Summer Sensations in Winter Weather

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As I write this, rain just began pouring over the office roof. It’s just hit winter here in Australia – 12 days ago to be exact – and after a record-breaking El Niño event we’re finally beginning to see the weather get colder.

In the Northern Hemisphere, however, it’s an entirely different story. For all of you lovely Northern Hemispherians it’s summer – or almost summer, anyway – and you’ll all soon be enjoying the wonderful holiday weather. So, today we have something just for you!

Australian Tea Masters has created a Pinterest account where we will be pinning all of the best iced teas and tea cocktails to refresh you as you run around enjoying your summer antics. If you’d like to join in the fun (while we freeze to death making them), then head on over to http://www.pinterest.com/austeamasters/. We’re still setting the account up, but expect a lovely stream of pins in the coming weeks.

As for our lovely local Australians, we’ll get around to creating some beautiful winter warmer recommendations for you soon, so stay tuned!

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Colours and Shapes: Part 2

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We move to our next lesson in understanding tea quality through the leaf in Part 2 of Colours and Shapes. Today, we are focusing particularly on the leaf’s shape, which depends greatly on the type of tea we are examining.

So, let’s say you’ve bought a royal ring tea. It’s a green tea that has been processed into its beautiful trademark ring-shaped coil, shown on the picture above. If this tea has not been made to optimum quality you will notice that these coils are not as tightly furled as they should be – at least in the dry leaf. This means they may not have been processed with the care and attention they deserve, and will not achieve the same wonderful flavours as a high-quality royal ring might.

Texture can also be important, and in any tea where the texture seems different to those of its type, this can indicate any number of things. Texture in particular can be difficult to discern, however it’s important to remember that no green or white tea should be brittle, although some black teas may take on this characteristic. Each different tea has its own set of traits that are considered “optimum” and “normal”, so it really does count to do some research and experience the tea from several different tea producers (if the tea is made by several independent farmers and/or companies).

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Colours and Shapes: Part 1

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Tea leaves are a delicate thing. To ensure optimum quality, they need to be plucked with specific care, the result being a quality leaf that may be fully appreciated. Experienced tea drinkers and masters can often tell you the quality of a leaf just by looking at it, and today we’re going to give you a few clues as to what to look for, so you can too.

Please note, of course, that it takes much time and tea drinking to uncover what the leaf conveys. Experience is paramount in order to separate the subtle differences, but don’t treat it too seriously. Enjoy tea as you always have, and don’t pressure yourself into being able to tell with every single leaf. Your experience will build simply by making the conscious decisions to take a look at your leaves before you simply throw them in your teapot.

One of the first indications of quality that you can look for is whether the leaves of a batch are of a similar size. If not – for example, in a whole leaf tea you can see leaves that are obviously broken and some tea dusts – this can indicate that the tea was processed by machine and thus will be inferior to a manually processed version. Not only that, but it will also mean that the tea will not steep at an exactly even rate. While this is hardly detrimental to a tea’s flavour, at the same time it certainly isn’t favourable.

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Conducting a Japanese Tea Ceremony, Part 1

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The Japanese conduct their tea ceremony in a variety of different ways depending on the time and season. The two main occupations are known as Furo, for use in the summer, and Ro, for use in the winter – however, these two can vary, and location / personal preference can bring in an even greater number of factors when it comes to the ceremony itself.

Firstly, it is helpful to note that Japanese tea rooms tend to look nothing like the table-and-chair tea rooms that we are so used to; Japanese people sit on the floor much more often than we in Western society do. As such, there are no chairs and tables present in a Japanese tea room; it is merely a square with a dip in the middle for which to prepare tea.

There are preparations one must make several weeks before your tea ceremony is to begin. First, you must invite your guests. It is only polite to give your guests several weeks’ notice so that they may prepare and adequately adjust their lives to allow the visit; failure to give adequate notice could result in your guests not being able to show up at all.

It must be ensured that tearoom and the garden outside are clean and tidy before commencement of the ceremony; it is wise to ensure this is done more than a few days before it begins. Tatami mats and sliding door Shoji paper should both be replaced as well.

A meeting should be held with the Hantou and Shokyaku, which are some very special guests to your tea ceremony. This is to help decide important things about the tea ceremony and to explain what sort of tea ceremony you intend to hold.

Finally, one day before the ceremony begins, you should begin to prepare the Kaiseki meal. Whether you begin the day before or early in the morning of the ceremony is up to you; mostly it depends on how large and/or complicated you intend the meal to be. Newcomers to Japanese cuisine will find it easier to keep it small and simple during their first ceremonies.

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How to Process Your First Tea

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Now that you’ve harvested the tea leaves from your very own tea bush in Growing Your Own Tea, Part 1 and Growing Your Own Tea, Part 2, you may be wondering; how do I make these into something wonderful? If you wish to go back to olden times – say, 3,000 BCE, you could always just take the leaves straight off the tree and brew them; for tens of hundreds of years, this was the only known method of making tea. However, now that all sorts of tea processing has been invented you’re probably much keener to process it into something a little more refined. This will be your first processing project. If your tea plant has had adequate amounts of nitrogen (particularly ammonium) while shooting, it will be perfect for green tea.

For this project, we will be making green tea. Green tea is one of the least processed and least oxidised teas available, and is thus the least strenuous to create – especially for a home-brewer who is new to the job. For a very long time only varieties of green tea were available in China, until eventually other, more complicated teas were made. Green tea, on the whole, is much easier to work with.

First you will want to spread the leaves over a large surface for anywhere from 2 – 3 hours; varying the time they are left out for will produce different results with regards to taste, so feel free to experiment and see which brings you the best flavour. Do not spread the leaves too thickly during this stage; the thinner the layer, the better – this is a stage where the moisture content of the leaves is reduced, it won’t be very effective if they’re all clumped together. This part of the process should be done in the shade.

While they are drying, sift through them to find any debris that shouldn’t be there, as well as discoloured leaves. Such things should be removed, as they will ruin your final product.

Now, as you’ll recall, green tea isn’t oxidised – in fact, your first goal is to halt the oxidation process altogether. This can be achieved either through frying the leaves in a pan, or steaming them. In this case we will steam them with a steamer, exactly the same way you would with vegetables. This should be done for roughly one minute, thus reducing the moisture content of the leaves to just over 50%.

Preheat your oven to 120ºC (or 250ºF). While the oven is preheating, be sure to spread your leaves out evenly over a sheet of baking paper. When the oven is ready, place the tray inside for 20 minutes, thus further reducing the moisture content.

After this, you should store your leaves how you would store any other tea you own; in an airtight jar well out of the way of sunlight. Do not store it anywhere where things like mildew could form – the last thing we want is for the tea to develop fungus or mould.

You may have noticed that these instructions do not involve a rolling stage; it is not strictly necessary for your first tea, however it will produce a greater quality of tea if done properly.

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How to Store Tea

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As with many foods, even tea has a shelf-life, though you might not realise. Its shelf-life compared with many other unpreserved foods is actually quite long, which is why many people are unaware that it can expire. However, as tea is often something consumed over time (like, perhaps, a fine wine), it is preferable to know how to store it in a manner that won’t allow it to prematurely go bad or stale. Most people are first caught out with white or green tea, as oxidation levels are initially low but are a primary factor in deteriorating the tea’s quality.

The first step in storing it properly is to understand a thing or two about the properties of green and white tea in particular. Black and many oolong teas are already heavily oxidised during processing, as a method of attaining very particular and strong flavours. In order for white and green teas to retain their delicate tastes and subtle aromas, they are barely oxidised at all, with white tea being the least oxidised tea available. As one can plainly see, the level of oxidation is clearly correlated with the colour (and thus class) of the tea.

Now what would happen if you started oxidising something such as, say, a green tea, because you stored it improperly? It will actually start to darken and brown, much like in the processing for black and oolong teas. However, since the oxidation is not happening in the same strictly controlled environment as it would if it were actually intentionally being made into a black or an oolong, the degradation of flavour begins.

There are a few things that change the effectiveness of the storage of your tea. Oxygen, light, heat, and moisture are all responsible for degrading the leaves, so the optimal storage area is somewhere that is a) airtight, b) watertight and dry, c) free from heat, and d) in a dark area. Light can cause the pigments and lipids in the tea to oxidise, and the chlorophyll may also decompose. Mildew can be created through exposure to moisture, and heat will cause a number of compounds in the tea to decompose.

Oxygen, however, is one of the biggest offenders, which is why it’s so important that the tea be stored in airtight jars. Large elements of the tea, such as carbohydrates, amino acids and especially polyphenols (such as catechins) are particularly vulnerable to being oxidised by fresh air at this point. Any of the other above problems will only make this oxidation process faster.

The best place for your tea, therefore, is out of direct sunlight – a dark cabinet would be ideal. To be safe, you should make sure this cabinet is well away from moisture (not above a stove top, or outside, etc.) and any place where it might get particularly hot. Summer is a particularly dangerous time for tea, so finding a place in your house that is generally cool is preferable.

It is not advised that you ever refrigerate your tea, as this can cause condensation to form, which will contribute to spoiling it. Generally speaking, you should be able to keep most teas for at least six months before they begin to spoil, if stored correctly. Some rare teas, in much the same manner as a number of different cheeses and wines, can improve with age; however it is suggested that research is conducted into the tea before allowing it to age, as these teas are few in number.

If your tea does become bland in flavour, however, all is not lost – as long as it’s still drinkable, that is. Mint and lemon can be added to give it a flavour boost, and stronger teas can be mixed with the stale tea in order to produce a much more passable concoction.

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Growing your Own Tea, Part 2

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Perhaps you’d like to read Part 1, first? Read Growing your Own Tea, Part 1.

Growing the Tea

Make sure your tea plant gets sufficient water, but never too much; this can cause your tea plant to drown, especially if the soil doesn’t have adequate drainage (read: don’t plant in clay-like soil types). While your tea plant should always be wet, at no point should it ever be swimming. A quick sprinkle once or twice a day is more than sufficient.

If it floods and you are desperate to save the tea, attempt uprooting, draining and potting until the effects of the flood are over – otherwise the plant may become drowned and die.

Do not harvest the tea leaves the first time they grow. In order to survive effectively, the tea plant needs to be around three years of age before it is pruned and plucked, otherwise you will compromise it during a vital stage of development.

Pruning should be conducted after about three years of age, particularly if your plant is becoming too big to be manageable in its location. Tea plants tend to grow one to two metres tall, but can reach even higher if you allow them.

That’s all there is to it! As long as you treat your tea plant with love and care, it will reward you generously with all the tea leaves you could ask for. Please remember, however, that these tea leaves should still be processed before you throw them in your water to steep. Ancient Chinese people may have enjoyed unprocessed tea for many years, however it does not bring about the leaves’ full potential.

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