Another Post About Tea
Thrack often listens to gaming or gaming adjacent podcasts, and between driving around together or putting it on while cooking or whatever, I end up hearing snatches of them fairly often. Recently someone sent in a question for the Tested podcast about a desire to get into tea. And their advice was utterly abysmal and filled me with sadness.
There was some waffling over whether an awesome teamaker was worth the cost (fair enough if you don’t really love tea), and some good advice about being careful about the precise temperature of the water to get the best result with leaves, but then they yielded to the supposed expertise of Gary Whitta. I’m sorry, but no, listening to what he said, Gary is not “into tea” by any stretch; he’s just English and there’s a huge difference.
I’m not saying that all his complaints are wrong because when I look at the tea section of any normal grocery store, I’m surrounded by boxes of teabags where only a third of them could even be rightfully considered tea in the first place.
What kind of tea do you want?
There’s more than one kind?
We have blueberry, raspberry, ginseng, sleepy time, green tea, green tea with lemon, green tea with lemon and honey, liver disaster, ginger with honey, ginger without honey, vanilla almond, white truffel, blueberry chamomile, vanilla walnut, constant comment and… earl grey.
Did you make some of those up?
That’s a completely valid complaint, and frankly one I’ve made myself. But that doesn’t mean that simply coming from a place like the United Kingdom grants you immediate expertise in tea, and it certainly doesn’t mean that because you have a box of PG Tips in your cupboard, you are “into tea.” (I can get boxes of it loose in my local American grocery store, next to better teas like this loose assam.)
If you want to say that your nation’s approach to tea is superior because there is some sort of standard cup of tea that’s marginally better than a bag of black Lipton, that basic cup of tea really has to be noticeably better. Just to make sure I could say this, I picked up a box of loose PG Tips tea at my local supermarket to see if it’s a significant improvement. PG Tips is sort of strange to me on a basic level because I expect tea of a certain caliber to tell me what the hell it is. “Black” is not a sufficiently descriptive type of tea, but is instead simply a broader category in which types fall. So already I was suspicious of PG Tips because it’s a blend of a bunch of different types to maintain a consistent taste batch to batch and year to year.
I’ve come to the conclusion that PGs is the tea equivalent of diner coffee. You can’t be into tea if you think this is the shining example of good tea. Bah, humbug.
To begin with, the tea leaves (although they’ve called “loose”) are crunched and homogenized such that they make a too-fine consistency. It means you have to treat them with particular caution that you don’t with good normal loose tea. The results are consistently more bitter and strong than the alternative, which means I have to reduce the steeping time on a wondrous device designed to produce optimum flavor with minimum bitterness. I like strong tea, but when your tea produces more bitterness that other loose blacks, there is something wrong. I’ve discovered that steeped leaves from PG tips look disturbingly like coffee grounds rather than rehydrated leaves after you let them infuse; that makes me feel like there is just something wrong with them.
So I have determined that my box of PG Tips is fit only to make iced tea, which I sweeten anyway and then pour over a full cup of ice (which has the benefit of diluting the bitterness further). I’m far more impressed by a couple lovely loose teas I’ve picked up from the grocery store that are delicious but also tell me what the hell sort of leaves are in them. I don’t always feel like the same type of tea, and if I’m in the mood for a darjeeling, or an oolong or a ceylon or whatever, I want to be able to group teas by their flavor.
Plus I really don’t feel like the standard cup of tea you’d have in England with the requisite milk and sugar represents a terribly sophisticated tea palate. A cup like this with milk and sugar is very nice and has its place, but I find as I get older (and especially now that I can make truly exceptional tea with my infrastructure) that sweetening it much at all masks too much of the flavor of the tea. There are several teas that I don’t sweeten at all because they simply don’t need anything else.
I think I’m going to make myself some ceylon now.