Five Tips to Help You Savor Tea

Experiencing tea involves all of the five senses.

Neural Pathways in the Brain Delivering the Full Tea Experience – by NICHD/P. Basser (CC BY 2.0)

When David and I started to really build Dominion Tea, we sampled a lot of different teas with experienced and inexperienced tea drinkers alike and found out how little we knew about what it means to adequately describe the experience of drinking one tea versus another. Taste is so much more than just the five senses that our tongue gets (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). It also includes touch, smell, and sight. To say that you taste something ignores that fact that it really does require all five senses to register what is in your mouth. To savor tea acknowledges that it requires more than taste to truly enjoy a cup.

It is a testament to the complexity of the human body that all five senses can so quickly execute when we consume beverages or food that it often leaves us lost for words about what we just experienced. To help me figure out how to better describe tea, I went hunting through books on food, brain neurology and what scientists have learned about our mouths. Below are five tips on how to better understand what you are experiencing with your next cup of tea. These take time, patience and practice, but are well worth it.

  1. Play when you drink the tea. Smell the tea before you put it in your mouth and try to describe the smell. Then slurp the tea when you drink it. Yes, slurp. It allows the aroma to travel up the back of your mouth into your nose again. Smell is actually what gives you the complexities of what you taste, not your tongue. Then try to describe what you just drank. How is your second description different from the first? Then sip the same tea while you pinch your nose closed and you will realize what you are missing when your sense of smell is taken out of the process.
  2. Drink with others. No two people have the same tasting experience. Our genetics effect how strongly we taste bitter, salty and sour. There is no wrong way to describe what you taste but having someone else around to compare your experience with helps you get better in finding the right words for what you are experiencing.
  3. Swish the tea around in your mouth. After you have had fun slurping, try swishing. As you swish the tea around in your mouth, what do you feel? Does your tongue feel dry around the sides or does the tea feel creamy down the middle of your tongue?
  4. Know your biases around taste. Our experiences with food are written back into our brains, so if you associate a smell or taste with something bad, even unconsciously, it will affect your future experience. The same holds true for good experiences. Knowing your biases helps to guide you on what to try and may also help you explain why something doesn’t work for you.
  5. Practice describing the what, how, where and when around the cup of tea. What refers to the five tastes. How refers to the intensity of the taste – low, medium or high. Where refers to where in your mouth you taste the tea and when refers usually to the start, middle or end (finish). Practice being precise as possible with these as that will ultimately help you understand what types of teas are pleasing. Often a tea can be pleasing not for its smell or taste but for how it feels in your mouth (think smooth).

Practice these five tips and you will become better on describing your tea experience and learn to appreciate the flavor of more than just your favorite cup of tea.

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Water Quality for a Great Tea Experience

Water droplets.

Do you have great water quality for your tea? Are you sure?

Are you sacrificing a great cup of tea because your water leaves a little something to be desired? Water is the single biggest ingredient in your cup of tea so making sure you have great water quality is a great idea; especially if you have a well!

What is Water Quality?

Well the answer, like that of what is quality tea is, it depends. Water quality can be subjective and depends on the application. It’s really probably better to think in terms of fitness for use. Quality water for swimming, showering, and washing clothes is a very different discussion from the water quality desired for tea.

Its important to start off with a baseline. A large part of what we are trying to do when we make a cup of tea is steep leaves in water in order to extract the favor (and usually caffeine as well) from the leaves. The leaves contain both water soluble and water in-soluble compounds that can impact flavor.  And some of these compounds are more soluble than others at a given temperature. We are looking to extract desirable flavor compounds while minimizing the tannins which result in bitterness.

So for tea we are looking for the ideal water to extract the right amount of flavor.

All We Want is Fresh Clear Water, Right?

Since we are looking for the best water to extract the right balance of flavor what does this look like?  In short, fresh clean water, without off odors, and which has some minerals but isn’t too hard. Sounds easy right?  Here are a few things you will want to know.

  • Tap water is not the same across the country.  Some areas have naturally harder (or softer) water than others. Hardness being a measure of dissolved minerals. The ideal hardness for tea is between 50 and 100 parts per million.
  • Calcium in water creates scale which damages electric tea kettles and increases the energy required to boil water.
  • Public water supplies may have added chlorine and fluoride, may not be as soft as desired, and after travelling through a network of pipes, may not be as clean as you think.
  • Private (aka well) water may be all over the map. It depends where you live, how deep a well you have, what the local geology looks like, and more. While well water is tested for new wells this is minimal testing, primarily for coliform.  It’s not necessarily for radon, pesticides, hardness,  or other things which impact water quality.
  • We do not want distilled water or reverse osmosis water.  The former leaves behind all minerals but not volatile organic compounds (for example benzene or other fuel-related components).  The latter provides pure water with no minerals; flat, boring, and providing an equally boring cup of tea.

Getting Great Water Quality for Tea

First and foremost get your water tested.  If you are on public water you can get a good baseline from the annual water quality report put out by your jurisdiction. However, this will only have basic information in it and won’t account for what happens on the journey from source to destination. It’s a great idea to get your personal water supply tested.  If you are on a well this is really a must as water quality changes over time due to groundwater changes or due to damage to your well head or casing. As a homeowner you will only know the full details of your water by testing yourself. The CDC offers some thoughts on testing.

After testing, consider available solutions to address your water situation. This may be a basic sediment filter, a carbon filter to remove odors and other organics, softening through sodium (salt) ion exchange, and/or scale inhibitors.  Its important to realize that there generally is not a one-sized fits all solution, you may use a combination of methods, and you may want to consider cost and options for treating all your water or only drinking water.

One more note on water quality. While we stated that its different from place to place there are exceptions for large nationwide coffee/tea chains and similar establishments. These businesses are looking for an exact flavor experience every time regardless of which shop you visit. These establishments actually use reverse osmosis to remove everything from the water. Then they use a pre-formulated solution to add back the exact mineral content for exactly the same water, everywhere!

Finally, A Note on Descaling Your Electric Kettle

Pamukkale Travertines of Turkey. Water quality for tea is a measure of disolved solids. In this case lots of calcium formed the travertines.

Extreme Example of Calcium (Scale) Buildup at the Pamukkale Travertines in Tukey. Photo by flickr user SaraYeomans (CC BY 2.0)

We find it amusing that the answer to scale or calcium buildup in your kettle is to purchase special descaling chemicals. However, regular descaling, as if it occurs at the same rate everywhere, is exactly what many electric kettle manuals even claim you should do! Scale, or calcium buildup depends on water hardness which, as we’ve seen, varies dramatically across the country as well as between well and municipal water. So descaling monthly is a bit inappropriate for many consumers. Regardless, you can use white vinegar to remove scale, so why buy something else? More importantly, if you are looking to enjoy your tea and you have excessive mineral buildup in your kettle then you have a bigger problem: hard water. By now you know that the first step is to have your water tested so you know what you are dealing with, can treat it appropriately to have great water quality, and ultimately have a great tea experience.

 

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Tea Storage for Optimal Freshness and Shelf Life

Correct tea storage provides the longest shelf life possible. This is important for all tea drinkers as your want your last cup to be as good as your first. So to get this correct, we need some basic understanding of how tea interacts with the environment and what the expected shelf life of tea really is. Then we can figure out where and how to store tea. Below is a chart that lays out the different types of teas and how long they should be good for if given the optimal treatment in the trip to market and then onto your shelves at home.

Tea Type Expected Shelf Live Tea Storage Comments
Black 24 months Since this tea is generally dried longer, it will last longer under the right conditions.
Oolong 12-24 months The darker the oolong the longer the shelf life.
Green and Yellow 6-12 months The British Tea Council advises to drink the green teas before 6 months as the anti-oxidants will break down over time. If taste is more your concern, you are fine going out 12 months for most.
White 6 months Since white tea is made from younger leaves with the least amount of manufacturing, so this is not a tea to keep long.
Blended with Flavoring 6-24 months Extracts have long shelf lives, so it is the tea base that will dictate this shelf life
Blended with spices, flowers, herbs 6-12 months Here the spices more than the tea dictate the shelf life. Cinnamon, mint, and cloves will start to lose their punch after six months. Most flowers add no flavor and will stay as long as the tea.
Blended with Nuts 6 months Nuts go bad quickly, that is why you often don’t find them in tea. If a tea is nut flavored, it is generally through extracts.
Puerh Generally the older the better, some of the best on the market are 20-30 years old, unlike the other tea, this one needs air to improve its flavor Puerh needs air, so if you buy it store it somewhere other than the kitchen to allow for proper air circulation without it picking up the odors from your cooking.
Your favorite antique tea tin may not provide the best tea storage solution.

Your Favorite Tea Storage Tin May Impair Freshness

Tea Storage Conditions

Tea is hygroscopic, which means it will absorb moisture and odor from the air. So it needs an air-tight container, kept away from spices, garlic, onions, and anything else that has strong odors in the kitchen. Tea should also be kept away from heat. Generally in a kitchen, when food is heated it releases steam and the tea will absorb all of it. So never store your tea near or above your oven, cook top, dishwasher, or microwave. By doing that, you are just asking to have your morning tea taste like last night’s dinner. Finally, tea is also light sensitive. Remember, the sun is used to whither the freshly plucked tea leaves. So more sun on the dried tea leaves, will just break them down faster. So its best to stay away from clear containers.

Best Tea Storage Options

Sencha Green Tea in Resealable Pouch for Optimal Tea Storage

Japanese Sencha in an Air-Tight Tea Storage Pouch to Optimize Freshness

If your tea comes in a resealable pouch that is not clear, you have the perfect container to store your tea. For those pesky tea bags in cardboard boxes, get them into a zip lock bag immediately and make sure you are using them regularly as they do not last that long. That is not to say you should not have a metal, plastic or dark glass container to store your tea, if you like those kinds of things. Just keep in mind they have seams and may not be as air-tight as most of the resealable pouches. Also, the flavor of the tea will stay with the container, especially plastic ones, so you have to be willing to constantly drink the same tea to justify having a secondary container for it. Either that or be prepared to wash it well between teas (and expect plastic to still retain the smell of the prior tea or soap used to wash it). Just remember to put your tea in a dark part of the kitchen away from heat, and not in the refrigerator, unless you have the tea in a vacuum sealed container. In closing, to keep your tea as fresh as possible, an air tight container that is dark and placed away from heat and appliances that produce heat or steam is the best solution.

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Electric Kettle Selection – Maximize Flexibility & Keep Everyone Happy

Yellow Electric Tea Kettle

Our First Exposure to an Electric Kettle

Our recent posts have focused on the wide variety of options one could choose from in selecting the perfect teapot. In the midst of writing these posts we received a note from one of our readers (thanks Gerry) asking if we had any thoughts to share on electric kettles. So this week we are going to do just that.

Having evolved ourselves, over the years, from teapot on the stove to water boilers and electric kettles, its probably about time for this post. Our first experience with electric kettles came on a trip to France. During a stay at Les Quatre Puits (near Bordeaux), we found using an electric kettle to be so much faster and easier that we bought one right away on returning home and haven’t looked back since.

History of the Electric Kettle

Kettles have been around for thousands of years, though of course electric kettles are relatively new on the scene needing, well…. electricity. The late 1800’s saw the first electric kettle, though initial designs weren’t very efficient, nor safe, as they had no way to shut off when the water boiled or even if they boiled dry. It was Russell Hobbs which developed the first fully automatic electric kettle in 1955. The expertly named (we’re kidding) K1 proved safer and more convenient than boiling water on the stove. It was a radical new design, with a thermostat to automatically turn off the kettle upon boil, greatly reducing the chance of boiling the kettle dry and causing a fire.

Choosing an Electric Kettle

Electric kettles have come a long way since the 1950’s. They have several new safety options, are made from various materials, and some even have options to address various temperatures at which you might want to steep your tea. The following table outlines some of the common features, though a quick Amazon search for tea kettles yields well over 1,000 options so we’ve surely missed some.

Feature Our Take Comments

Primary Material Metal Preferred The jury on plastic may still be out in some minds and not in others. Seems better to be on the safe side and use something with the least amount of plastic possible. And while glass or porcelain are attractive its something else to worry about breaking.

Auto-Shutoff Mandatory This is both a safety and energy usage issue.

Boil-Dry Prevention Optional In theory this is a safety issue, but we can’t see how we would ever put an empty kettle or one with very low water on. The good news is most kettles come with this anyhow.

Cord Concealment Optional This is a safety issue, and in our house with children around this is mandatory for us. For other family situations this will be different. Similar to boil-dry prevention in that most come with this feature anyway.

Variable Temperature Strongly Desired We believe strongly that tea lovers should explore. That means not limiting yourself to one kind of tea. If you drink green, white, yellow, and some oolongs then you are going to need different water temperatures. Its either this, or get a thermometer and practice patience.

Concealed Heating Element Optional We’ve used both, and unless you are going to scrub the inside of your kettle, we aren’t sure this makes a difference. If you have hard water and have to descale appliances often, this might be an issue for you. However, if you have hard water, you would be better served looking at filtration systems.

Keep Warm Strongly Desired We can’t tell you how many times we got the water going, got distracted, and didn’t get back to the kettle right away. This is a must have if you have busy mornings.

Cordless Kettle Mandatory This is a no brainer. Having a kettle still attached to the wall is a safety issue and a major convenience/flexibility issue.

360° Swivel Optional We’ve used both, and frankly could care less either way.  The 360° swivel can be a bit of a pain to land the kettle on. The less expensive Aroma model we used for years, without a swivel base, was actually easier to land the kettle on.

Audible Beeps Strongly Desired Without the beep, we can’t go far and know the water is done. Though if your kettle has a keep warm option this is less of an issue.

Light-Up Buttons or Water Fill Level Optional For the most part this is a weak way to differentiate a product and something else to break.

In Kettle Tea Basket Optional This is more gimmick than practical for us. More parts, more things to break, and unless everyone in the house agrees to the same tea then one person gets the kettle and the other boils water another way or waits, cleans the unit, and prepares their own later.

Electric Kettles and Water Boilers

There is a wide variety of kettles up to and including full water boilers like the 4 Liter Zojirushi at left.

Just a quick note on plastic too. Most electric tea kettles today have some plastic, and while it may be BPA free that certainly doesn’t settle the debate of other chemicals leaching into the water from plastic. Like it or not, our take is that if you use a kettle there will be some contact with plastic though it may be quite small depending on model. We recently upgraded our kettle to Cuisinart CPK-17, which is primarily metal, though we’ve used an inexpensive plastic model for years. Both perform well, and neither give off flavors to the water produced. If you do end up with off flavors and you are sure its not your water then try boiling and discarding several post including a pot of white vinegar and water. If it still has off flavors then return it and don’t look back.

When it comes to our kettle upgrade, the big reason we switched to the Cuisinart CPK-17 was the ability to bring water to a specific temperature, and on-line reviews indicating it did indeed bring the water within 1-2 of the desired temp. We drink a wide variety of teas and that targeted temperature makes preparation easier.

One model that stands out is the Breville one-touch tea maker. This kettle is specifically focused on making tea and features an automated basket which is raised and lowered by the tea you are making. On the surface looks like a great solution, though it wasn’t right for us for several reasons. First, its expensive at 2 to 5 times the cost of most other kettles. Second, in our house we rarely agree on the type of tea we are going to drink on any given day so we need hot water and then we go our separate ways. If you make tea in the Breville they recommend washing the jug and basket before changing teas. That’s not going to work for us while heading off to work and juggling getting kids off to school. Finally, we are technology people (we even do some software programming), but feel that more tech equals more parts to break or things to go wrong.

All in all there are plenty of kettles at the low end of the price range. However, if you are open to exploration in the tea world then its well worth the upgrade to a model with variable temperature settings. There is such a thing as too many features, too gimmicky, and even impractical for families with multiple tea drinkers so take care before shelling out for the most expensive kettles. That said, if you want a simple, elegant kettle in touch with history, check out the beautifully simple Legacy Floral Kettle from Russell Hobbs.

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The Perfect Teapot – Part I

Traditional teapot, cups, and tray.

Teapot and Cups at the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland Oregon – Photo © Dominion Tea 2015

Much like tea, there are many different tea pots on the market. So determining which one to use can be overwhelming. So to help you find the perfect teapot, we outline items that should be considered when making your purchase.

Here are the five things you should consider in purchasing the perfect teapot for you:

  1. What type of tea do you wish to serve in the teapot.
  2. Your willingness to clean your new teapot by hand.
  3. How many servings you are hoping to have from a pot of tea.
  4. How the teapot reflects your view of tea.
  5. Your budget. (Yes, a teapot can be a budget buster.)

These considerations require more knowledge about the history of the tea and subsequently make for a rather long blog, so I am going to be breaking this up into two blogs and initially focus on matching your teapot to your tea and what it means for your future hand washing duties.

Matching Tea to The Perfect Teapot

Knowing what kind of tea you wish to drink from your teapot is the most important consideration. Yes, that implies that you may need more than one teapot if you are to drink your tea correctly. I don’t see a problem with that, especially once you learn the history of some of these teapots. They too have stories that rival those of the tea steeped inside. Below is a quick chart showing the traditional tea that goes with the teapot. This is not to say you cannot brew some other tea in the pot, just be aware that some of the features of the pot may not work well with other teas.

 

Teapot Type Historical Tea Care Needed

Ceramic Teapot, unglazed – Yixing (also known as I-Hsing) All types of tea, but only one teapot per type since the flavor of the tea is absorbed by the clay Leaves should be removed from the pot when done and the pot left out to dry. No soap should be used as it will be absorbed by the teapot and your next cup may have bubbles!

Ceramic Teapot, glazed – Kyusu Gykoro and Sencha More modern ones can go through the dishwasher on the top shelf. Older ones require hand washing as the glaze may be damaged.

Cast Iron Teapot – Tetsubin Sencha Like other cast iron cookware, the dishwasher is not allowed and soap will ruin it. Rinse lightly with water and towel dry.

Sterling Silver Teapot All types, joints in the pot will stain over time. Sterling silver is never put in the dishwasher, but it does require polishing. Dry the inside completely after rinsing with water to prevent permanent staining.

Porcelain Teapot, glazed All types, the glaze allows for using of different types of teas with the same pot. However, black teas will most certainly stain the interior of the pot over time and heavily flavored teas may leave residual oils and flavors behind. Some of these may be dishwasher safe, some not. It depends on the age and the thickness of the porcelain. Soap is easily usable on more modern teapots but may damage the glaze on older.

Glass Teapot Flowering and balled teas. The glass allows the drinker to enjoy the unraveling of the leaves, and for the flowering teas the final work of art of the tied tea leaves. Watch the spouts on these, as they are wider so smaller leaf teas will pour right out of the pot. Most glass teapots can be cleaned on the top shelf of the dishwasher (Experience suggests don’t put the top in the dishwasher, they are too fragile.)

 

 

Short, Red, Cast Iron Teapot

Japanese Tetsubin – Photo by Flickr user Irene2005 – CC BY-2.0

The materials used in the creation of the teapot will affect the final taste of the tea. In the case of the metal and un-glazed ceramic, the effect is most pronounced. The Tetsubin, cast iron teapot, was supposedly created in response to Japanese tea drinkers not liking the flavor of the water coming from the traditional Japanese copper pots that were also used for boiling water for cooking. In the end there is really no right or wrong material for the perfect teapot, just one of personal preference.

In our next part, we will discuss size, budgets and how the shape and color of a teapot should influence your purchase. On to The Perfect Teapot – Part II

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