I walked into Art of Tea, a tea importer based in Los Angeles, expecting to learn a few things, take a quick tour, and try a couple of teas. Two hours and an incredibly full bladder later, I left enlightened and with a dozen tea samples in hand. As you may have guessed, Steve Schwartz, the founder of Art of Tea, loves tea. More importantly, he tells me, he’s passionate about sharing tea with people. I happen to also love tea, but have a regrettably small base of knowledge—the perfect formula for lots of tea drinking and tea learning. As we tried a wide variety of teas (but nowhere near the extent of what they offer), a few bits of information stood out in my mind.
First, Steve had a few tips for pouring the perfect cup of tea. Small vessels are typically better, and temperature and time are important factors.
1.Pour hot water into your pot and cup to warm them while you boil your water.
2.Pour the water out, and put one teaspoon of fine tea leaves/ one tablespoon of fluffier tea leaves into the pot.
3.Pour eight ounces of hot water over the leaves—the temperature of the water and the steep time depends on the type of tea (Art of Tea has a handy guide).
4.Strain into your cup, and you’re ready to drink your tea.
But before you gulp down your carefully made tea, why not properly taste it first? When trying a high-quality tea for the first time, follow these steps to get the full impact of its flavor. Think wine tasting, but with a hot beverage. Note: we do not recommend tasting tea this way while in a cafe, or around other people in general.
1.Take an initial sip to test the temperature and get a general sense of the flavor.
2.If cool enough, go for a real tasting. Suck the liquid into your mouth, and swirl it around the front of your mouth to aerate the tea and cool it a bit.
3.Slurp it back so that it covers all of your taste buds.
4.Swallow, and with lips closed, take a slow breath out of your nose.
This method engages all of the taste buds, as well as your sense of smell, giving you a full picture of the tea you’re drinking. But what should you be looking for beyond it tasting good? One characteristic that Steve looks for is astringency. “Astringency is where you feel a little bit of dryness in the back of your mouth and on the sides of your cheeks, while bitter is this sort of offensive flavor that makes your mouth pucker a bit,” he says. There’s a fine line between the two, and the ability to differentiate them can take time to develop. But while bitter is not what you’d look for in a good tea, astringency is a desirable flavor quality, like the dry finish from a good wine or coffee.
A very green tea called Gyokuro
A nice example of this quality in action is the green tea Gyokuro. Steve shows me the leaves, which are fine and a deep, deep green. I’ve never seen tea quite this green, and he tells me this is due to the tea being shade-grown for two weeks before harvesting. The leaves are steam processed by hand in Japan before arriving by boat and going in the freezer. The resulting tea is prized for its umami flavor—the ultimate combination of sweet, salty, and astringent.
Steve uses surprisingly cool water for this cup (around 150 degrees) and steeps it for less than a minute. When straining it, he wrings out the tea leaves, attempting to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. “This is where the umami really kicks in,” he tells me. The pour is a lively light green, and is more complex than it looks. There is a savory note, as well as a sweet, grassy one. We go through a second steep with this one—these leaves are not to be wasted. Steve says this as a tea he can happily drink every day.
We try a long list of other teas, including black, herbal, oolong, and other green teas, and Steve throws in bits of information along the way. I catch what I can and file it in the back of my tea-drinking brain. Oolongs are best for repeat steepings because of their twisted leaves, and a small pot will give you the best results. Don’t steep any teas too long, or you’ll go from pleasantly astringent to unpleasantly bitter. If you like the way a tea smells, you’re probably going to like the tea. And tea is sensitive to light, heat, and humidity, so keep your tea in a cool and dry, dark place.
Two types of Oolong teas
We finish our tasting with an herbal blend that’s lightly floral and smells like vanilla. I feel like I’m still not tasting the tea as well as I could, but I enjoy all of them. Steve reassures me that although there are many layers to tea—medicinal, cultural, historical—what’s really important when you’re drinking it is the taste. He has told me so much about the teas, but I feel like it’s just a drop in the bucket. “I always say I’m more addicted to learning about tea than drinking it, because there’s so much to learn,” he says. I definitely have a lot to learn, but this feels like a good start.
Laurel Randolph http://laurelrandolph.com/ is a food and lifestyle writer hailing from Tennessee and living in Los Angeles. She enjoys cooking, baking and drink making. Tweet at her face: @laurelrandly