Earlier this week, I visited Houndstooth for a cup of their carefully prepared coffee. A barista walked me through various beans and their flavor profiles, and then I watched as he made my coffee, using a scale and an espresso machine that cost as much as some cars. The resulting latte was as good as any coffee drink I've ordered in Dallas. It's always good at Houndstooth.
Later, I wanted something to further warm my insides, but not the intensely caffeinated experience of an espresso shot, so I ordered some tea -- Jade Goddess, a type of oolong. I watched as the tealeaves were measured out with a teaspoon, instead of a scale like the beans, potentially miscalculating the amount of tea to be steeped. I watched as hot water was poured into a cool vessel, bringing the water down to some unknown temperature before the tea was added.
A timer was used (that was good) but when the tea had steeped, the leaves were promptly discarded. I'd paid $4.00 for those leaves and could have used them at least two more times, maybe more. It was obvious that the baristas at Houndstooth don't pay the same amount of care to their tea service as they do their coffee. No reason for shame: Most coffee shops and restaurants don't.
That's one of the reasons I was so excited to write about the folks at The Cultured Cup a few weeks ago. They give tea the respect it deserves, and without the distraction of handlebar mustaches, funny hats or other cosplay outfits. If you haven't checked them out yet, you should. And when you come home with your newfound tea stash, you can use the tips below to get the most out of your purchase.
Use filtered water Have you noticed the amount of work the city is doing on our water supply system? Dallas' water may be potable based on government standards, but it tastes pretty gross. Passing tap water through a filter is a necessity for great-tasting tea.Let your water breathe
Great tea needs water that's oxygenated, which is exactly how it comes out of your tap. But after it sits a while, or comes to a rolling boil, that air is long gone. Draw fresh water for every tea session and don't let it boil away in the kettle.
I've read that you can pour water into a plastic jug (like the gallon containers water is sold in) and shake it vigorously for 30-seconds or so to create an aerating affect. I do this with bottled water because I am crazy, because I need more exercise and because the water that comes out of my faucet is already the color of tea. If you decide to use bottled water instead of filtered tap, shake it at your own risk of looking like (and possibly being) an idiot. Also, use spring water, and never distilled, which lacks necessary minerals.
Let your leaves expand Tea bags stink. They're fine if you're in a hurry or need a tea fix at the office, but the confined space of a tea bag will lead to under-extracted tea. Tealeaves need to completely unfurl to release all their flavor, so if you're shopping for brewing equipment look for baskets or infusers that completely fill your steeping vessel, giving them the most room possible. I've watched Kyle Stewart at The Cultured Cup use something that looks like a kitchen sieve and a goldfish bowl to make perfect tea. Dream big.
Be precise Coffee nerds break out scales and weigh everything to the gram and tea will also benefit from such precision. Many fine teas (like the ones at The Cultured Cup) will list the amount of leaves to use in grams for each 8 ounces of water.
Be precise (part two) Use a timer. Perfectly steeped tea produces grassy, fruity, sweet and many other complex flavors. Over-steeped tea has one predominant flavor: bitter. You can avoid this completely by watching a timer, your watch, your cellphone or anything that keeps better time than your head. The tea you've chosen should also have a steep time printed on the container. Don't let your tealeaves bathe in hot water a second too long.
Be precise (part three) Water temperature is just as important as steeping time. Go too high and you're back in bitter town; go too low and you'll be leaving a lot of flavor in your tea leaves. Use a thermometer to make sure you get the water temperature right for your selected tea. Again, it's usually printed on the container.
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Hot water dumped into a cold vessel will cool significantly, resulting in a less than desired steeping temperature. When your water is the right temperature, fill your steeping vessel and let it warm thoroughly. Now dump that water and refill the vessel before steeping your tea.
Hang on to those leaves Most teas will give you at least three steeps and sometimes many more. Successive steeping can reveal flavors that weren't revealed the first go around, and it will also conserve your tealeaves.
These tips may sound like a lot of trouble, but once you get the hang of them, you can make tea pretty mindlessly. Not to mention it's still a hell of a lot less fussy than working the espresso machine at your local coffee shop.