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Hacker’s Guide to Tea

TL;DR:

  • All tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant. If you are drinking something that did not come from this plant (chamomile, mint, tulsi, rooibos, etc.) it is not tea.
  • White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant and the type and style of tea is determined by the processing methods used on the plucked leaves.
  • Tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”
  • Tea can be prepared in any vessel by steeping the leaves directly in hot water as long as you strain the leaves out of the water before drinking.
  • The more oxidized the tea leaves are, the hotter the water temperature should be when steeping.

TL:

In addition to caffeine, tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine. “Several studies from Japan and the UK have shown that consumption of 50mg of L-theanine increases alpha wave activity in the brain, with the maximum effect occurring about 80 minutes after consumption. This amount is equivalent to approximately three cups of tea. Alpha waves correspond to a relaxed-but-alert mental state, and believed to be an important part of selective attention (the ability to choose to pay attention to something and avoid distraction by other stimuli)” [source: http://www.teageek.net]. L-theanine in tea produces a type of “mindful awareness” not evident in coffee. This is what prevents the 3pm “coffee crash.”

L-Theanine

Theanine

This makes tea an important tool for maintaining mental perspicacity for hours of coding, late night performance, or for getting through those bleak morning hours.

Let’s get this out of the way – tea bags suck. Actually, most mainstream tea sucks. Mainstream tea is typically low quality, blended, and sometimes contains cheap flavorings. There simply isn’t enough supply of high quality tea for the mass market. There are however, countless tea shops out there that buy directly from small farmers that produce small crops each season and likely process the tea by hand. This is what you need to find.

What You Need to Know

 

Camellia Sinensis: The Tea Plant

Camellia Sinensis: The Tea Plant

  • All true tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant [photo above]. White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black, and Post-fermented teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of this plant.
  • Loose tea can be steeped multiple times. Some teas can be re-steeped 20 or more times. The flavor is gradually extracted from the leaves with each subsequent steep. Many people ask how many times you can steep a tea, my answer is always: keep steeping until the flavor is gone. It depends on water temp, steep time, and tea used.
  • When shopping for tea, look for companies that offer information about where the tea is from, how it was processed, who grew it, and most importantly—when the tea was harvested.

Steep it

Finum Strainer

When steeping the tea, be sure the tea leaves can flow freely through the water, this rules out tea bags, tiny tea infusion baskets, tea balls, etc. Ideally, pour water directly over the tea and then strain before drinking. If you must use an infuser, a large finum strainer [photo left] works nicely and still allows for proper water flow.

Depending on the type of tea you are steeping there are two important variables you must pay attention to: water temperature, and steeping time. I’m assuming you are using good water, as tea is 98% water – using a strong chlorinated water would be a bad idea. In general, hotter water must be used for highly oxidized teas. Remember, you are preparing a drink that you should enjoy, so always take tea instructions with a grain of salt. Experiment often to discover the “sweet spot” with your teas and remember—a good tea is a forgiving tea. If your tea is bitter, reduce the steeping temperature. If your tea is too weak, increase the amount of tea leaves used or increase the steeping time.  Here are some guidelines:

Tea Water
Temperature
1st Steep 2nd Steep 3rd Steep 4th Steep
White 150-160ºF 1 min 1 min 1.5 min 1.75 min
Green 170-180ºF 1 min 1 min 1.5 min 1.75 min
Oolong 190-195ºF 30 sec 30 sec 45 sec 45 sec
Black 212ºF 1 min 1 min 1.5 min 1.5 min
Post-fermented 212ºF 30 sec 30 sec 45 sec 1 min

It is not necessary to get real serious about the steeping temperatures, for 195, boil water, take it off the stove, and wait about a minute. For 170, wait longer. Remember, experiment often.

If you want to get serious about steeping your tea, use a yixing pot, or a gaiwan. If you need energy, consider drinking matcha — a suspension of powdered green tea. You are actually consuming the leaf so the health benefits and energy received from matcha are greater than that in other teas. If you need peace, study the gongfu tea ceremony [pictured below]– it is a great way to relax so you can enjoy and appreciate the tea.

Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

A fresh tea should have a shelf life of approximately two years, a lightly oxidized tea might become stale quicker. Store your tea away from light, heat air, and any strong scents. Stale tea isn’t going to kill you, it just won’t taste fresh. Some will even change and get better with age, so don’t hesistate to steep your old tea.

Read

There is a lot of good tea information out there. I highly recommend James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury and Heiss’ Story of Tea. If you prefer an online resource, Michael J Coffey has a valuable wiki of his research here and I’ve assembled a bundle of tea blogs. I’m currently working on a tea book myself based on this post, sign up here for updates.