I Love Chai, Hot or Cold

Most tea aficionados are familiar with the common types of blends available – black, oolong, jasmine, pekoe and green tea. But I'm always surprised at how many haven't discovered one of my favorite blends. I love nothing more than an iced chai when I grave a cold drink, and a hot chai is just the thing to perk me up midafternoon.

Chai is a spiced milk tea that hails from India. It's my go-to drink when I'm in a coffee shop, since I don't drink coffee. I find myself in coffee shops quite often being a resident of the coffee-loving mecca that is Washington State, so I drink a lot of chai!

 

The basic components of a quality chai are:

  • Strong black tea

  • Milk or cream

  • Sweetener, usually sugar but sometimes honey

  • Spices – including cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon. The spices vary in intensity and type.

Most well-stocked groceries carry chai in either bags or as a liquid concentrate. I've found the bagged varieties work best for a hot tea while the concentrate is better for a cold drink. Tazo and Oregon Chai are the two most commonly concentrates available in my area, although Stash has a bagged version of chai that I prefer over all others.

 

A guilty summer pleasure is to add chai concentrate to my ice cream maker when whipping up some fresh homemade French vanilla ice cream. The spices and flavor the chai concentrate really shines and allows me to enjoy one of my favorite teas as a decadent dessert!

 

 

 

Keeping Tea Fresh

Attractive and useful storage options.

Tea has a shelf life, something I have sadly encountered more than once. It's disappointing when my first come of morning tea is weak with a stale flavor, but I usually have no one but myself to blame. Proper storage is vital to keep tea tasting fresh, but even when you store it correctly it will eventually go off its flavor.

Storage Methods

First, take the tea bags out of the box! A flimsy piece of cardboard won't keep your tea fresh, even if it is lined in wax paper. If the tea bags are in individual packages, leave them in these but still remove the packages from the box. I prefer a tin for storage, but a sealed plastic bag, food storage container or wood tea box works as well. The goal is to protect the tea from moisture and air.

 

Avoid the Pantry

Don't store tea where you keep spices or other foods. The tea leaves absorb the scents of flavors of these items which can cause your tea to taste off. I keep tea in a narrow cabinet earmarked for tea and beverage mixes, but any cabinet that doesn't contain strong-smelling food items works well.

 

Keep it Dark

While a glass jar seems like a great airtight, moisture-proof place for storing tea bags and looseleaf tea, the glass allows light in which speeds up the decline of the tea. If you must store the tea in a glass jar, keep the jar in a dark area or place the tea in a dark-colored bag inside the jar to help block out the light.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Enjoying Matcha

 

The pinnacle in presentation, the Japanese tea ceremony is impossible to pull off authentically without years of training. The traditional ceremony has deep roots and originated over 700 years ago. The founder of the ceremony as it is practiced today, Sen No Rikkyu, perfected the art of tea 500 years ago. The tea served at the ceremony is matcha, a powdered Japanese green tea that has a bitter, earthy flavor.

While you may not be able to replicate all parts of the tea ceremony at home, you can enjoy some aspects of the art of tea. Tea ceremonies reflect the seasons, with specific seasonal treats served along side the matcha. The sweet foods complement the flavor of the tea by providing a counterpoint to the bitterness.

 

Beautiful tea sets are also used. Earthenware sets in colors of the season are especially well suited. Generally, tea ceremony pots and cups are plain, since the ceremony is meant to further inward contemplation and loud colors and busy designs are at odds with the serenity and harmony of the mood.

 

Finally, the matcha is served. Matcha powder is suspended in hot water with the special bamboo tea whisk. The recipient lifts the tea bowl with both hands and drinks it all, with the last sip providing the strongest flavor as the matcha powder begins to settle.

 

To properly mix matcha at home, you need hot water, a tea bowl, matcha powder and a bamboo tea whisk. Place ½ teaspoon of matcha powder in the bowl, then pour in 1/3 cup hot water. Whisk the powder into the water, beginning slowly and picking up speed until its well mixed. In a true tea ceremony, there are prescribed movements for whisking and serving the tea, although you do not need to follow these to enjoy matcha.

Explore the World of Green Tea

Favorite Japanese teas

Although I enjoy a fragrant cup of black tea, green tea is the true way to my heart. The earthy flavor and aroma is both delicate and robust. Like black tea, green tea comes in almost endless varieties. Some green teas earn the flavor from the time they are harvest or how they are prepared, while others have additional ingredients that complement the brewed tea leaves. Below is a basic guide to some of my favorite Japanese green teas. If you can't find them in a regular grocery, they are all readily available online. If you can't wait, visit an Asian grocery. These markets usually have a huge selection of both green and black teas, some quite exotic and flavorful

Sencha

Sencha is an everyday green tea. The leaves are dried in sunlight, but the quality varies. Once you find a type you like, stick with it because not all sencha is created equal. The leaves are whole and unground, often resembling sticks. The best sencha carries an additional name, shincha, which indicates it is from the year's first harvest and therefore has a superior flavor.

 

Gyokuro

The top of the line in Japanese green tea is gyokuro. Gyokuro is grown in slightly shaded areas in the weeks immediately preceedng harvest, which gives it a smoother flavor. Sine the leaves are weaker, a regular cup of tea requires twice as many leaves as compared to sencha. The brewed tea has a pale green color, unlike the tan-green color of sencha.

 

Matcha

Match is the quintessential Japanese tea, seen in tea ceremonies and Zen temples. Superior tea leaves are ground to a powder. The powder is then stirred into hot water immediately before serving with a small bamboo whisk. The powder becomes suspended in the water from the whisking action.

 

Genmaicha

This is my favorite breakfast tea. The tea is roasted with unhulled rice. The rice pops in the heat, resembling little pieces of popcorn. Toasting and rice give the tea a rich, earthy tea that is the perfect thing to wake up with in the morning.

Favorite Accessories for Tea Lovers

Sets, Storage, and Tools.

Tea isn't just a beverage, it is something akin to medicine Curling up with a mug warms not just my hands but my entire soul. Staring into the cup of translucent liquid is a meditative experience that can relax me more quickly than the best massage. The right accessories further help make tea an experience and not just a drink. I have a few favorites that I use regularly.

Tea Sets

A tea set may consist of no more than a favorite mug, or it could be a matching tray, pot, saucer and cup combo. It all depends on your preferences. I tend toward beautiful but earthy looking handcrafted mugs. I like those that carry the mark of an artist best – decorative painting, rough clay work, or small embellishments outside or inside the cup.

 

Tea Storage

I used to keep all my tea varieties, loose and bagged, shoved into an old plastic storage container. It worked, but it wasn't attractive. I now use a tea storage box. Each tea variety has its own little cubby. Loose teas are securely stored in sealed wooden boxes that match my larger bagged tea box. Not only is this more organized, it also keeps the tea fresher. I've selecting tea from a beautiful container adds even more to my ritual tea.

 

The Right Tools

I couldn't live without my collection of infusers for brewing loose tea, nor my infusing pot for brewing a lot of loose tea at once. Another favorite is may matcha set, which includes the small bamboo whisk for stirring this exquisite green tea powder.

A Perfect Cup Every Time

Tea Brewing Basics

Many a tea connoisseur brews tea the wrong way. I, too, used to make the same mistakes I now see over and over within the tea-loving community. Water that's too hot or too cold is the most common mistake. Overly hot water results in a bitter tea and ruins the fine nuance of the flavor, while cool water fails to steep the tea leaves fully. The proper brewing method depends in part on the type of tea you are making.

First, always start with cold water. Hot tap water doesn't contain as much oxygen, so results in a flat flavor. Filtered water works best if your tap water has a heavy mineral taste.

 

Prepare your tea cup or pot before you begin brewing. Rinse it with hot water so the cup doesn't cool the brewing water. Add your tea bags or place loose tea in an infusing ball and set it in the cup or pot. You can prepare the cup while the brewing water is heating.

 

Black teas brew best in water that is brought to a boil. Don't allow the water to boil for more than a few seconds, otherwise it loses oxygen and results in the flat flavor. For more delicate white, green or herbal teas, only bring the water to a temperature of 160 to 180 degrees. Boiling water over-steeps these teas and ruins their flavor.

 

Pour the hot water over the tea bag or infuser and begin the steeping process. Steep black teas for up to five minutes before removing the tea bag. Steep green tea for three minutes and herbal teas for only one to two minutes. Remove the bag and serve immediately for best taste and aroma.

 

 

Enjoying Loose Leaf Tea

Tea infusers

 

Loose leaf teas often provide a more refined and stronger flavor than the tea bag varieties. They also provide you with more control over the strength of the tea. My favorite part of using loose leaf is the ability to combine various teas together to create new and interesting blends. If you want to enjoy loose leaf, you must first master the use of an infuser.

Tea Balls

Infusers come in several varieties. The simplest is the metal tea ball. These balls are typically round although some come in decorative shapes. They have either mesh sides or small holes in the sides. The ball prevents the tea from floating loosely in the water but still allows the flavor to steep out. Most tea ball infuser have a chain that you use in the same way you would the string on a tea bag.

 

Infuser Pots

Although usually reserved for coffee, a French press also works well for making loose leaf tea. I have a glass version that resembles a tea pot and makes and entire pot of tea at once, but smaller single cup varieties are also available. There are several designs of infuser pot available. Some even resemble traditional tea pots while others have a more decorative shape.

 

Preparation

There is a lot of room to play around when making and blending your own loose leaf tea, but in general 1 teaspoon of loose leaf tea per cup of water is recommended. The tea leaves swell as they rehydrate in the water so you don't want to overfill the infuser. Fill the infuser with the tea leaves, then place it inside the tea cup as you would a tea bag. For pots, first fill the infuser chamber with tea then add the hot water to the pot.

 

Gifts for Tea Lovers

Most of us have enough socks, bath bubbles and weird gadgets to last us a lifetime, but it's difficult to get out of a gift-buying rut and select something our recipient will really enjoy. I've taken the liberty to gather up a few ideas for tea lovers so you can give the special tea drinker in your life something they will really enjoy this holiday season.

Give a Sampler

For the adventurous tea lover, a sampler pack of high end teas may help them find a new favorite. Most of the major tea producers sell special holiday samplers packaged attractively. Another idea is to put together your own sampler to share your favorites with the recipient. Package the tea bags in a new cup or tea pot.

 

Tea Sets

Most regular tea drinkers have a favorite up, but they always welcome a replacement. Consider a unique cup to match the personality of the recipient. Stain cups, by Bethan Laura Wood, reveal a decorative pattern on the inside as the interior of the cup develops the natural tea staining from use. You can also purchase porcelain paint pens. Use these to personalize a plain cup then follow the baking instructions on the pen to make your design permanent.

 

Go Handmade

Etsy and similar handmade online marketplaces have a huge selection of one-of-a-kind gift items for tea enthusiasts. Consider a tea wallet to hold their favorite tea at the office or when traveling. Handcrafted mugs, tea pots, and tea cozies are other ideas. You can even find soaps and beauty products scented with the delicate aroma of tea.

Harney & Sons Paris

Hunt down a tin, brew up a cup, and start your own intellectual revolution!

My friend D first introduced me to Harney & Sons famous tea Paris. I had stopped by her house to drop something off and have a chat, and she had just made a cup for herself. She fixed me a mug, added a small splash of cream, and handed it over.
 
The first thing I noticed was the smell. Paris is a black tea with vanilla, caramel, and bergamot flavors. It smelled like Christmas, a bewitching smell of coziness and baking and holiday spices. It was earthy and genuine, like the smell of a spice cabinet, not fake like the smell of Yankee Candle.

The flavors are subtle, but intoxicating. I have never been a big fan of flavored black teas, but these flavors are done just right. With just a hint of flavoring, not a hit-you-over-the-head mixture of fakery. It's a great tea straight, but it really comes to life with a splash of cream. 
 
Paris doesn't need a spoonful of sugar, it's a pretty sweet flavor on its own, but it wouldn't mind one if you feel like it. It depends on whether or not you are eating it with sweets. I wouldn't sweeten the tea if you are having it as an accompaniment to tea cookies. But if you are just having a cup on its own as an afternoon pick-me-up, it might be a nice sweet treat to add a bit of sugar.
 
I have never been to Paris (it's on my list), but I have had their tea, and pronounced it excellent. This blend of black tea is famously modeled after the tea that everyone drinks in Paris. Mike (one of the sons in "Harney & Sons") developed the tea as an homage to all the famous tea shops in the City of Light. (which incidentally is where he met his wife. Aww!)
 
Many months later I had my first London Fog, and noted the resemblance. A London Fog is basically a vanilla latte made with Earl Grey tea instead of espresso. It has the black tea base, the vanilla and bergamot flavor, the sweetness, and of course the steamed milk creaminess. A London Fog is sort of a tarted up version of Paris tea, a very Americanized version of the French classic.
 
This is a tea that every tea-lover should try at least once. Why not hunt down a tin, brew up a cup, and start your own intellectual revolution?

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