Updated: Jul 17
On a cold, windy winter's day, with the wind blowing and the snow slowly floating down towards the ground, there is no better pick me up than a warm cup of tea. But there is so much to learn about this seemingly simple drink. From the brewing method to the endless types of tea, it's not as simple as heating water and dropping it in a tea bag.
Just as wine has a place at a formal dinner table, so can tea. Perhaps better served after dinner, but still an important part of a meal. It's a complicated drink with a journey of flavor in every sip. It's a craft to be enjoyed, the brewing process that is. With our tea guide, you will be a near expert in serving and making such a delicate and delicious drink!
Caffeine is the most widely consumed chemical in the world, whether it be through coffee, energy drinks, or of course, tea. It helps stimulate our nervous system, reduces drowsiness, and quickens our reaction time. From when we first consume caffeine, it's effects are most significant between 15 minutes to two hours, then reduced by half between hours three and seven.
Technically speaking, tea has more caffeine than coffee (2-3% compared to 1-2%, respectively. However, when brewing coffee or tea, we add more coffee beans (8-10 grams) than tea leaves (2-5 grams). Let's break down the caffeine in some popular drinks per serving:
Coffee (in general)- 65-175 milligrams
Espresso- 80-115 milligrams
Tea- 50 milligrams
Pop- 40-50 milligrams
Cocoa- 15 milligrams
Essential Teas For Your Kitchen
Just as every house should be stocked with herbs and spices, tea should also be an important part of the kitchen. But be sure to keep it away from more robust scented ingredients such as coffee; we don't need the tea leaves to smell of their coffee counterpart.
An excellent black tea is always essential to have in your cupboard. My favorite is Earl Gray, but a good breakfast tea is also wise. These teas will be perfect with breakfast, dessert, meats, and more potent spices. They also aid in digestion after meals. Also in the category of black tea is Assam tea, perfect for creamy desserts, lamb, and even salmon- yes, tea can be served with just about everything!
Working towards lighter teas, Oolong is a very versatile tea, whether it be served with light or heavy meals. It pairs best with fish, meat, and dessert, as it tends to have a fuller and rounder flavor.
Tea is integral to a meal, helping digestion and clearing your pallet. Though black teas aid digestion, no tea does better than classic herbal tea such as chamomile or mint. Even lighter is a Chinese green tea best served with seafood or shellfish. Japanese Sencha tea also pairs well with seafood and chocolate, as it has a rich, sweet, and slightly bitter flavor.
There are countless places to buy tea, but I will keep my guidance simple. Loose leaf is always better than tea from a bag. Loose-leaf tea comes from younger plants and the best leaves from it. Leaves in tea bags usually come from older plants, and the less desirable leaves or the small scraps are not worthy of loose leaves.
Among the countless tea brands in grocery stories, I have found one brand that considerably rivals all others. It does not even come close. Fortnum and Mason (F&M) tea in London has the best quality and flavored tea. They are an upscale food store in London established in 1707 and have a Royal Seal providing groceries to the late Queen Elizabeth II and is now the grocer and tea provider for King Charles III.
Don't worry; you don't need to visit London for this tea. You can buy it online and have it shipped to you from F&M though it does become fairly expensive. The cheaper option is to buy a selection of their tea at Williams and Sonoma. It is a smaller selection, but it gives you a taste of high-quality tea. I mean it when I say it, F&M tea is rivaled by no other tea I've tasted.
A few of my favorite teas- click the name to buy them off of Amazon!
From Plant to Brew- The Science
Before tea ends up in a bag or a loose-leaf container, it goes through a long process to bring out its flavor. If you pluck a leaf straight from the plant, it would be very bitter, with most of its flavor locked together with nonvolatile sugar molecules.
But no one wants a bitter tea with no flavor! The tea must undergo the liberation of its aroma compounds and release them from the sugar molecules to make it full and rich. Once the flavor molecules are broken from the sugars, large molecules are rebuilt with the help of oxygen to bind them together. The larger the compound, the less bitter the tea is; the color changes and becomes orange/ red. Oxygen, bruising, rolling, pressing, and time in preparing raw tea leaves all contribute to a less bitter and darker tea.
As you can tell, a lot of science goes into tea making! The issue nowadays is that most tea is harvested by machines and on older plants, leading to a less flavorful brew. Simply put, though, the best leaves come from young shoots with unopened flower buds.
Brewing- The Water
We wouldn't have tea without water. It is essential for any drink at its most basic level. And while filling up a kettle with tap water and brewing tea will do the trick, water has a much more significant effect than you might think.
Hard water is full of calcium and magnesium carbonates which can lead to surface scum on top of your freshly brewed tea- not attractive at all!! This came about when cities made water more alkaline to prevent pipes from rusting. Unfortunately, this reduces the tea's liveliness. Softened water, conversely, gives a salty taste, and distilled water lends itself to a flat taste. So what water should you use? Mineral water with a neutral Ph is best for a robust and lively tea!
Brewing- From Leaf to Cup
And... this is where the seemingly simple drink gets a little complicated. Sure, you can boil some water and even microwave it (please don't), and you'll get a cup of tea. But that's not what this foodie blog is all about. We are here to help you become better cooks and, in this case, make the perfect cup of tea.
It starts with how you heat your water. ALWAYS use a tea kettle/stovetop. When you use the stove, it will allow for even heating of the water. The microwave, on the other hand, doesn't heat evenly. There are warm and cold spots in a microwave; this translates into warm and cold spots in the water you are warming. This unevenly heated water will produce a much more bitter and undesirable tea.
Different teas require different water temperatures. A black tea should be heated just before it boils, and a green tea should be heated between 110F-160F. Once the water has reached the desired temperature, tea should be brewed for between 3-5 minutes. In any case, 40% of the leaf solids will be extracted in this time and 75% of the caffeine in the first 30 seconds.
Then there is the serving of tea, where people get rather particular. It is essential to separate the tea from the water after brewing to prevent it from getting bitter, then drunk immediately to prevent the oxygen from changing the color and taste.
You can add several things to the tea to enhance or alter the flavor. Milk is a classic. Milk should always be warmed before adding it to milk or vice versa. And this is where it gets controversial... Etiquette states that milk should be added to tea. For better flavor, tea should be added to milk; as the milk is heated further by the tea, the molecular compounds of tea bind to milk rather than your mouth; this leads to a less intense tea. It also reduces the chance of the milk curdling from its gradual heating.
Lemon juice can also be added to tea, altering flavor and color. The acid in a lemon alters the phenolic complexes as the tea takes hydrogen ions from the lemon. Sugar can also be added to tea to change its flavor.
The storage of tea is very straightforward and by no means complicated—store tea in an airtight container in a cool and dark spot. The less oxygen, the better; this will cause less briskness in the tea and prevent the aroma from changing and the tea from browning.
Tea is a complicated drink, full of science and various etiquette rules. I could go on and on about the origin and preparation of different teas and the history of it all. With so many intricacies in tea preparation, one can easily be overwhelmed, but now you are armed with the knowledge to brew a perfect cup of tea, full flavor and to your liking! Tea is complex but equally as delicious.