pot, swish for a second (careful not to splash on yourself), and pour it out. That’s called “warming the pot.”
Your water’s boiling good now, so return the infuser to your warmed pot and pour the boiling water in. And don’t go anywhere! This is the MOST IMPORTANT PART!!! Depending on the tea and the strength you prefer, you’ll want to let it steep anywhere from 3 minutes to 7. Most teas you buy commercially will tell you optimum brew times somewhere on the packaging. Loose teas you buy in bulk probably won’t. Check what kind of tea you’ve got, but four is usually fine for most black teas. And while it’s infusing, don’t do anything to it. Don’t swish or dip or prod. Just let it sit. And at the appointed time, remove the infuser.
You may now pour the tea. Mind the drips.
A word on heat transfer
This is why you warmed the pot and didn’t microwave the mug. Heat transfer. Sounds like some complicated engineering thing, and it can be. But when it comes to tea, I’ll simplify. You want to warm the pot just before brewing because pouring boiling water into a cold/room temperature pot is going to immediately lower the temperature of the water and you’ll miss that perfect brewing point again.
You don’t particularly want to “warm” the cup in the same way because the tea is already brewed when you pour, so you don’t need that “perfect” temperature, but you do want the hot tea to get to drinkable temperature soon so you can enjoy without burning your mouth. Pouring it off into a room temperature cup facilitates that.
Microwaving is what I’ll do if I’m at home and need to reheat a cup that’s cooled off too much. If you “boil” a cup in the microwave you’ll likely either not heat it enough for the brew or heat it too much to get it cooled down and drinkable any time soon (mostly because you now heated the mug with the water and get no heat-transfer from the pour off).
When people think of afternoon tea, they usually imagine people setting around a small table with a tray or tier of treats in addition to their Royal Doulton cups and saucers. You can go all out on that, and it’s one of my favorite treats to go to tea with friends once or twice a year. You’ll sometimes find tea service at high-end, old-school hotels or cafes, complete with tea sandwiches, scones or biscuits, and sweets.
A lot of people call that “high tea.” That isn’t high tea, it’s low tea. The high/low is supposed to refer to the height of the table on which it’s traditionally served. Low tea (or, easier, afternoon or formal tea) is usually served on a little “coffee table” or a regular dinner table. High tea (or just “tea” in northern areas like Yorkshire) is a casual late afternoon/early evening meal that was often eaten at a raised pub-table. People by now have “high tea” so ingrained in their minds as something fancy that it’s almost impossible to disabuse this notion. I usually just say “afternoon tea” if I want to indicate “fancy” tea.
For the at-home server (or solo drinker), you might want to scale it down a little (or not, if you like doing the whole show!) Within each segment I’ll offer my personal suggestions of what goes well with each tea. Some things typically taken with tea are biscuits (not the buttermilk or cornbread variety – think closer to a Graham cracker), cookies/cakes/pastries, small sandwiches, and chocolates. What people take in their tea is very individual to taste, some prefer milk/cream, sugar, lemon, or flavored syrups.
Just make sure you don’t put the milk in first.
Just make sure you don’t put the milk in first.