TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

November 13, 2013

Ramblings: Everybody starts their tea journey somewhere

People often strike up conversations with me at the supermarket. Usually I enjoy these conversations, which generally fall into one of three categories. Some folks just want to chat, and I guess I look pretty harmless, so they figure it’s safe. Others must think that this is my first visit to a supermarket, because they give me all kinds of advice on what to buy.

iced-tea-glass-lemonThe third type of conversation, and naturally my favourite, is with folks who think I look smart, and actually ask for my advice. Often it’s a gentleman who can’t quite decipher his wife’s shopping list, so he asks me which is better, white or red grapefruit. (Red, fer sure.) Or the couple who needed a tie-breaker because one wanted to buy their usual brand-name stuffing and the other wanted to try a new brand because it’s less expensive. (I told them that for a difference of less than a dollar, I’d go with the known quantity because everybody notices the stuffing!)

A couple of days ago I was perusing the aisle with teas, as I often do just to see what the big tea companies are putting out and what local people are drinking. There was a lady standing there with two boxes of teabags, carefully reading labels and comparing one against the other. As I walked up, she turned to me and asked if I drink tea. Ha! “Yes I do, ma’am.” (I’ve been doing my best to get into the lovely Southern habit of addressing folks as sir or ma’am.)

Then she told me that she loves her tea but her doctor had just informed her that her blood sugar is too high and she needs to stop eating, and drinking, sweets. And that she doesn’t like any of the sugar substitutes so she was hoping to find a tea that she could drink on its own.

(Some of you probably don’t get the connection with tea and sugar, but here in the Southlands everyone and probably their dog drinks sweet tea — that is, iced tea sweetened to the point where it makes your teeth curl. Sweet tea is so popular in these parts that it’s often referred to as Southern table wine, tho’ most folks simply call it “tea” and everyone knows exactly what they’re talking about.)

supermarket-teaWell, this lady showed me the boxes she was holding and looked at the others on the shelf and asked me if I knew which one would taste good without sweetener — something with a nice flavour. So I looked at the boxes, and I looked at the shelf, and then I looked at her. “Ma’am,” I said, “do you use the Internet and the Web?” She answered sure, who doesn’t these days, and told me how much she loves chatting with her grandchildren in Canada over the ‘net.

I dug into my purse for a pen and a piece of paper while telling her that the teas on these shelves were okay but I didn’t really think any of them were particularly tasty, and that a lot of them were probably old and losing flavour before they even reached the shelf. Then I wrote down the web addresses of a couple of tea vendors, and handed it to her.

“These are two of my favourite long-time tea sellers, and I’ve always found their teas to be fresh and tasty — and they have a big variety of them, so you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Browse through their products — they have loose-leaf tea and good-quality teabags. If you don’t see something you like, or if you don’t want to wade through all the many teas they offer, give them a call, tell them what you want, and ask them to make recommendations. They’ll send you a print catalogue if you prefer, and will be happy to send you samples so you can try them before you buy a full-sized package. They’re all nice folks and have been in business for a long time, and they’re always happy to answer your questions.”

stk73391corShe looked at the note and said she recognized one of the companies because she had seen some of their teas on the shelf of a local gift shop she likes but had never thought about buying “fancy” teas. I explained to her that tea is pretty inexpensive compared to most other beverages, and that the enjoyment you get from drinking good tea is worth the few extra cents per glassful. Or cupful, if she ever wants to fix up some hot tea.

Then she asked me what kind of teas I drink, and I told her honestly that I generally prefer oolongs … but that she might want to start with a black or green tea — something that would be closer in taste to her usual Luzianne tea, tho’ with much better flavour.

She thanked me, said she’d look them up, and we went off in our separate directions. I sure hope she does look them up, and that I see her next time I’m out shopping, and that she remembers me so I can ask her which teas she decided to try. And I sure hope I’ve played a part in introducing another tea drinker to the enjoyment of better-quality teas. Because everybody starts their tea journey somewhere.

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All content Copyright 2013 JP Badarau; all rights reserved.

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May 1, 2012

Cooking with Tea: Tea Punches

With the season of wedding showers, weddings, and baby showers approaching, hosts and hostesses are thinking about what food and drink they’ll be serving. And what would these celebrations be without that ubiquitous, but welcome, bowl of punch?

I don’t often serve punch, probably because I don’t often serve food and drink to large groups of guests. When I do make punch, it always contains tea.

Here are a couple of my favourite punch recipes – an elegant cup containing alcohol, and a refreshing, fruity cup made without.

Read the entire article at English Tea Store blog.

March 21, 2011

Ramblings: New to tea

A cup of teaHelp! I’m a newcomer to the world of loose leaf tea. I’ve been drinking tea made with teabags and I’m ready to move on. What are your suggestions? Where do I start?

All tea lovers had to start somewhere, and it helps to have a little guidance as you start your journey through the many choices of high-quality loose leaf teas that are available.

Where to begin? One suggestion is to start within your “comfort zone:” look for teas of similar types to the commercial teas you’ve been drinking, and then branch out.

For example, if you drink iced teas made with black tea, try hot black teas. If you prefer fruit-flavoured iced teas, try hot fruit-flavoured teas. Do you sweeten your iced tea? Try sweetening your hot teas.

Loose leaf teaBut don’t stop (or even linger) there. Next you’ll want to sample unsweetened and unflavoured hot teas.

If you’re drinking black tea made from commercial teabags, look for similar teas in loose leaf form. If you drink green tea from teabags, step up to a light green loose leaf tea that’s friendly to the palate.

But, you ask, how to choose from the seemingly endless variety of loose leaf teas on the market? Many drinkers of black tea find that the flavour and aroma of Ceylon teas most closely approximate the teas they are comfortable drinking. Or sample an English or Irish breakfast blend — these mixtures of mostly India teas produce a heartier cup that stands up to milk, lemon, or sweetener. The taste and aroma of a loose leaf tea will invariably be superior to that of commercial teabag teas, while at the same time there is some familiarity when you choose loose leaf tea that’s a variety similar to your teabag tea.

Teacup and tea leavesThere are two teas recommended for new drinkers of loose leaf green tea. One is genmaicha, a Japanese blend of light green tea and roasted rice. The warm toasty flavour and aroma generally appeal to newly-developing tea palates. Another “newbie-friendly” green tea is Gunpowder Green, which may be sourced from Taiwan or China. The dry leaf is rolled up in a tight ball that opens into a full leaf when hot water is added. The gentle flavour and aroma won’t overpower your palate, and you’ll enjoy the visuals too.

These recommended “beginner” teas are widely available and reasonably priced.

When you’re ready to move on from these “comfort” teas, go ahead and try more exotic black teas, oolong teas, other green teas, and white teas. Maybe even a pouchong or a pu-erh. Try one type, see if it appeals to you, then try another. Continue drinking the teas you like. Move on as quickly or as slowly as you like when sampling new teas. There’s no rush, and there will always be good teas available when you’re ready for them.

How do you find high-quality teas? If you are lucky enough to have a good tea room or tea shop nearby, stop in and talk to the people who work there. Ask for their recommendations. See if you can taste samples before you buy. (For a comprehensive list of tea rooms and tea shops see TeaGuide Worldwide Tea Directory).

You can also shop online. A list of links to some of the best tea vendors’ websites can be found on our Favourite Links page.

Don’t be shy about calling tea companies on the telephone. Good tea merchants will always be willing to chat with you about what types of teas you might enjoy so they can steer you in the right direction.

Whenever possible, start by ordering sampler packages. Sample sizes are a good choice because they allow you to try a number of teas before making a big monetary investment. When you find the teas you like, order them in larger sizes. And if you don’t care for a particular tea, you won’t feel guilty about not using the remaining leaves if you haven’t spent much money. Most tea sellers offer sample sizes at very low prices, so you can choose several. Some merchants even offer sampler-sized “variety packages” of their teas at reasonable prices.

When you talk to tea sellers, either in person or by telephone, be sure to ask them for their suggestions on how to prepare the teas you purchase. Although everyone’s taste is different, they should be able to give you a few guidelines and thereby save you from too much trial and error — which often results in simply giving up in frustration.

Tea leaves in a dishIf a vendor says “use three teaspoonsful and steep for 2-1/2 minutes in water just under a full boil,” remember it’s a recommendation, a jumping-off point, not engraved in stone. Start with their suggestion, then if necessary adjust the “recipe” to suit your own taste. Add more leaf to the pot, or maybe use less; increase or decrease steeping time or water temperature according to your individual preference.

Use your teas up as quickly as possible, especially sample sizes that may not be packed in airtight containers. Nothing turns a potential tea lover off teas as quickly as a pot of stale tea. Keep in mind the four “enemies” of tea: light, heat, moisture, and time. Store your tea in a cool, dark spot in an opaque airtight and watertight container such as a tea tin or in the airtight package it was in when you bought it. Keep teas far away from the stove or other heat sources. And don’t store tea near spices or other aromatics; tea is very absorbent, and will pick up flavours and aromas.

Don’t feel that you have to like every tea, or that there’s something wrong if you don’t like a tea that someone else recommends. Taste is a very personal issue. Whatever tea you enjoy is the right tea for you. Drink your teas English style with milk and sugar; Asian style with no additions; Russian style with jam mixed into the cup; or invent your own style!

Chatsford teapotThe equipment you use to prepare your teas is just as important as the tea itself. Be sure to get yourself at least one good clay-based teapot — china, porcelain, or stoneware — preferably with a built-in filtering system. The most common complaint among newcomers to loose leaf tea is that it’s such a nuisance to clean out the teapot, and this type of teapot will make both steeping and cleaning much easier. After the tea is steeped, you simply lift the filter out of the teapot, dump the leaves in the garbage (or the garden), and rinse it off. There are a number of teapot styles available that come with built-in filter baskets. I personally prefer Chatsford teapots because the filter baskets are large enough for the tea leaves to move around in the water and infuse properly, but you may prefer Bee House, Stump, or some other type of teapot with a filter basket. The photo above shows a Chatsford teapot; that red thing sticking out under the lid on the right is the handle for the filter basket. Teapot, lid, and filter all fit together perfectly.

Avoid dangly infusers!You can also purchase reusable tea filter baskets that fit into the teapots you already own. Many types of tea filter baskets are dishwasher safe. Most tea vendors stock a variety of teapots and filters.

Avoid those cute little dangly infusers on the end of a chain or shaped like a spoon. These are too small for loose leaf teas. Tea needs room to swirl around in the water in order to steep properly. Save these devices for herbal infusions or to hold a bouquet garni for cooking purposes.

Never prepare tea in any type of plastic teapot or mug unless you’re absolutely desperate; plastic does not hold heat well enough to maintain the temperature required to steep tea. And depending on the type of plastic, it may leach out into your tea, causing an odd, “off” taste (or worse). Porcelain, china, and stoneware are the best materials for teapots. Steel, silver, glass, and ceramic teapots are lower on the list. If you want to serve tea from your beautiful silver tea set, steep the tea in another teapot, then decant into the silver pot.

If possible, invest in at least two clay-based teapots of different sizes — perhaps a two-cup and a four-cup to start — and use each one when you want to prepare at least the specific quantity of tea it holds. Don’t use a four-cup teapot, for example, to prepare only two cups of tea; the extra air in the teapot cools the water down too quickly so the tea doesn’t steep properly. Always choose the right size teapot and fill it up. You can always make more, and you can always ice any leftovers. (Or add it to your cooking — we’ll be posting more recipes here for cooking and baking with tea.)

Popover tea cozyAnd don’t forget a nice, thick tea cozy that will keep your teapot — and your tea — warm. Choose a cozy that matches your teapot, your linens, or your mood. A good cozy will keep your tea hot for at least a half hour — plenty of time to finish the potful. But never use a cozy while there are tea leaves in the pot, because they’ll cook and stew, getting very bitter. Steep the tea, then remove all tea leaves before placing the cozy on your teapot.

Or keep your tea hot with a tea light teapot warmer. These devices, made of decorative metal, china, or glass, hold the teapot over a tea light candle, and cast a lovely glow on your tea table. The flame is just enough to keep your tea hot without singeing the bottom of the teapot. Be sure to remove the empty teapot from the warmer so it doesn’t crack. And do be mindful of the open flame around children and pets.

Asian teapot on trayAs you get more comfortable with different types of teas, you may want to try all kinds of interesting teapots and teacups: Japanese tetsubin or kyusu; Chinese Yixing; gaiwan or ceibei. Maybe a glass teapot, a samovar, or a Russian tea glass. And all different types of teas — not only from India, Taiwan, Japan, and China, but also from Nepal, Republic of Georgia, Kenya, Vietnam, or Korea. Be warned that you may find yourself spending a lot of time (and money!) shopping for new teas and “tea things.”

Once you get “into” fine loose leaf tea you will discover that there is an almost unlimited variety of teas and many, many ways to prepare and drink them. Your journey has just begun, and it will last a lifetime. Enjoy it!

If you have more questions about tea, or would like to chat about tea with other tea lovers, we invite you to join us at Teamail™ This posting is an update of an article originally published in Tea Digest.

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