I’m a Yankee living in the south, and I’ve learned the hard way to specify unsweetened every time I order iced tea in a restaurant. Tastes vary, but the sweet tea they serve around here is what I would make if I was baiting an ant trap. So sweet that my teeth melt and I hear the ghost of Wilford Brimley. “Diaaabeeetuuus. Diaaabeeetuuus.” I like sweet things, I do not like weird mustachio’d ghosts.
(Edit: It’s come to my attention that Wilford Brimley is still alive. To which I say “Really? Really? Are you sure?”)
My tea doesn’t invoke the ghost of Wilfred Brimley. If it’s sweet, it’s usually a mellow, natural sweetness, or I’ve used honey instead of sugar. There are four components to a decent cup of tea:
- The tea itself.
- Steeping time.
This isn’t an exact science — I’m sure someone, somewhere, treats it that way, but screw that, I have other things to do. The quality of the leaves matters, but a good tea will be terrible if you screw up the other steps. Hot water releases the deliciousness from the tea, but it can become bitter and unpleasant with too much heat for too long. Just like people!
Acquire tea. My bread and butter is an inexpensive Ceylon (that’s fancy tea-speak for Sri Lanka) tea I bought at an international supermarket. If you’re looking to order tea online, I recommend Davidson’s Tea. That link is for a pound of leaves. Seems like a lot, I know, but I can drink that in a few months. (It translates to pennies a cup, which is far less expensive than a soda habit.) I like the way they package their products too, no unnecessary bulk.
Ceylon is a great starter tea. It’s good hot or iced. You can drink it with milk and sugar, if you’re so inclined. I knew a British guy who insisted that this was the only way to drink tea, but he was a tool, so make up your own mind. I like honey sometimes, but I like to taste the tea itself.
Water: If your local water doesn’t taste great, that might translate to your tea. Ceylon is a black tea, the strong flavor hides the mineral taste of my local water supply. More delicate teas demand filtered water if you’re going to get the best of their milder flaors. Either way, don’t bother buying bottled water for this. We’re connoisseurs, but we’re not going to be ridiculous. A filter is just fine.
Temperature: Your water has to get warmed up somehow. Don’t own a kettle? A pot on the range is fine. I don’t recommend heating water in the microwave. I use this one because it was incredibly cheap. It’s also easy to travel with. It’s light and you can fill the inside with other things. The only drawback is that it dribbles when you pour, so watch your lap and any wooden surfaces that aren’t well sealed.
(True confession: I left my electric kettle at my family’s house when I was travelling. I’m not willing to buy another when I’ll be visiting them by Thanksgiving, and it would cost as much to ship as to buy a new one. I’m being a little irrational about this, but I’m not buying a new one! So I’ve been making tea the stupid way: boiling water in an ibrik, a Turkish-style coffee pot, and then pouring it in a tea pot, or worse yet, using my drip coffee machine to heat up a bunch of water for herbal tea. Yes, I have two coffee-related devices. Three, actually. I’ll post about them sometime. Don’t be like me, I’m a little ridiculous.)
I keep hoping my cheap kettle will die so I can buy a nicer one without feeling wasteful, but the Rival hotpot is actually really sturdy. It’s fast, too, and more energy-efficient than boiling water on a stovetop. When it dies, I want this one because of the variable temperature settings. You can microwave water, I’ve never seen a reason why not to, but if you’re making a whole pot of tea it’s really hard to gauge how hot it is and how long you should be microwaving it. Something easy to pour with a heating element is easier, and tea snobs will say it’s all around better.
Tea, like food (and people!) can get overcooked with too much heat. Ceylon tea is robust and can take a rolling boil. Other teas will be damaged by too much heat. With green teas, I take the water off of the boil and let it sit for a minute. White teas are even more delicate, so be careful.
Steeping time: British people like their tea strong, I’ve been led to believe. I suspect this is because they put milk and sugar in it and that’s the only way the flavor of the tea comes through. If you want British-style tea with milk and sugar, go for it, steep your leaves for the full five minutes that it says on the package. Go ahead, I won’t judge you. Tastes vary!
To generalize horribly, people in China tend to steep their leaves for many short steeps as opposed to one long steeping. If you’re using whole-leaf tea, this allows you to extract the full flavor of the leaf. I prefer this for my own tea, particularly because it saves money. If you use a pot with a strainer, take the leaves out at the two minute mark.* You can re-steep the leaves until you stop getting decent flavor, just add a minute to each subsequent steep. You can compost the leaves, too.
*This might sound long if you’re familiar with this sort of thing. Bear with me: Asian-style tea usually uses smaller quantities, so shorter times work better. If you’re using a chunky-bodied British-style teapot, you’ll want more time.
I haven’t written about amount of tea based on water volume because that will vary based on the seller’s instructions and your personal taste. The trick is to not pack it in too tightly: give your leaves room to expand.
There are many rich cultural traditions around tea, but I’m an American. We’re the golems built of scavenged bits of other cultures. Pick what suits you best.