Far from the consistent taste found in measured brand-name tea bags, loose-leaf tea, carefully brewed, introduces a wide set of exciting variations on tea flavor. Without the help of the blender (who guarantees the same taste every time, as even subtle changes will be detected by regular customers), we depend on our own palates when we brew and must pay more attention to quantities and procedure. Our individual tastes are both guide and target. A few basic tactics help to avoid disappointment and bring out the maximum from each tea; different routines can be adopted. Some drinkers take a spiritual approach that requires reflection and a specific, controlled environment; some other tea-drinkers reduce the process to scientific data of dose, temperature, and time. Too much ceremony, spiritual or scientific, however, distracts from a good cuppa.
The important piece of equipment is the pot, though even it is not indispensable. (Some of the best brews I’ve ever had were campfire teas straight out of the pan.) A good teapot gives an even infusion; the tea leaves should move as freely as possible if they are to release all their flavors, which they can’t do in a tea bag or tea ball. A good pot also pours well, and a built-in strainer at the base of the spout prevents the leaves from blocking it during pouring. Don’t be too fussy; if a leaf gets into the cup, that only adds to the interest. A hand-held mesh strainer works well if the pot has no strainer, but any metal tool apart from stainless steel introduces the possibility of a metallic taint.
Ceramic pots retain heat well, while metal pots tend to draw essential heat, lowering the temperature of the liquid during the important minutes of infusion. An easy, inexpensive option is one of the standard teapots sold in Chinese import shops, being products of several millennia of loose-leaf brewing. Unglazed Yi Xing style pots are good for white, green, and wulong teas, though, due to their porous interiors, it is best to have a different unglazed pot for each type of tea. Personally, I prefer a pot with interior glaze for the more intense chemistry of black tea; it significantly reduces the hints of flavor from previous brews. The fine black teas of Darjeeling deserve a teapot set aside just for them and never used for herbal infusions, for perfumed teas such as Earl Grey, or for other teas of pronounced flavor such as Lapsang Souchong. A thorough rinsing with boiling water and an occasional wipe with a clean, damp cloth are enough to remove the unwanted residue of bitter tannins. Soap and detergent should be avoided altogether. Before brewing, warm the pot by pouring in some hot water to improve heat retention (and then dump it out). A tea cozy (traditionally worn on the head of the pourer while pouring) reduces unwanted heat loss, especially outdoors or in a cold room.
Of course, the main focus of the operation is the tea leaves. They easily absorb moisture, smells, and tastes, so tea should be kept separately from spices, perfumes, and even other strong-smelling teas. Some Japanese teas are stored in fridge or freezer but for most teas this is unnecessary and may cause damaging condensation to form inside the tea container. A good tea retains excellent flavor for about a year, just long enough to keep us going until the arrival of the next year’s crop. In most cases, fresh leaf is hard to beat. There are exceptions; certain Chinese teas such as pu’ers and some wulongs are aged to bring out qualities of a very different aesthetic and for separate discussion. The springtime thrill of drinking First Flush Darjeelings as soon as they come from the factories of the tea gardens has an extra novelty, as the flavors have not completely stabilized. In the factories, an oxidation, called “fermentation” in the trade, takes place, creating much of the tea’s character. It is then dried to about 3 percent moisture, enough to preserve it, but sufficient to allow a very slight continued oxidation, known as “mellowing,” which can last up to three months. During this period, when the tannins continue to darken and form the body of the liquor, and before the oxidation has achieved its full taste, the fresh “green” perfumes are at their strongest.
A rough guide to the amount of tea to use is one heaping teaspoon, about three grams, per 250 milliliters (about eight ounces). But tea leaves vary greatly in size and weight, so any standard measurement needs adapting to the type of tea as well as to the drinker’s tastes. A lighter dose often brings out more of the delicate flavors of an excellent Darjeeling. Attention should be given to the precise quantity of leaves, so that next time adjustments can be made. In the tasting lab, I use a strong three grams per 120 milliliters water. Some characteristics of flavor and aroma are undetectable except in such a strong brew, though the taster’s palate must separate them from the increased bitterness.
The ideal brewing water is probably pure mountain spring water. Short of that, plain tap water is fine. It is used in all the tasting labs of the tea-producing countries I have visited. But in some municipalities, bottled spring water is preferable; different bottled waters will give different results and a certain amount of mineral content is essential to release the flavors. The tap water in my neighborhood of Montreal is good, easily improved by passing it through a charcoal filter. Running the tap a while before filling the pot ensures that water has not been sitting in rusty pipes. Using the same kind of water every time, like using the same tea pot, facilitates consistency and comparison.
In the tea world, it is commonly believed that having oxygen in the water is necessary for successful tasting. However, by the time water reaches the boiling point, any dissolved oxygen has been released. Harold McGee, expert on food and science, points out that what in fact affects flavor is not the loss of oxygen but the gradual loss of carbonic acid when water is overboiled or re-boiled. Carbon dioxide, absorbed from air and earth, reacts in water to form carbonic acid. That increased acidity in the water enlivens the taste and benefits the delicate chemical balance between bitter caffeine and the astringent pigments of the infusion. Hot water from the tap has been bubbling away its carbonic acid in the boiler, so it is of no use. Alkaline water is similarly to be avoided.
We don’t want to stray too far from the simple pleasures of drinking tea, but the temperature of the liquid during both brewing and tasting has a surprisingly powerful effect on the taste. Tea is a solution of up to 500 chemical compounds. As the temperature falls, different compounds are thrown out of solution and, depending on their density, either float on the surface or sink as residue — thus, the white film and distinct lack of flavor of a brew made with water that is not quite hot enough. The increasing density of the water as it cools also makes the texture of the liquor more substantial. The best temperature for brewing, meaning the temperature of the water when you pour it onto the leaves, for most black teas is between 195 and 205 degrees F (90 and 95 degrees C). For fresh First Flush Darjeeling, 195 degrees F allows the brew to retain more of its aroma; after a few months, this can be increased to 205. Bring the water quickly to a boil and remove it from the stove. I take my kettle’s wide lid off and wait for 30 seconds to a minute, while I warm the pot and charge it with tea. That lets the water in the kettle cool just enough to make the difference. Another Darjeeling drinker I know cools the water by pouring it first into one teapot, to cool the water, and then into a second warmed teapot. Experience, if not a thermometer, will show the best way.
At somewhere between three and five minutes of infusion, the flavor peaks and the tea is ready to serve. (There is no precise figure. You have to taste; I have had one or two teas that needed seven minutes.) At this point, there are two schools of thought on what to do. One school separates the liquor from the leaves by pouring it into a second preheated pot. If the timing is right, the drinker captures the moment of peak flavor. The second approach — and my own preference — is to leave the tea “on the leaves” and drink a series of small cupfuls, exploring the many different layers of strength and changes in flavor, as cups are poured and the infusion cools and becomes steadily darker. The risk is a bitter finale, but many Darjeelings remain both palatable and interesting long after five minutes of infusion. They are “sweet to the leaves.”
The subtleties of delicate, whole-leaf Darjeelings are best considered without the distraction of milk, sugar, or lemon. Your taste is the guide, but be sure to sample the tea straight before making the decision. (By the way, caffeine has no color, so that a long infusion or a very dark liquor in no way indicates caffeine content.)
A good introduction to the world of loose-leaf Darjeeling is to purchase two or more First, Second, or Autumn Flushes that bear the name of their garden (indicating they are unblended). Use separate pots and taste the teas side by side: tea tasting has begun. (If you need a point of reference, you might brew a cup of Twinings basic Darjeeling.) I recommend buying small quantities of the best tea you can afford. After all, a big pot of Darjeeling, even one made from tea that costs $400 per kilo, is cheaper than a quart of domestic beer!●