Thursday, March 14, 2019

Why Does This Tea Taste Bad?

If you've only had tea that tasted too bitter, or flavorless, or musty, it doesn't mean you don't like tea. It could just mean you're not tasting the tea in the way it was intended! Every type of tea is different, and several factors can lead to creating a bad cup. 

The other night I had yet another bad tea experience at a restaurant, and it inspired me to write this post. The tea in question should have been vegetal and lovely, and instead I had something bitter and too astringent. Thankfully I knew the tea wasn't bad, it was just prepared incorrectly.

It doesn't matter if you're preparing the tea yourself, or if you're at a 4-star restaurant; if a tea is prepared incorrectly, it won't be at its best. So why does your tea taste bad?  Important factors such as the amount of leaf, steeping time, temperature, and quality will greatly change the flavor of your tea. 

Water Quality Can Change The Flavor
I'm lucky to live in the NYC area, and our tap water tastes great! It really does. I usually use filtered tap water for my tea. But when I travel to visit relatives upstate, I cannot use tap water to brew my tea, filtered or not. It tastes awful! So consider your tap water, and if that could be altering the taste. I'd suggest trying filtered tap water first, and also experimenting with bottled water to see if the flavor of your tea changes. If you'd like to read a little more about how water changes the flavor of tea, check out this great post by Rie from TeaCurious.

The Water Temperature
This seems to play a role in many restaurants. It's so important to tailor the temperature of the water to type of tea you're making. A delicate green tea isn't going to react well to boiling water, and a strong black tea may taste bland with water that's not hot enough. I've noticed most restaurants don't take the time to control water temperature. For example, when the water is too hot, green tea basically gets scorched and the tea turns bitter. You'll miss all the amazing flavors that a lower temperature can coax out of the leaves. Be sure to consult the packaging of your tea, it'll most likely indicate the temperature you should be using. Or a quick online search will tell you what you need to do.

The Water To Tea Ratio
This is another culprit of bad restaurant tea. I've been served pots of tea with an infuser filled to the top with leaves. In most cases, if you use too much tea and not enough water you're going to get a puckering, astringent, undrinkable brew. And of course, if you aren't using enough tea in a huge pot of water, you won't get much flavor. It also depends on your brewing style, but for Western brewing (in a teapot or mug with an infuser), be sure to consult the packaging. A typical ratio is usually a teaspoon of tea to a cup of water, but that's not an exact science and it greatly depends on the leaves.

The Steep Time
I'm guilty of over-steeping my tea most days when I'm at work. I'll start a steep, and proceed to check emails, get distracted, you know the deal. I really should be setting a timer (I use the timer on my phone) to remind myself. Over or under-steeping a tea will cause the flavor to be too strong, or obviously too mild and both will negate any nuances in the tea.

Are You Using A Tea bag?
Ok, first off, I'm not saying tea bags are bad. They're not! There are many good ones on the market, with quality tea inside. But many tea bags are just tea dust or very low quality leaves, which renders the brew unpleasant and flavorless. Another issue is the taste of the tea bag itself- you can easily be getting paper or even plastic notes in your tea. Definitely not tasty.

The Tea Itself
It's possible you're also using tea that is quite old and wasn't stored properly so it's turned stale. That'll make your tea taste, well, stale.  Or perhaps you stored the tea next to something quite odiferous, and it's taken on the less-than-pleasant smell. Tea also varies greatly in quality so I'd suggest trying other brands of the same tea type, you may find one you like better. Doing just a little bit of research about a tea will help you determine if you have something you don't like, or just a poor version of it.

Useful Tools for Better Tasting Tea
So, now you have the knowledge, but maybe you need a few things to get started. A variable electric kettle is a great way to control the temperature of the water. I've owned this one in the past, and it works really well. I also love this one. I've been drooling over this one for months (what, doesn't everyone drool over electric kettles??), and hope to acquire it at some point!

A pitcher with a water filter is a handy way to improve the flavor of your tea.

To measure your tea, you can use a teaspoon, but to be even more precise, a small kitchen scale is essential. I mainly only use mine when I'm tasting a tea for review or trying one for the first time, but if you use it you'll get the right amount of tea every time.

For Western-style brewing, be sure to have a teapot with a mesh strainer so you can remove the leaves at the proper time. There are hundreds to choose from but I love these cute little teapots, they are great for home or office steeping.

So, what do you think? Don't dismiss a particular tea (or all teas!) just because you didn't like it the first time. Of course it's possible it's just not for you, but give tea a chance, and make sure all of these important variables are correct. Chances are you'll have a much better cup of tea. There are so many types to try, so don't give up!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Interview with Vikram Mathur Of Yatra Tea Company

Photo courtesy of Vikram Mathur

I'm pleased to present my interview with Vikram Mathur, owner of Yatra Tea Company. I first had the opportunity to try Yatra tea at the 2018 World Tea Expo, where I assisted with a tea pairing workshop. I enjoyed the teas I tried, and I was curious to learn more about the company. I recently connected with Vikram, and he graciously offered to answer a few questions. Learn about his tea journey, how he is helping the Indian tea growing community, and what inspires him in the interview below.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Grow Your Own Herbal Tea Garden!

You may love drinking herbal teas, but did you know you can grow your own? It's easy to grow herbs and flowers to brew into delicious teatime sips. Whether you have lots of space or just a small corner, you can grow your own herbal tea ingredients in pots, or in the garden. Either inside or out.

Imagine sipping on your own homegrown herbal tea creations! You can refer to all of these as 'herbals' or I also like to use 'tisanes', which means an infusion. I've detailed all of the things you need to get started on your own personal herbal tea garden below.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Lesson In Pairing Tea, Wine, and Food at Baccarat Hotel

I recently had the pleasure of attending an exquisite tea, wine, and food pairing event at the Baccarat Hotel in NYC. I picked up tips for pairing tea with champagne and food in the most beautiful room, while sipping on the most delicious tea, champagne, and food. Sounds like a dream, right? It was quite an evening.

This incredible event was created by Gabrielle Jammal, the incomparable tea sommelier at Baccarat. Over the past year she has been working tirelessly to create tea events in this luxurious yet intimate setting, to show guests the true magic of tea. So, on to the magic...

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Harney & Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice vs. Hot Apple Spice

Whenever I remember to check my blog stats, there is one post that always comes out on top, an old review of Harney & Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice tea. This is Harney's best selling tea, and in my review I was surprised to learn that it contains artificial flavors. Turns out that many of you were surprised as well, and sounded off in the comments section. I was content to leave it all at that, until I had the pleasure of attending a tea and cheese tasting at The French Cheese Board with tea pairings from none other than Harney & Sons. Emeric Harney, grandson of founder John Harney was on hand to discuss the teas they served along with the delicious cheeses. During the event he happened to mention Hot Cinnamon Spice, and how it contains natural and artificial flavors. Well, at that point I knew I had to tell him about my post, and ask him what he thought.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Tea History: Adding Milk To Tea

Many cultures add milk to their tea. British style tea, Taiwanese milk tea, masala chai and teh tarik are just a few that come to mind. Perhaps as you're reading this you are enjoying a milky tea latte. But when did milk get introduced into tea, and why? Adding milk to tea is not just for altering the flavor.

You may think that Western Europeans (most notably Britain) would be the first to add milk to their tea since it's such an important tradition today. People fight about adding the milk first, or tea first, and there are strong arguments for both. Perhaps you've heard a bit more about the subject, and you are either a 'miffy' or a 'tiffy'. But when did this all really start?

The History of Adding Milk To Tea
If you think about it, Tibetan butter tea has been around for far longer than European milky tea. One of my favorite tea history books, The True History Of Tea, mentions that tea could have been brought to Tibet in as early as 781 when a Chinese ambassador brought tea with him on his journey. In Mongolia the earliest record of adding dairy to tea comes from a court doctor:
The Yin Shan Zheng Yao (Essentials of Food And Drink) compiled by the Mongolian court doctor Hoshoi in 1332 contains the earliest description of the Mongolian use of butter and the preparation of tea...tea leaves were roasted in a wok until red, then boiled with butter and curd...
Tea was introduced to Mongolia from China, and butter and milk have been added to Mongolian tea for centuries. This was documented in the mid 1800s by French Missionary Évariste Régis Huc, who wrote about the tea was offered while visiting a Tibetan monastery. Once again from The True History Of Tea:
Like the Tibetans, they subsisted on a heavy diet of meat, milk products, and grain, and prized tea for its digestive properties. An ordinary cup of Mongol tea was prepared by breaking a tea brick into pieces with an axe, crushing the tea in a mortar, and boling the crumbs with water and a pinch of soda to extract all the strength and flavor. This infusion was set aside, and cow's or goat's milk oiled with an ample amount of salt. The tea infusion was then mixed with the milk, and some flour and Mongolain-style butter, made by boiling cream at a low heat, added. When this yellow broth had been brought to a boil, it was transferred to a Mongolian teapot- a two-foot cylindrical brass container with a handle on the side and two holes in the soldered lid: one for tea and one for air, and served in simple wooden bowls.

Adding Milk To Tea for Nutrition
In the case of Tibetan tea, yak milk and butter is added to increase the nutrition and caloric content of the tea. This tea will warm you up, give you energy, and keep you hydrated at the intense altitude of a cold, nomadic lifestyle. In areas of Mongolia, yak, horse, or sheep's milk would be added. I've only  had Tibetan tea in restaurants, and I'm guessing it's not exactly like the stuff you'd get at the source. But the tea I've had is heavy, salty, and...barnyard-y. It'll definitely fill you up and keep you warm. I found this interesting article from Eater that mentions a type of yak milk tea from Tibet. It'll give you a good idea of what the brew is like, and gives interesting cultural insight into the tea.

Why The British Add Milk To Their Tea
When the Dutch and British started adding milk to their tea, it could be because it was mimicked by what they saw in China. But others argue that it was to temper the delicate porcelain cups they created. Chinese porcelain cups were small and the tea was made to be consumed quickly. But when Europeans started manufacturing their own porcelain, they made the cups larger, which of course held more tea. This larger amount of tea sat in the cups longer, and would cause the delicate porcelain crack. But adding the milk first would lower the temperature, saving the precious pieces. Adding milk was reportedly popularized by Madame de la Sablière, an important figure in French society who in 1680 served tea with milk at her famous Paris salon. She supposedly added the milk because she wanted to save her delicate porcelain cups from cracking. This certainly makes sense, but there are other reasons why milk was added.

The quality of tea in the 17th and 18th century wasn't very good, due to poor storage and long ship voyages. Adding milk would dilute the pungent favors created from the poor quality tea. Another reason came a little later, as working class British citizens sought something to revive them in the middle of the day, and a brew of tea and sugar would do just that. I've often read books where coal miners and other laborers took flasks of milky sweet tea with them to revive them throughout the day.  This idea is related to 'high' tea and 'low' tea, but that's for another blog post!

Of course, milk tea is popular all around the world today, and as I type this I'm craving a strong masala chai latte. For one of the unique ways of adding milk to tea, check out my post about East Frisian tea. Have you tried Tibetan butter tea? What other unique ways do you add milk to your tea?

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Teaware History: What Is Bone China?

I love learning about vintage teaware, especially its history. Lately I've been reading about the history of porcelain for an exciting project that I'll share soon, and I came across information on bone china. I have many vintage bone china teacups in my collection, but never really thought about what bone china actually is. I assumed it was called 'bone' because of the color. This is partially true, but I never thought it would pertain to what's actually added to the porcelain, to make it so...boney...

Porcelain is generally a mixture of kaolin clay, and feldspar. When you see 'china' as a material, usually it means it's made of porcelain. Bone china has one important addition, which is bone ash. Yes, it's made with charred animal bones, usually cow bones. From Wikipedia:
Once cleaned, the bone is heated to about 1000 °C (1832 °F) so that all additional organic material is removed from the bone and the bone becomes sterilized. Lastly, the newly sterilized bone is ground with water into fine particles which can be used as a raw material for bone china.
All of these cups are made with bone china

Bone China History
This all made me wonder, who decided to try adding bone ash to a clay mixture? In the early 18th century, European manufacturers desperately wanted to recreate the beautiful porcelain pieces imported from China, but had difficulty doing so. Before the discovery of hard paste porcelain in Germany, manufacturers were using all sorts of techniques to create a durable material. In the UK it was discovered that adding bone ash to soft-paste porcelain would strengthen the material during firing. English potter Josiah Spode is credited with perfecting the formula for bone china in the 1790s. From what I've read, the bone ash doesn't necessarily make the material stronger, but it does impart a creamier, white color that is difficult to otherwise achieve. The material is also quite thin and translucent. This delicate appearance was greatly sought after in teaware and other porcelain objects After the success of Spode, other English potters started developing formulas for bone china in the early 1800s.

From a blog dedicated to Spode history:
The Spode manufactory was the first to perfect a body using about 50% animal bone combined with the ingredients for true porcelain ie china stone and china clay. This is the formula which is now described as bone china. 
Bone china is translucent. See the silhouette of my fingers through this Shelley cup?

Identifying Bone China
Bone china is supposed to have a warm, creamy appearance, and the material is more translucent than regular porcelain clays. To be called 'bone' china the material should have at least 25% bone ash added, although it's tough to know how much was used. If you're wondering if you have a piece of bone china, hold it up to the light and put your hand behind it. Can you see it? If you can, it's likely  bone china. As with other fine china pieces, if you give the edge of a piece a flick with your fingernail, it should have a nice ring to it. Although if it doesn't it may not mean it's not bone china, it could mean there is a crack in the piece. But if you get some experience handling fine and bone china pieces, you'll start to have an idea for the look and feel of it. The easiest way to check? Look at the backstamp, if there is one. Along with the maker, it should include the words 'Bone China', 'Fine Bone China', 'British Bone China', etc.

Collecting Bone China
Bone china is generally more expensive than other china, because of the bone ash. The labor is more intensive to create the material. Bone china is easy to find today in stores that sell teaware and dishware. I prefer to collect vintage pieces that I find online and at flea markets and antique stores. I also found this helpful book that will help you clearly identify your china. Bone china was originally manufactured in England, so many of the older pieces you find will be from the UK.

The Question of Ethics- for Vegetarians and Vegans
If you're vegetarian or vegan, I'd be curious to know- would you knowingly purchase bone china?I am curious to know what you all think! Please leave a note in the comments.

Ok, I have to share one last strange my research got a bit out of hand, and I came across china pieces you can have created with HUMAN bones, as a memorial. This is definitely bringing bone china to a new level.