Getting serious about the tea in your cup
For Eight Forty-Eight, food writer David Hammond visited a tea merchant in the western suburbs. He discovered that these folks take their tea very seriously – and only rarely with sugar.
Tea drinkers are a breed apart, and none more so than Bill Todd, who runs a world-class tea shop just a mile or so from my home. He’s one of the owners of Todd & Holland Tea Merchants located in Forest Park. He’s been in the tea business for fifteen years.
I stopped by Todd & Holland to get a lesson in “cupping,” the connoisseurs’ time-honored practice of preparing and savoring tea. Todd starts by using a digital scale to measure out an exact quantity of gnarled black leaves. “This is a Japanese black tea,” he says. “The Japanese make very little black tea. Almost all of their tea is green. And this is an interesting black tea because most things that the Japanese do, because they’re a very homogenous society, they do very well. And this tea is a loose leaf tea that has got a different flavor than you’ve got out of your India or China black teas.”
High-quality tea is always sold loose. We fill a tea bag and drop it into a small white pot. Todd brings water to a boil. Then he pours it into the pot, and sets the timer to ensure his tea bag is in hot water for exactly three minutes. According to Todd, “the third minute is when the minerals in the tea leaf come out and what flavors your tea is the mineral binding between the minerals in the tea leaf and the minerals in the water. If you want to have a tea that’s absolutely flat, use distilled water. The tea will have no flavor profile to speak of…because there are no minerals in the water to bind with the minerals in the tea. We’re fortunate in Chicago to have about eight grains of hardness in our water, and you can use filters that take out the chlorine (and) things like that, if you want to. But basically, our Lake Michigan water is good tea-brewing water.”
The timer beeps; the tea is ready to drink. We’re not adding sugar or (heaven forbid), milk, of course, as that would cover the subtlety of the beverage. As you might suspect, there’s a procedure in place for maximizing your ability to taste the tea in all its dimensions. Pouring the tea, Todd guides me through the process: “I want you to inhale some air into your lungs, take a sip of the tea, and when the tea is in your mouth I want you to take your tongue and squish your tongue against the roof of your mouth and squeeze the tea out of the backside of your mouth. I’ll just inhale some air, squish the tea against the roof of my mouth and swallow the tea. And what you’re looking for is what the sensation is on the roof of your mouth, on the top of your tongue. And what you’ll notice from any tea that’s really tea is a sense of dryness developing, and that dryness results from the tannins in the tea squeezing the fluid out of the cell structure in your mouth, creating a condition called astringency.”
It’s fascinating how, when you take the time to think carefully about what you’re consuming, you actually do taste more. “To really taste the tea” Todd says, “after you’ve tasted the astringency, is you inhale air into your lungs, take a sip of the tea, and once the tea is in your mouth you keep your mouth closed. The reason you keep your mouth closed is that if you open your mouth and breathe in air, tea is a delicate beverage and the air is just going to overpower it. So what I want you to do is inhale some air, take a sip of the tea.” I do this, and Todd continues “swallow the tea, and then breathe out from your nose. It’s the breathing out through your nose where you get the taste of the tea in the back, because tea is an aroma beverage more than it is a mouth beverage. The only thing you taste in your mouth is the tannins, the astringency, the dryness in the mouth, but the flavor in the tea comes from sipping the tea. To exaggerate that sipping, what I want you to do next is I want you to inhale some air…Take a sip of the tea, and when you do I want you to (Todd slurps) audibly slurp it. So, I’ll give you a little demonstration. Inhale” Todd says, slurping again. “And what you’re doing is you’re inhaling air into your lungs at 70 degrees, heating it up to 90, you’re taking the tea and (slurp) slurping it. (You’re) throwing it against the back of your throat, you’re swallowing the liquid tea, and (with) the heated air you’re pumping up and picking up the concentrated tea vapor over the olfactory bulb which is at the back of the sinus cavity.
“It’s the slurping that fills that cavity, and you’ll get that intensity of flavor that you’re drinking.”
But for all those clearly articulated procedures, the most important step in cupping tea is to slow down. Todd says “to really enjoy tea, you need to plunk yourself in the chair, stop what you’re doing, concentrate on the tea and enjoy the flavor of it. Which is why people are always asking me, ‘what’s going to be the next Starbucks of tea?’ And, in my humble opinion, there will never be one because Starbucks is a whambamthankyouma’am.”
Before we began this interview, Todd had referred to coffee as the “evil elixir.” It’s clear he feels coffee fuels a face-paced approach to life that’s inimical to the enjoyment of tea. He says “you’ve got to boil the water, brew the tea, let it cool and then drink to enjoy it. All of that takes time.” Learning how to drink tea comes naturally; learning how to enjoy it requires some training. Todd says “now, you probably didn’t notice, but you opened your mouth three times. It’s a learned skill to keep your mouth closed.”
Keeping my mouth closed? Yes, that’s a skill I haven’t acquired yet.
Eight Forty-Eight food contributor David Hammond is a founding moderator of LTHForum.com, the Chicago-based culinary chat site. Every Wednesday, you can read his “Food Detective” column in the Chicago Sun-Times and “Oak Park Omnivorous” in the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest.
Music Button: Django Reinhardt, "Tea For Two", from the CD Nuages Vol. 2, (Epm)