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The Hacker’s Guide To Tea

Coffee gets a lot of attention, but if tea’s more your style, tea guru Tony Gebely offers this guide to understanding and brewing better tea—discussing the process, the kinds, and the care necessary to cultivate a great taste for tea.

Understanding Tea: The Quick Version

  • 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 camellia sinensis plant and the type 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 oxidised the tea leaves are, the hotter the water temperature should be when steeping.

Understanding Tea: The Long Version

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.”

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 low quality, blended and sometimes contains cheap flavourings. There are countless tea shops out there that buy directly from small farmers that produce small crops each season and likely process the tea by hand.

What You Need to Know

  • All true tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant [photo above] . White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black, and Pu-erh teas all come from 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.
  • 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

When steeping the tea, be sure the tea 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 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 oxidised 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.

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 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 here] –-it is a great way to relax so you can enjoy and appreciate the tea.

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.

Read more

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 Google Reader bundle of tea blogs.

Hacker’s Guide to Tea [World of Tea]

Tony Gebely is a Chicagoan who has traveled to many tea producing regions and has been studying tea and tea culture for several years. Tony teaches tea courses in Chicago and co-owns Chicago Tea Garden. He also runs World of Tea. If you have any tea related questions he can be found on twitter @WorldofTea.