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Connoiseur-Level Black Teas and How to Brew Them
Tea is so simple, really, just leaf and water. Yet the complexity of taste, the variety of types and the seemingly unending ways to savor it make it intriguing, mysterious and provocative.
Once a tea lover graduates from an English Breakfast blend teabag to loose-leaf English Breakfast, he or she is on the way to nirvana. Then, if fate intervenes and one lucks into an educated purveyor or thoughtful mail-order source, loose leaf choices will stagger the imagination and stymie the most astute decision maker.
Black teas, called red by the Chinese for the color of their liquor, are summarily dismissed in China where green teas are paramount, and Pu-er and oolongs come in second and third place. Blacks are, in fact, the first world-wide effort at marketing teas. In the early days of shipping teas around the world from China to Europe, the green teas lost their luster, flavor and appearance. No wonder early devotees buttered and salted the leaves, eating them and throwing out the liquor.
What was China to do? The answer: intentionally wither the tea. Using sun-drying methods or hot woks, creative hand twisting and curling of the leaves, the Chinese developed many ways of converting their beloved greens into a 100% fully-oxidized product: black teas.
Should one continue to explore black teas? Black teas are what most of the world outside of China drinks. In Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the most famous names include Uva, remarkably fragrant, Dimbula. mellow yet with a lovely lingering aftertaste, and Nuwara Eliya, well-known for its sweetness. Each of these fine CTC (cut-tear-curl) teas do their plantation areas proud. These are rich-tasting teas, that stand up well with milk, but are refreshing and refined all by themselves. Other fine teas are from the regions of Kandy and Ooty, and each Ceylon tea is blessed with intoxicating aroma and full-bodied flavor that never fails to enchant.
In India, Assam is perhaps the heartiest and most well-known black tea, and is the key tea ingredient in most Irish and English breakfast blends and most commercial Irish labels. An absolutely eye-opening tea, it is perfect for that first cup of the day.
Nilgiri, a high-grown tea from the Blue Mountains in southern India, is easy to drink and astonishingly soft. It is impossible to over-brew (unless you really work at it), and is best alone, without milk. Traveling through India we can savor many other varieties, like one of my personal favorites, from the Indian principality of Sikkim, its sweetness and beautiful reddish-orange color always satisfying.
The joke among tea professionals is that there is more Darjeeling sold than is grown in India. That is because pure Darjeeling is hard to find, and is so frequently adulterated with other teas to make a "Darjeeling blend". While I am hardly an Darjeeling enthusiast, I have come around after tasting pure-estate selections made with cooler water and with far less than the recommended five minute steeping time. I use three minutes, and am much pleased.
I have mentioned just a few of the hundreds and hundreds of varieties of black teas now available from nearly 40 countries in the world. As always, the best come from Sri Lanka, China and India, and any category of tea comes in a variety of grades, from poor to superb. Most teas are picked several times during a year, with the first and second "flush" or plucking being the most prized. As with wines, one cannot always be sure that the last year’s estate tea will be as breathtaking as this year’s, or that this season’s will stack up to the next. That is part and parcel of the fascination of tea, one never knows what to expect, yet one always hopes for the best, the most perfect cup.
Nearly every tea blender and many tea shop owners will espouse the traditional method of boiling water, a teaspoon of tea per cup and perhaps one for the pot, when making black tea. I say, "hogwash!" This started as a way to sell more tea, rather than to help consumers get the most enjoyment out of tea. The low to medium grades of tea that these blenders sell require more leaf to get substantial flavor. Caveat emptor: the better the tea, the less you need. Also, when using fine spring water, one needn't bring the water to a boil, but just to when the bubbles first start to appear. Too active a bubble, and you'll "bruise the leaf" and promptly drain out the flavor instead of luring it out to linger awhile.
It is important to heat both the teacup and the teapot. I pour hot water into each cup, place the saucer atop to keep in the heat and discard the water out when ready to pour the tea. As for the pot, it is a good idea to warm it up with hot water, place the lid on firmly, then discard the water when ready to put in the tea.
Should one use a strainer to catch the leaves once they are allowed to steep unfettered? Or, should you use an infuser to holds the tea leaves in the pot? Admittedly, infusers make a neater tea-brewing experience, but often with a sacrifice of flavor. Allowing the leaves their "agony" or dance as they unfurl and give their all for us is, I find, essential to getting the most flavor out of the leaves.
To brew, put into a warmed teapot, one level teaspoon per six ounces of water; pour the hot water atop, and allow sufficient time to brew (usually three to five minutes). Using a strainer, pour the tea into a second, warmed teapot. From this second teapot, pour tea into the waiting teacups. This may seem a bit of a fuss, but it makes a much better cup of tea. To reinfuse, pour water on the spent leaves, steep three to five minutes again, and repeat the process. It cannot be emphasized enough that water quality and water temperature contribute enormously to the best taste in the cup. A sophisticated tea vendor will always cup everything before selling and then offer brewing times; when in doubt, brew for two minutes, then taste; brewer longer as desired. One can always brew longer but the brew cannot be undone. Again, it is always better to brew blacks with under-boiling water than boiling.
Milk and sugar seem to make Assams taste rich and smooth, but, basically, again, the better the tea, the less one needs any additive. I would never add milk to Darjeeling, particularly when brewed lightly as described above. The sweet aftertaste and spectacular aromas of most Ceylon teas are not harmed by milk, but I think they are, nonetheless, unnecessary.
Should you suffer separation anxiety about leaving your trusted teabags or continue to seek Darjeeling "blends" or other popular blends, please be aware that like everything else in this world, you get what you pay for. The better teas will provide infinitely more cups of tea than the mediocre ones, and, quite ironically, don't cost much more. A box of your typical 20-teabag teas in the supermarket cost about $2.59 per package. These are usually blended with up to 60 varieties and frequently dust and fannings (the dusty remains of the vibrant leaf). That's about 13 cents per cup. If you figure the value based on its per-pound cost of about $68 per pound, that's about $1.70 per cup. At $68 per pound, you can get a premier black tea with its full sized, beautifully processed leaf, that will give you cup after fragrant cup, usually about 200 cups per pound. At about 34 cents per cup, you may well be drinking a tea equivalent of a Lafite Rothschild wine.
One tea that is intentionally made for large amounts of sugar and milk is genuine Ostfriesen tea from the House of Bunting. The Ostfriesans represent 25 % of Germany's tea consumption though they are barely 2% of the population, and this is their favorite tea. Not for delicate palates, or for those who revel in a delicate pure taste, this tea is for those who love to stand their teaspoon on end to show the strength of their brew.
Do your palate a favor and thrill your senses. Try connoisseur-level black teas at tea shops where you can talk to the vendor, look at the freshness of the leaf, smell it and, if you’re lucky, get a taste before you buy. Online vendors frequently offer great values for sample packs, a wonderful way to try small amounts, experiment with brewing times and pick a new favorite. The possibilities are legion for resources online and the quality is high.
Diana Rosen is a freelance writer for web sites and blogs, and print magazine articles, on food, beverage, and other lifestyle topics. The veteran journalist is also the author of 10 nonfiction books and the co-author of three others, the latest of which is MEDITATIONS WITH TEA, Paths to Inner Peace available in hardcover and paperback from Citadel Press at all major book outlets . For more information, write firstname.lastname@example.org.