Earlier this December, I met a friend for lunch at one of Seattle’s best known bistros. For a a couple weeks, I looked forward to catching up over some good, honest French soul food. The restaurant, I thought, was a perfect choice for celebrating a lovely, long-standing friendship.
I chose right. The salade vert was delish; a fork and knife affair of whole buttery bibb leaves and toasted du Chilly hazelnuts smartly dressed in a creamy herb vinaigrette. Every spoonful of the rich and satisfying soup d’onion gratinee hit the right sweet, salty and fat buttons in my brian, and the blood orange sorbet, flavorful if not uninspiring, did it’s job of rounding out the palate. I was humming from a good meal and great company and was ready for my cup of tea.
Still waxing nostalgic over the honeyed, chocolate-y, malty Yunnan Wu Liang Hong Mao Feng tea I ran out of at home a week prior, I zeroed in on the Chinese Breakfast Yunnan Black Tea on the menu from a hip, fair-trade tea company with fancy-pants packaging that runs from 6-9 bucks on the supermarket shelf. Ever optimistic in a hopeless cause (ask my friends), I opened the foil pouch and pulled out a thin tea bag with a puny half teaspoon of ground tea. Still thinking there was a small chance I could be surprised at how good this tea is, I placed the tea bag into a diner tea pot (another bummer) and waited on the steep.
First of all, nothing happened (well, I guess the water changed color a little).
Second of all, nothing cost $3.50 a pot.
Turns out I am not the only one that finds this First-World Problem a tragedy. Tea connoisseurs consider my experience the unfortunate result of Floor Sweep a.k.a. Tea Dust or Tea Fannings. Most of the boxed tea you will find literally comes from the old, left over bits that remain after all the tea grades are sorted. A majority of box tea companies buy fannings in bulk from a broker, then ship it to a tea-bagger, then to a boxer, then to a distributor who delivers it to your store shelf. If, and I say if, the tea buyer bought a quality tea to start with, the process of grinding it up to bag, destroys the quality and flavor within weeks, if not days. (Of course there are always some exceptions. Barnes and Watson does a decent job with tea bags but they also source a full leaf.)
So next time at the co-op or market, head over to the bulk tea section where tea lives happily in glass or tin canisters, awaiting your scoop. (Ironically, you may be paying less for it than boxed tea).
When it gets down to it, comparing bagged tea to premium tea is like comparing a Kobe NY strip to a BK hamburger, Norcia black truffles to canned mushrooms, creme chantilly to Cool Whip. There is a huge difference. Floor sweep might give you a strong, one dimensional cup of tea, but it has lost it’s soul for lack of love.
On the other hand, tea leaves, picked, sorted and rolled by hand, dried in the sun, slowly roasted or expertly fermented, yield multiple infusions of complex, layered flavors, aromas and nuance. When tea masters prepare tea they take great care to preserve the integrity of the leaf from acquisition to the final steep. For instance, there is a protocol for cracking a puerh bingcha (round compressed cake) so that the leaves are not broken and thus offended. This way, the Tea Spirit is pleased and bestows a great brew.
It is best to brew your loose premium tea in a pot, portable glass tea infuser or, if absolutely necessary, from a tea pouch. Do not be dismayed if a tea leaf or two escapes into your cup – it won’t bite or pull out your tongue, I promise! Give your tea leaves room and freedom to unfurl and express themselves. They have a lot to share with you.
What to do with all your boxed tea bags? Refresh your tired eyes, marinate your meat, make a dream pillow, dye your hair, use it to ‘age’ paper for an art project, or my favorite – make Kombucha Tea!