Can we talk tea for a moment?

Mad Tea PartyThe name of this blog is Know Tea, but I don’t really talk about tea that much, do I.

That’s not because I don’t care about tea. I care deeply about tea. And a decent cup of tea is darned hard to find, lemme tellya.

Aside: About the blog title–or those of you who have not read the explanation before, it refers to my last name. It’s a Swedish name, Bengtsson, that was Anglicized more than 350 years ago to Bankson. Even when spelled Bengtsson, it is pronounced Bankson. Always Bankson. Never the other pronunciation that I won’t even write. Note that even in the original spelling, the “T” was before the “S”, not after. There has never been a “ST” sound in the name and there never will be. So don’t put one in there. The one with the “ST” sound is not my name. It is offensive to me when people decide they know better than I how to pronounce my own name. If your name is Johnson, I will not take it upon myself to call you Johnston. Please afford me the same respect. Know Tea, thank you very much.

But back to tea. If you are one of the approximately 12 tea drinkers in the United States, you know how difficult it is to get a decent cuppa anywhere in this great land of ours. Even at the ubiquitous coffee house chain (the one with the green woman on the sign), I had a bad tea experience the other day. I wanted a decaffeinated tea, and the barista (BTW, why do they call him a barista even when he’s a he? Shouldn’t it be baristo if it’s a man and barista if it’s a woman?) gave me an herbal infusion!

Universal, Unbreakable Tea Law No. 1 – “Herbal Teas” are not tea! They are properly called herbal infusions. Tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Just because it’s a hot beverage that is brewed with boiling water does not make it tea any more than a piece of asparagus fried in oil and glazed with sugar is a doughnut.

All of those Celestial Seasonings things, like Sleepytime, Red Zinger, etc., are not tea, even though the box touts them as “herbal teas.” Same goes for the Traditional Medicinals “teas” such as Smooth Move (which, BTW, really, really works–never drink more than one cup!) and Throat Coat (also a great product). They are herbal infusions, and some of them are quite tasty, but they are not tea. Only tea is tea.

So on my second attempt at ordering tea at our local branch of the Ubiquitous Coffee Shop with the Green Woman on the Sign, I made sure I was getting real tea, not rose hips and ginger or some such. But when the baristo (I think I’m just going to start calling him that, whether he likes it or not) brought me my paper cup o’ tea, he only brought one cup. This surprised me, as the branch in our former city of residence always gave tea drinkers two cups, as they should. When I asked for a second cup, he said, “Oh, you want me to double cup it? Why don’t I give you a cup sleeve instead?” He didn’t get it. I can’t pour milk into that sleeve.

Universal, Unbreakable Tea Law No. 2 – The milk goes in first!

You see, since the tea was brewing in Cup No. 1, I needed Cup No. 2 in which to pour my milk (I prefer half-and-half, but since I’ve been trying to watch things, I’ve switched to 2%, which is not terrible). The milk goes in first. Always. No, not all tea drinkers put milk in their tea, but many of us do, and the milk goes in first. Why? Because it just does, that’s why. So, all you baristi (baristae?) out there,if you’re going to brew our tea in a cup (instead of a little tea pot, short and stout), give us two cups, please.

The other day I had the unthinkable happen. Actually it happens to the 10 tea drinkers in America all the time (yes, there were 12 when I started this, but in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing two of us have given up entirely on ever getting a decent cup of tea and have switched to water). I was breakfasting at one of the many Paschal’s locations within the wonderland that is Hartsfield. I ordered a cup of tea. The waitress brought me a big box full o’ tea bags so that I could pick the kind I wanted, which I appreciated. Then, she did it. She brought me the cup of hot water from the coffee maker that they only run plain water through for the tea and instant cocoa drinkers! You other 7 tea drinkers know exactly what happened: the tea never did brew up right. Why not, you non-tea drinkers may ask?

Universal, Unbreakable Tea Law No. 3 – Tea needs boiling water, not just hot water, and said boiling water must be poured over the tea!

One does not derive a decent cup of tea from lowering a tea bag into a cup of tepid-to-reasonably-hot water. One puts the tea (preferably loose tea, but bagged tea will do if it’s good tea) in the pot or cup and pours boiling water over it. That’s because the tea needs all the oxygen it can get.

I know, I know, why don’t I just face the fact that I’m not going to get a good cup of tea out, and just make it at home? Well, I do, but there’s a problem there, too. I’ve got some Twinings English Breakfast and Earl Grey in the cupboard, as well as some decaffeinated green tea, but I wanted some different varieties, namely, some Oolong or Darjeeling. So I went to the grocery and looked at the varieties of tea they had. Aargh.

Universal, Unbreakable Tea Law No. 4 – Having a variety of teas means you actually carry different varieties of tea, not simply plain ol’ garden-variety black tea with all manner of artificial flavorings added to it.

Lapsang Souchong. Darjeeling. Assam. Ceylon Breakfast. Irish Breakfast. Formosan Oolong. These are varieties of tea. Apple-Cinnamon and Mixed Berry are flavored teas. Don’t think you are offering a true variety to tea drinkers if these are the only things you have on the shelf. If I wanted cinnamon in my tea, I could shake some in it myself. You’ve at least got Columbian and Kenyan coffee on the shelf. Why not carry at least two different varieties of teas?

Tea is really wonderful, when it’s made properly. Get some good leaves. If you like sugar, try some demerrara or turbinado instead of the refined, white stuff. Get some half-and-half (or 2% if, like me, you’re trying to be good). Get a tea pot. Get a cup and saucer. And get some boiling water.

If you’ve never made it before, here’s a handy tutorial. And no more than 3-5 minutes’ brewing time, please. Longer does not equal stronger. Longer just equals bitter.

Now, let it never be said that Know Tea never taught you anything about tea.

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About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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23 Responses to Can we talk tea for a moment?

  1. TimmyRalph says:

    When we were visiting the USA over Christmas, we discovered, to our utter and absolute shock, that the Clarksdale Mississippi Super Wal-Mart was carrying PG Tips tea – the best British brand of tea in my (not so) humble opinion. Sarah and I identify ourselves as “PG Tips people” (as opposed to Tetley’s or Yorkshire, etc.) when discussing tea. So go out and look for some PG Tips for goodness sake!!!

    I am actually a milk last person. Someone here told me that it is Scottish to put your milk in first. Most people in England that I know put thier milk in after the tea has brewed. We certainly do not want to be Scottish!!!

  2. TimmyRalph says:

    BTW, tea drinking in the USA could be tolerable if everyone learned the one absolutely imperative step in making tea which you pointed out: THE WATER MUST BE BOILING WHEN POURED OVER THE TEA BAGS. WE ARE NOT MAKING COFFEE HERE, PEOPLE.

    I think I’ll go have a cuppa and settle down.

  3. Sheena says:

    Timmy, why don’t you want to be Scottish?!

    We make the best tea in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s our national pastime, aside from losing major sporting events.

  4. RevJATB says:

    Tim, here’s the science behind putting the milk in first:

    “Add fresh chilled milk, not UHT milk which contains denatured proteins and tastes bad. Milk should be added before the tea, because denaturation (degradation) of milk proteins
    is liable to occur if milk encounters temperatures above 75?C. If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high
    temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk. Once full mixing has occurred the
    temperature should be below 75?C, unless polystyrene cups were used.”

    Of course this works best if you’re making tea in a pot. If you’re brewing it in a cup, you’ll need a second cup and excellent pouring skills so you can a) pour some milk into the bottom of a clean cup to have it ready when the tea in the other cup is brewed, and b) pour the brewed tea from its cup into the cup containing the milk without spilling. So you see what a great invention the teapot was!

    Haven’t seen PG Tips at Wal-Mart here, but then again we can’t get White Lily Flour or Duke’s Mayonnaise here either. If they don’t carry those Southern staples, I’m not surprised that they don’t carry more items from even farther away. It’s even almost impossible to get white corn meal here, which I’d pretty much bet you can’t find at all in the UK.

  5. RevJATB says:

    Tim – is the Tetley/PG Tips rivalry roughly along geographical lines, as in the case of the Coke/Pepsi divide here in the US?

    Sheena – What brand of tea do you like best?

  6. Dennis P says:

    Great post! I’m not sure if you’re aware but there’s a great blog on the Twinings site. I think you’d enjoy it Twinings tea blog

  7. Ed Eubanks says:

    Well said, John. Thanks for the tips and information about tea– I prefer tea, also, and enjoy keeping a kettle and Earl Grey in my study.

    I, however, tend to put the milk in last… two things drive me to this: first, I find that I can’t get the ratio just right unless I can see it mixing with the (already present) tea. Second, I find that, especially in a cup (as opposed to a mug), the milk cools the tea sufficiently enough to prevent the sugar from dissolving as thoroughly, leaving me with the first few sips that aren’t sweet enough and the last few tasting syruppy-sweet. And, frankly, I found the claim on the tutorial you provided for WHY you should put the milk in first to be a bit snooty, though not too surprising from a bunch of chemists.

    Any further comments that might persuade me to change my ways?

  8. Ed Eubanks says:

    Oh, one more thing: if you’re a Mac user (sorry, Win-folks), you might find Cuppa to be a nice addition to your software lineup. Believe it or not, it’s actually a little tea-timer application, customizable for steeping times, and a fun one to use at that.

  9. RevJATB says:

    I think the chemists’ nerdy why-put-the-milk-in-last explanation was just a long-winded way to defend a long-standing practice that has little foundation other than tradition. I mean really. 100 years ago, did people put the milk in first because they knew about the denaturation of milk proteins? I do it because I’ve always done it that way. A terrible reason for doing something if you’re talking about theology or worship, but an OK reason if you’re talking about tea. šŸ™‚

    As far as the color goes, years of practice have enabled me to put just the right blip of milk in the bottom of my cup so that, once I add the tea, the color is just right. And as far as temperature goes, I must admit that I disagree with the chemists and prefer to put room-temperature milk in my tea. I’ll pour some cold milk from the carton into the milk jug (aka “cream pitcher”) and let it sit out on the counter for a while before I make the tea.

    Ed, do you have some demerrara? If not, try some in your tea. It’s really good in coffee too.

    Will you be at GA? We must meet for tea!

  10. cancerman says:

    Douglass Adams of “Hitchhiker’s Guide” has a good essay on making tea in the “Salmon of Doubt”.

  11. Allison Twigg says:

    John,
    You thoroughly amuse and educate me.
    I feel so much more intelligent after reading your ramblings! Happy St. Patty’s Day!

  12. TimmyRalph says:

    Sheena, I meant no offence. I was merely repeating the English superiority complex (especially in the south of England where I live) against Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It is the reverse of why Scotland, Ireland and Wales are always united in cheering against England in any sporting event. Being a Presbyterian, I have a warm spot in my heart for all things Scottish. I do actually have some Ulster blood flowing in my veins. Hopefully, it will overcome the Frencch blood that is in there too. I hope there are no French people reading the blog!

  13. RevJATB says:

    Tim, I don’t know if Laurel Mass? has taken a break from reading or not, and then there’s also Brad Bourgeois. But I’m sure they’ll chalk up your attitude toward the French to your having lived in England for so long. šŸ™‚

  14. Sheena says:

    Timmy, no offence taken in the slightest! We too live in the South of England, in Londinium.

    I do like Twinings teas which are very English, in Scotland I usually had Scottish Blend, but these days I buy Twinings Earl gray and Fairtrade tea bags of various kinds.

  15. RevJATB says:

    Sheena, according to the Wikipedia article on PG Tips, they developed Scottish Blend tea specifically for the soft waters of Scotland. Very nice of them I think.

    We have Twinings Earl Grey all the time in the cupboard. The girls also like Twinings Lady Grey, and I think Twinings Darjeeling is quite good.

    People going to GA in Dallas this summer: let me know if you’re going to be there and would like to join me for afternoon tea on Thursday. Send an E-mail to knowtea-at-knowtea-dot-com . It’s going to be the first of what I hope will become an annual event : Know Tea’s Afternoon Tea Cabal.

    Stay tuned for more information.

  16. MoDrig3 says:

    You mean I have to stop calling my South African Rooibos “tea”?

    BTW: After a trip to Ireland a couple of summers ago, Dawn was tempted to give up coffee for Irish Breakfast Tea. If we had cows here that made milk like the cows over there, she probably would. As it is, she does about half and half (coffee / Irish Breakfast Tea).

  17. cancerman says:

    Timmy, you make the English sound a lot like Alabama fans

  18. RevJATB says:

    Watch it, Cancerman!

  19. TimmyRalph says:

    The English have better teeth.

  20. RevJATB says:

    Et tu, Timmy?

    You people are hopeless.

    But seriously, folks. Did you know that the toothbrush was invented in West Virginia?

    It’s true. If it had been invented anywhere else, it would have been called the teethbrush.

  21. cancerman says:

    I took you for an Auburn guy. Does Paul know?

  22. RevJATB says:

    Yes, I have been out to my family for a few years now.

  23. cancerman says:

    The important thing is that we can unite in our dislike of Gators.

    Is the Bama thing why you live out of state?

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