You know the situation well. You have a dear friend or family member, of sterling character and deserving the best in life. But, alas, they are tea-deficient and even tea-resistant. When you try to persuade them that good tea offers them a better path to joy and well-being, back comes “I know I should try it, but I just throw a tea bag in my mug and heat it up in the microwave” or “I like my Earl Grey” or “I really wish I could enjoy green tea but I don’t.”
Here is a suggested Care Kit to put together in the hope of healing and redemption. It addresses the main barriers of convenience, familiarity, simplicity and cost and provides an appealing invitation to just try some good tea.
Logic doesn’t work here. You can make the point that the messy tea bag is in reality no more convenient than any one of a number of infusers, that many people think they like their tea bag only because they have no other point of comparison, that there are a few simple rules of thumb for choosing and brewing tea, and that really good tea is not at all expensive. I generally add that the interactive chemical reactions of herbal teas can kill, and occasionally do. That tends to grab attention. My own hit rate is about three in four. I have most success with friends who sort of like tea but don’t know much about it beyond the bags they buy.
Start with the pot. The tea bag demands no equipment. Whole leaf does. That’s a barrier in itself. What type of pot to choose is not as trivial a matter as it may look: size, ease of pouring – how much tea comes out of the spout versus through the lid – whether it heats the tea or the handle scalds you, cleaning, etc. There is a whole body of sagacity and science about pot and cup materials: porous clay, ceramics, metal, bone china and porcelain.
Each of these affects flavor and heat retention and cooling. You don’t want to deal with it. You just need something affordable that does the job quickly and without debates on Scandinavian clay designer brutalism versus Japanese cast iron witch cauldrons.
The simple solution is the glass tea maker with a valve, that you brew the tea in. You then place it on top of your cup and watch it drain. A mesh filter keeps the leaf in the tea maker. It couldn’t be easier to use or to keep clean. It also shows the tea brewing – one showmanship trick is to use one whose leaf expands from a dry spoonful to half a cup when wet – a Ti Guan Yin oolong or Jasmine Pearl green offers panache and terrific taste.
A flowering green tea unfolding its tied-in scarlet chrysanthemum blossom in the glass looks terrific and is not at all bitter – one of the Show and Tell object lessons. (It’s also not particularly good but still much, much better than the average green in a bag.)
These tea makers sell for $20-30, depending on the material used and the elegance of the design.
Talk about the types of tea. It is likely that your unenlightened friend or kin sticks with one of four types of teabag: an Earl Grey, English Breakfast, some herbal brew that looks like it came out of a lawnmower, or Cheap Stuff of unclear origin in the plain bag on a string. It’s tempting to show them a tea that is better than these.
That may not have much impact. They don’t immediately sense that the whole leaf is more than just a smoother variant of their usual brew. Instead, offer a tea that is different from, not just better than, what they are used to, something distinctive that raises the eyebrows just a little. A Lapsang Souchong can do that for someone who likes English Breakfast, strong and steeped. It is a powerhouse in both its flavor and that aroma that radiates across an entire room.
Lapsang is definitely memorable. (It is also the tea that Patrick Stewart wanted his character in Star Trek, Captain Luc Picard, to drink. The producer insisted this be replaced by Earl Grey, since that is the only tea that the audience would have heard of. There’s a moral there, somewhere.)
Many tea bag drinkers will expect a flavored tea, which to them means herbal and/or Earl Grey. It can be hard for them to let go of the expectation of a big fruity or flowery upfront jolt and let a more subtle flavor unfold. Jasmine infused tea is perhaps the best choice here. Jasmine Green shows that a green tea need not be bitter, bland or flat. Jasmine Oolong is a little fuller and Jasmine Pearls are, well, ineffable, sublime and ambrosial – more picturesque ways of saying “really, really neat.”
It is obligatory to include a black tea as a showcase exemplar in the Care Kit routine. Here, it seems to be most effective to offer one that is not too heavy and has a slight zesty, tippy flavor. It should contrast with the typical tea bag, without being outside the comfortable taste range. That suggests a Darjeeling from one of the many estates with a record for consistent, affordable teas or a carefully selected fine Ceylon.
Assams can overwhelm and China congous be a little too subtle. Darjeelings are ideal. It seems no exaggeration that there is a perfect one for every tea drinker; one of the pleasures of moving beyond the tea bag is exploring the space of Darjeeling choices, which are in the many hundreds.
A second flush from Thurbo, Namring, Ambootia, Tindharia, Giddapahar or any of the other most widely available Darjeelings is an affordable starting point, especially if you go for the grades that begin with FTG rather than SFTG (Special flowery tippy golden). Indeed, you can find broken leaf Darjeelings that are first-rate.
A Ceylon Kenilworth or Lumbini will be a little cheaper but still special; most tea drinkers veer towards one of these benchmark tea styles: the bright and not quite sweet Darjeeling and the full and not quite bitter Ceylon.
Picking a black tea that is off the well-beaten distribution path can add a surprise factor, with the message that there is so much to choose from that your friend is unaware of; he or she doesn’t have to get stuck in the brand rut. A Java Malabar, Nepalese Ilam, Nilgiri Glendale or China Keemum Panda are all teas that offer a pleasant and even cosy flavor, with no rough edges or that harsh initial or after-taste that marks so many blends overloaded with Kenyan, Malawi and Asian CTC (“Crush, Tear, Curl”) processed leaf.
Steeping times. Even among regular tea drinkers, there is some almost atavistic drive towards brewing tea for far too long and greens in particular at too high a temperature, often on the assumption that longer means fuller. And, of course, that tempting convenience of the faucet, microwave and a Styrofoam cup looms ever present in the office and kitchen.
It is worth printing or handwriting a reminder to stick on the tea maker you are offering:
Black: boiling, brew 3-4 mins.
Oolong: boil, wait 2 mins, brew 3-4.
Green: boil, wait 3 mins, brew 2-3.
White: boil, wait 3 min, brew 3-4.
Tea on the go. There is just one extra flourish to add to this generous gift of time, tea and accessories. It responds to the reality that tea and coffee are very much drinks on the go. People getting ready to drive to work or catch a bus or train want to make a hot drink fast and take it with them.
The ideal tea accessory for this is the double-walled tumbler. This equivalent of the standard thermos flask differs from it in details that really matter for tea. The glass is generally the same borosilicate that laboratory test tubes are made of: fairly tough and free of any plastic or metal taste affecting the tea. It includes an infuser and strainer so you can brew and run.
All in all, a Care Kit is a sensible general-purpose combination of convenient use and excellent tea making. It’s good value and relatively inexpensive as a thoughtful gift – assuming it gets used, of course.
Featured banner illustrated by Tasneem Amiruddin