A couple people asked me recently to make a post about tea. I’m delighted to hear that people are interested, because I sometimes feel like readers must be getting sick of how much I post about and share pictures of tea.
I drink tea just about every day. The only days I don’t drink it are when it’s too inconvenient, or when I start getting paranoid that I might become dependent on it because I drink it so much. But then I take a few days off and nothing seems to change, so I start again.
The first step to good tea is having good quality water. The best thing to do is to get a reverse osmosis filter like this one. I have one like this in Las Vegas and I really like the water that comes out of it. You can also get something like this, which I have in my RV, or just go the cheap route and get a brita filter.
If you’re drinking anything in the range of white tea to medium oolong, you really want filtered water. Once you get dark oolongs, blacks, and puerhs, it matters a lot less unless your water is really bad.
Bad water can really ruin good tea, though, so it’s worth it to make sure you have good water.
I mostly drink oolong tea. If you were to go in order of oxidation (how dark a tea is, in practical terms), you’d go white, green, oolong, puerh and black. All white teas are essentially unoxidized, all greens are about the same oxidation, blacks and puerh are both generally very dark, but oolongs have a huge range. Some oolongs are light and floral, others are nearly black.
Oolongs can generally be steeped many times in a row. That coupled with the complex flavors they have make them my go-to. I might like good Japanese green teas even more, but they don’t steep as many times.
If you want to sip a day in my shoes, get yourself a good Phoenix oolong from somewhere like Samovar or Tap Twice Tea. Phoenix Oolong is medium-oxidation and is really easy to like, in my opinion. You can steep it about a dozen times, it’s pretty easy to brew well, and it has a decent amount of caffeine. It’s a great daily tea.
The easiest way to consistently brew tea is the “gong fu” method, using a gaiwan. Gong fu is actually the same word as Kung Fu, just Americanized differently. It means great skill, but even without great skill you can make great tea.
All you need is a gaiwan, which is a special lidded cup, and some cups to drink out of. It’s also good to have a “fairness pitcher”, but not totally essential. Here’s a cheap set on Amazon.
Now you need to heat your water. In the RV I use a cast iron pot over the stove. It takes about eight minutes to heat up. In Vegas I have a Bona Vita Variable Gooseneck tea kettle. This is sort of the gold standard of tea kettles. It’s easy to pour, can do any temperature, and can keep the water at that temperature.
Side note: never put anything besides plain filtered water in your kettle. If you start brewing things directly in the kettle it will take on the taste after a while and get weird.
I also have a three liter Zojirushi water boiler at my desk. It makes it convenient to slowly drink tea over a few hours while working. If I’m having tea by myself I just use this, but if I have guests I go to my tearoom and use the bona vita.
I also travel with this cheap immersion boiler. If I can just get a paper cup to fill with water, I can use it to warm it up. At home I have a really nice hand-engraved gaiwan set, but when I travel, which is most of the time, I use a cheap travel tea set like this.
If you’re making Phoenix oolong, go with 185 degrees. You could probably make a case for anything from 175-190, but it’s not going to matter too much. If you’re using your stove, put a thermometer in the kettle. Even after a ton of practice, I still can’t guess within 10 degrees.
While the water is heating, I fill the gaiwan 1/3 full of leaves. It doesn’t have to be exact. Then I pour the 185 degree water in and cover it with the lid. If I’m making tea for others, I immediately pour out the tea. Special gong-fu trays have reservoirs so that you can just dump tea out, but you can also just dump it in the sink or in a spare bowl.
The point of doing this is to open up the leaves and to wash them a little bit. It’s mostly ceremony, though, so if I’m making tea for myself I usually don’t do it.
Then I give the tea a short steeping. Maybe thirty seconds without a rinse or fifteen with. I pour it into the fairness pitcher to help the top and the bottom of the tea mix, and then I decant it into small cups.
People sometimes laugh at how small gong-fu cups are, but they are small for a reason. The idea is that you get many tastes of a tea as it progresses, rather than one taste of a big steep. They’re also perfect for sharing.
Unlike green teas, the best steeping of oolong teas is the second or third. That’s because by then the leaves are fully untwisted or unrolled and are maximally exposed. If you oversteep the first steeping, you can damage the second and third. So I err on the side of a light steeping for the first one. It tastes good, but its biggest function is to untwist the leaves.
The next few steepings are fast– five to ten seconds max. The tea should be a golden color. If it’s really watery I know I didn’t steep it long enough, and if it’s bitter I know I oversteeped it. I’ll adjust the next steeping.
One indicator of how good an oolong is is how many times you can steep it. A good one can go a dozen times and still be very flavorful. A bad one will taste bland or weird after just a few.
1000Teas in Budapest has an excellent Phoenix at a really low price, so whenever I am in Budapest I buy more bags of it. Even the fifteenth or twentieth steeping is still pretty good.
Drinking tea usually takes at least an hour, sometimes two. If I’m having tea with a friend we generally put our phones away and have a good conversation. If I’m having it by myself I reflect, think about the upcoming day, and browse the web. By the time I finish I am usually pretty excited to get to work and I know what I’m going to do first.
I’m not a foodie or a connoisseur of anything besides tea. But I’ve really come to enjoy making and drinking tea. It’s really one of my favorite parts of every day. I love when I’m on a plane and I make tea with my little travel set. It makes the flight go by very quickly.
At the same time, I have to admit that I think it’s a little bit ridiculous that I go through such lengths to essentially put some leaves in water. I don’t think how much I like it is totally defensible.
Then again, it’s probably the healthiest thing you can develop some snobbery around. Tea is very healthy for you and also hydrates you in the morning when you’re at your least hydrated. Better that than food, alcohol, drugs, or tobacco.
It’s a real shame that most people are exposed to such poor quality tea. The tea I drink bears zero resemblance to the tiny tea bags that we’ve all experienced. I think that if more people had access to good tea they would choose it over other beverages and be better off for it.
Photo is my tea room in Vegas. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a nice place to have tea.