Thursday, December 26, 2013

Brewing Black Tea (Improperly)

It's the day after Christmas, and whether you celebrate the holiday or not, I hope you're finding some downtime today to spend with friends or family. In fact, I hope you're not spending your day reading my blog! But even so, I'll give you a short piece to read. We've been alternating between posts on health issues and recipes, and it's been a few weeks since we had a recipe. I'll keep today's entry short, and so I'm just going to explain how to brew black tea the 'right' way.

There's some discussion on how to brew black tea, with the British having a very specific procedure involving warming the pot and specifications on the temperature. The truth, however, is that this is only correct for certain kinds of black tea. Black tea is more variable than many know, and some types will require differing preparation methods. Here, then, is a general procedure, with variations noted.

1. Add black tea to the pot. Generally, this is accepted to be 1 teaspoon per 8 ounces, but those who like it strong will add a bit extra - I usually use 1 1/2 teaspoons per 8 ounces. Some of the fuller, leafier black teas, such as high-end Darjeelings, will necessitate slightly more tea, because they are not as tightly packed as traditional black teas.

2. Boil the water. Tea must always (always) start as cold water and be brought to a full boil.

3. Pour the water over the tea. Most black teas must be given water at a full boil in order to bring the best flavor out. Green teas take slightly cooler water, but black teas generally need absolutely boiling water. Again, one exception is Darjeeling; some high end Darjeelings should be given cooler water, which prevents bitter flavors, and allow floral elements to fully express themselves, though for most black teas, the cooler water will result in weak, unstructured tea.

4. Steep the tea, and then either fully decant or remove the leaves from the pot. Of course, the question is on timing, and again, this is variable. Some British-style black teas grown in India and Sri Lanka will take 7-8 minutes to gain full flavor, but other will need only 5 minutes. Chinese black teas generally need only 4-5 minutes to steep. Darjeelings will not only take cooler water, but also shorter brew times. Some experimentation with brew times will be necessary to get optimum flavor.

5. Add milk if desired. Milk, while anathema to green and white teas, is regarded by many as part of the black tea experience. I generally add a small amount, enough to give the tea a rich texture and dark caramel color only. But again, this depends on the specific tea. Many black teas have been bred and processed to take lovingly to milk, though others will not. Generally speaking, Indian and Sri Lankan teas will do well with milk, whereas Chinese and Darjeeling will not, though this is not a hard and fast rule.

6. You may add sugar, but do this at your peril. Remember, you're drinking tea, not eating candy.

And finally, on the topic of re-steeping. If you've brewed using a high quality tea, it should be able to take a re-steeping. Though black tea should be re-steeped at the temperature you brewed at initially, you will have to increase brew time. Again, experimentation is key, and while an extra minute will suffice in some cases, in others you may have to add far more time. Milk may or may not treat your tea favorably on a second steeping. My experience has been that second steepings lack the tannins present in the first steeping, and so do not tolerate milk well. But again, this is only my opinion - I don't even warm the pot, so what do I know?

I hope you are enjoying your winter holiday and find time for a bit of black tea in the process. While I'm a daily drinker of green tea for both flavor and health benefits, a little black tea now and again really hits the spot, especially in the cold winter months, where the heat and heft of black tea is exactly what the doctor ordered.