Thursday, August 29, 2013

Some Like it Hot

We brew (a.k.a. steep) our dry tea leaves in water to bring out flavor and create the drink we like.  If the water is too hot, the tea will taste bitter; if too cool, the tea flavor won't fully come out.  Yet, the ideal water temperature for one type of tea is not necessarily the same as for another type of tea. There are different water temperatures that work for different teas.  How do you know what temperature to use if there is no suggested temperature when you purchase?  As a general rule of thumb, green teas do well in 150 to 175°F (about 65 to 80°C), oolong teas do well in 195 to 205°F (90 to 95°C), black teas and tisanes do well in 212°F (100°C).  But how do you know what temperature your water is?

The traditional Chinese method is one answer.  For hundreds of years the Chinese have used a technique for estimating water temperature based on visual cues in the water such as air bubble size and water convection.  This technique was documented in the famous 1049 AD treatise on tea known as The Record of Tea (), which was written by Cai Xiang, a Song Dynasty politician, calligrapher, and tea connoisseur.  The visual cues for identifying water temperature are as follows:
虾眼 Shrimp Eyes - 155° to 176°F (70° to 80°C)
蟹眼 Crab Eyes - 176° to 185°F (80° to 85°C)
鱼眼 Fish Eyes - 185° to 194°F (85° to 90°C)
珍珠绳 Rope of Pearls - 195° to 205°F (90° to 95°C )

騰波鼓浪 Raging Torrent - 212°F (100°C)
These days, thermometers are easy to come by and getting the water to the right temperature is simple.  There are even electric tea kettles that will bring the water to the precise pre-determined temperature.[1]  Whether by electric kettle or simply Cai Xiang’s observations, the right temperature brings out the best characteristics of the tea.
[1] Breville, Fetco, Bonavita, et al.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tea Equestrian Polo Shop in San Francisco

On the north side of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco’s Richmond District, is a tea shop called Tal-y-Tara.  Family owned and run, this unique shop is a combination of the family’s two loves, tea and equestrian polo.  Located on a mostly residential street where you wouldn’t necessarily expect a tea shop, Tal-y-Tara attracts attention by displaying a life size figure of a horse on the sidewalk.

Inside the shop you can find everything polo, riding boots and clothing, horse tackle, crops, mallets, balls, etc.  And in the midst of all the horse riding and polo product are tables where you can sit and have tea in the British tradition.  The tea service menu includes small sandwiches and the most amazing scones.  Tea is prepared at the back counter area and brought to your table brewing in pots wrapped in tea cozies to keep them hot.  Tal-y-Tara offers a wide selection of mostly black teas, including creative teas such as Lindsay’s Teas spice oil infused black tea called Kookidoodle that actually tastes like cookies, and Tiki Tiki Chai which is a tastey chai heavy on the cloves.  If you visit, make sure you go with a group so you can order several pots of different teas to share around the table.
The cultural connection between tea and the game of polo grew from the colonial British in India in the 19th century.  There the British soldiers and tea farmers were exposed to the precursor of polo, Sagol Kangjei, played in India’s Manipur region. The British standardized the rules of the game and in 1862 established the Calcutta Polo Club, the first polo club in the world.

Although there isn’t much horseback riding in San Francisco these days, there used to be.  In 2001, the Golden Gate Park Stables closed up shop, pretty much ending 130 years of horses and riding in San Francisco.[1]  The good news is that the Golden Gate Park’s website says there are plans “in the works to rejuvenate the stables.”[2]  In the meanwhile, there is still a polo field in Golden Gate Park where a few annual equestrian events are held.  The most well known is called Polo in the Park.[3]  Polo in the Park is a polo game and charity event that raises money for therapeutic riding programs for children.  It draws polo players from all over the world and many of them seek out Tal-y-Tara for supplies.

I’m not a polo player, but now that I’ve spent time at Tal-y-Tara, I just may go back to buy a pair of boots to go with my Earl Grey.



Sunday, August 4, 2013

Withering Readies the Tea Leaf for an Assault

Freshly withered leaves.
The first step after harvesting leaves from the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, is to wither the leaves.  Withering is the reduction of moisture and the softening of the freshly picked leaf.  The point of withering is to prepare the tea leaf for the assault of processing.  For green, oolong, yellow and black teas, the tea leaves will be crushed, pummeled, rolled and pressed via hand or machine.  Why the assault?  To force the juices from the inner structure of the leaf to the surface to get oxidation going.  Oxidation is the chemical change that occurs when enzymes in the juices react with oxygen in the air of the surrounding environment.  The final tea product is defined in part by the amount of oxidation achieved in processing.  White tea is generally not oxidized; green tea gets the least amount of oxidation; and oolong and black tea get quite a bit of oxidation – which equates to more assault for oolong and black tea leaves. 

Leaves after assault of processing.
OK, let’s get technical.  There is a physical and chemical aspect to withering which conditions the leaf for the assault stage of processing.  In the physical aspect of withering, moisture content is reduced which makes the leaf become soft, slightly rubbery and flaccid enough to withstand assault without breaking.  A “soft” wither retains a higher percentage of moisture in the leaf, whereas a “hard” wither retains less.  In the chemical aspect of withering, large organic compounds break down into more simple molecules, a natural process that begins the moment the leaf is plucked.  Proteins degrade to amino acids which initiate aroma compounds.  Volatile Flavor Compounds (VFC) develop and increase in intensity the longer the wither. “Liquors from fresh leaf are bitter, but in well-withered leaf, sweetness develops.”[1]

Freshly harvested leaves laid out to wither.
Photo credit: Chris Falter
Withering time can be expected to range from 12 to 16 hours [2], but that can vary greatly due to humidity and temperature of the region.  Typically the leaves are laid out evenly to wither at their own natural pace, but sometimes they are helped along by warm air blown over them, or heated pans under them.
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