The infusion report: there's more to tea than soaking a bag in hot water

Speciality teas are one way to enjoy this ancient beverage and be reasonably sure that what you buy has been produced in humane circumstances.
Vivel Patisserie offers a selection of gourmet teas in addition to its pastries.
Vivel Patisserie offers a selection of gourmet teas in addition to its pastries.

From the ancient tea ceremonies of the Far East to the very English act of proffering a cup in times of emergency, there is something pleasantly ritualistic about preparing and drinking tea.

Speciality teas have until relatively recently been enjoyed by a niche market, though. While we're all au fait with ordering our coffee of choice (be it short and black, tall and skinny or flat and white), many of us still play it safe with tea and never veer far from our favourite, familiar brew.

Still, with the rise of boutique shops, bespoke blends and a resurgence in popularity for taking afternoon tea, this venerable drink - in its various gussied up guises - has really come into the radar of late. Perhaps it might just be time to move beyond that bog-standard household brand, after all.

The historical origin of tea is shrouded in legend. The Chinese favour a tale involving the emperor Shen Nung, a cup of just-boiled water and a few stray leaves from a nearby tea bush. The emperor enjoyed the aroma and taste of this new drink immensely and so the first cup of tea was born. Another tale involves the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, who, furious with himself for falling asleep while meditating, cut his eyelids off and threw them aside. Where they hit the ground, the story goes, tea plants sprang up.

Regardless of the true history of the drink, the popularity of tea cannot be understated. It is the second most widely consumed beverage in the world today (after water) and is grown in some 30 countries all over the globe, with India, Kenya, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and China being the main exporters.

However, mass tea production is fraught with ethical problems. Tea gardens are infamous for their poor working conditions; production is labour-intensive, wages are low and the workers are often entirely reliant on plantation owners for medical aid, housing and food. One way to ensure that your tea has been produced in acceptable conditions is to look for brands sporting the Fairtrade certificate or for companies that have signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Tea Sourcing Partnership. Another option is to seek out speciality tea, which is produced on a much smaller scale.

The Rare Tea Company is one of the leaders in this particular pack, both in terms of the range of award winning tea that it sells and the means by which its goods are produced. Henrietta Lovell, the founder, explains the ethos behind the company she set up in 2004: "I travel the world searching for small mountain gardens. When I find them, I work directly with the farmers and visit them to ensure not only the best tea but also that the farms are sustainably managed - both in environment terms and for the people who live on them. We don't haggle with our farmers. We pay them what they ask".

Lovell says that tea from small, speciality farms is treated with greater care than the mass-produced variety: "My teas are packed at source - on the tea garden - to keep them as fresh as possible. The time between the picking to being sealed in the small, foil pouches my customers purchase, takes from a couple of hours to a day or two at the very most. This is a real point of difference; industrially produced tea is shipped in bulk and packed months or years after production."

The importance of working with artisan tea producers is reiterated by Anna Vladimirova, the general manager of Vivel Patisserie. Vivel is a homegrown company that opened in Deira almost 20 years ago and quickly become known for its homemade pastries. There are now several of these boutique shops and cafés across the UAE, and although customers still flock to the stores to buy sweets, increasingly they also go there to sample the gourmet teas, which can be enjoyed in store or purchased (in beautifully packaged tins) for home brewing.

Vladimirova explains that she and Vivel's chief executive, Ehsan Hosseini, work closely with a small family-run company in Paris to "ensure that we source the very best; we taste hundreds of different blends of tea before settling on those that we add to our menu".

She attributes the increased popularity of fine teas to "people becoming more educated - both in terms of the range and variety available and the health benefits associated with drinking it".

I am a confirmed tea-drinker. But, until now, I have been a devotee of the English breakfast variety: nice and strong with a splash of milk. As Vladimirova pours a pale liquid from an elegant tea pot, a fruity aroma fills the air and I start to think perhaps my mind could be swayed. She explains that this particular green tea (called Shahraz) is a favourite with customers and I can see why. It's light, with a delicate cherry flavour - the taste is distinctive but not overwhelmingly sweet, as some fruit-based teas can be.

A visit to the Khalidiya branch of Jones the Grocer broadens my tea horizons further. The newly opened store has a well-stocked tea and coffee section and a resident specialist in Neil August, who is on hand to answer questions and make recommendations.

He enthusiastically talks me through the 30-plus varieties of tea on offer (all hand-produced and exclusive to Jones): "To get the most out of tea and coffee, it's really important to really know your palette and for the nose and tongue to be in tune. I pride myself on being able to identify actual flavours, rather than just saying that an ingredient tastes or smells like something else."

August is keen to teach people about tea and to help them explore different blends until they find one or two they really love. As he chats away, he prepares three of his favourites for me; a French Earl Grey, which is, he says, perfect for early-morning drinking: "It's fresh like traditional Earl Grey but, thanks to the hibiscus flowers, there's a sweetness to it." His second more unusual recommendation is a Mah Jong fruit-bush infusion: "It's got a balance of hot and cold flavours. The mango adds sweetness and the cranberries give it a sour note." I simply nod in agreement, thinking that it tastes lovely.

Lastly, we try a cup of Sencha green tea, which has been flavoured with mango and is, according to August, very good for digestion. It's nice, but I've found my favourite in the fruit bush variety. What about adding milk? I wonder, draining my cup. August looks aghast: "Absolutely not, it alters the purity of the flavour and means that you won't be able to pick out the nuances of the tea. Likewise, with good coffee you should't need to add any flavourings (syrups or honey), they should already be there in the flavour profile."

While I may never be an expert, over the past couple of weeks I've certainly picked up a few tips regarding how to go about making the perfect brew. Loose-leaf tea, it seems, is the way to go. Lovell in particular is vehemently opposed to bags: "I don't sell tea bags. I never will. It doesn't matter how pretty the bag is or if it is made of paper or silk; good leaf tea needs room to unfurl and dance (as the Chinese say) as it infuses."

Once you've selected your particular blend, August stresses the importance of storing tea correctly (in an airtight container, away from direct sunlight) and of using clean equipment to prepare the drink. Vladimirova, meanwhile, uses a cotton strainer, rather than a metal one, to ensure that the natural flavour isn't tainted in any way.

All three suggest a ratio of one heaped teaspoon of leaves per cup of water (200-250ml) and stress that brewing time is critical to producing a good cup of tea. The flavours need time to infuse, but stew the leaves for too long and an excess of tannin will be released, imparting a bitter taste.

As a guide, Vladimirova says that black tea should be brewed for three minutes, green for four and the more delicate white variety for seven to nine minutes. Again, all three advise against using boiling water, as Lovell explains: "At 100 degrees, the strong bitter tannins dissolve. The softer, sweeter flavours have a lower dissolving point, so the water doesn't need to be quite as hot."

Do as August suggests and pour just-boiled water into the tea pot to warm it, leave for a minute, then discard that water and begin the tea-making process. Follow these rules and you should be well on your way to a really decent cuppa.

Published: April 20, 2011 04:00 AM


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