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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cold Brewed [Steeped] Tea

In passing with another tea person I know I had a brief although provocative conversation.  I mentioned that I was drinking some Cold Brewed Keemun I made for a party I hosted, and his initial reaction was that it was a waste of good tea.  I a bit shocked at the somewhat up front condemnation of how I was drinking this tea, decided to ask him more about what he meant, and the conversation that followed had some rather illuminating points on how do deal with bad tea, and as sort of the other side of the coin, how not to treat good tea.

Before I go to far let me say, when I defended myself by telling him this particular tea I actually had a hard time drinking warm, due to its incredible potency and general astringency, he conceded that cold brewing may be the way to go with that tea.  Though it is a bit amazing, Iced tea is not a foreign concept in the United States, I do not know to what levels it has caught on in other countries, but at the same time brewing tea cold, and drinking tea cold is sort of a bait and switch with pretty much any tea.  There is one somewhat clear guideline that makes perfect sense and no sense at the same time depending on how you think about it:

Bad tea often make good iced tea, while good tea seldom makes good iced tea.

Its a bait and switch/ role reversal with tea when you switch from hot water to cold water.  Now there are ways to make incredible cold tea with good tea leaves, but they often require so much leaf, or give so little liquid that they don't seem worth while.  For some reason for tea to taste like tea we need that slight astringent and bitter aspect to the brew, which bad teas often have too much of, and good teas often have just enough or a little less than enough allowing us to add more leaf and get that much more in terms of extra flavors from the leaves.   

Queue the heat,  tea brewing 101 quickly establishes a correlation between both steep time and temperature with overall astringency of the brew.  Temperature is the biggest factor though, as a lot more time is needed once the temperature starts to drop. I am sure all my chemically and biologically oriented friends could offer richer more scientific explanations of the processes involved, but the general idea is the hotter the water the quicker and more readily compounds get from the leaf into the liquid.  Now these items diffuse at different rates depending on the temperature, and  the ones that diffuses very slowly at low temperatures are mostly the same compounds that cause the astringent/ bitter tastes to develop in the brew. As such cold temperatures and long steeping times get the most out of the wide variety of flavors in the tea, with the least amount of bitter components.

Why not good tea on ice? This one is probably harder to explain, as in a certain sense if we think of astringency solely as a bad item, it should not make sense. But I maintain that a bit of astringency is what makes tea what it is, and helps highlight its overall taste.  As such if you take a tea already low in those compounds and brew it in a way that further reduces the amount of those in the brew, you can often be left with a liquid that may smell nice, but taste very simple and bland.  (It is almost like astringency is the spices of the tea world, while the base ingredients may be great, typically they perform their best with a little extra spices to bring them to life). 

Other years I may have thought this is a very timely post, but I am living in an area stuck in perpetual winter, and I can only dream of eventually seeing warmer days ahead in which I'd love to reach for a glass of iced tea.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

Matcha Monday Morning Maddness

Well it is quarter after three in the morning, a time I find a little bit ironic, as 24 hours ago I had not yet gone to bed, and in those past 24 hours I've gotten maybe ten hours of sleep, a questionable four Saturday morning, and six with so much promise bringing me to this point in time right here.  So I'm stalling time writing this post hoping I get tired enough to fall back asleep, but in the mean time I am getting full well prepared to start my Monday with a nice big bowl of Matcha. 

It occurs to me, I may have not written a post about some of the do's and don'ts of matcha preparation, the goals, and the pitfalls that we all occasionally deal with while whisking up a bowl of the *magic green pixie dust.*  

Matcha is green tea right?  So I should definitely use water that has cooled for some time before adding it to the leaf? 

Not Quite!  It still seems rather contradictory in my mind how this works out the way it does, as you'd imagine finely ground green leaves would be extra sensitive to the heat and turn bitter quickly.  It likely has to do though with the thorough and careful process of shading the leaves and removing the stems and veins from the leaves before grinding that makes this possible.  (Yes, I do also realize the irony here that Gyokuro which is also shaded is brewed with cooler water than most green teas.)

So what temperature should you aim for when brewing matcha?  I still avoid boiling, but I do not cool the water off much at all. Typically only a very short time in a water cooler before pouring and whisking.  I aim for roughly half the temperature between boiling and my typical green tea preparation. The warmer water can help produce the nice frothy/ foamy top to the tea. 

Whisking, how and why?

Well first lets be clear it is far closer to the motion of trying to beat an egg, than stirring.  The goal here is not just to mix, but to also aerate the tea and produce the nice foam on top of the tea. A common set of instructions given, and I under stand different schools of Japanese tea ceremony have different whisking techniques.  Aim for making an M or W shape with the whisk, as unless you are actually studying a formal Japanese ceremony technique from a particular school for home enjoyment this is fairly straight forward and easy to think about when whisking.    Also, the urge might be to feel like you need to scrape the tea off the bottom of the bowl, please avoid scraping the bottom of the bowl with the whisk when whisking, nothing is worse than taking a sip of matcha, and getting a nice piece of bamboo tine. It is pretty much the equivalent of a fish bone in the tea world.  

I've used hot enough water, and I'm killing my arm trying to whisk this tea into oblivion, and I can only get a meager thin foam on top of my matcha?

Don't fret too much, try a few different matcha while working on your technique, sometimes it really is the tea and not the tea maker.  

Snacks? Sifting?  Supplies?

The Japanese have quite a few treats that they often pair with their tea, in terms of items somewhat easily available in the Western Hemisphere, some dark chocolate often goes incredibly well with matcha. Sifting is also up to you, I prefer it, but depending on which method you use to make matcha, there are ways around sifting that still help remove lumps of tea.  A question often asked is do you really need all those supplies to drink matcha: Scoop (Chashaku), Whisk (Chasen), Sifter (???) , Bowl (Chawan)?  Most houses have items that can do the trick for each of those except for possibly the whisk.  Chasen, are really in a league of their own for doing the job and still protecting the ceramics you are using.  Scoops can pretty much be replaced by any sort of spoon. Chawan can typically be replaced by a typical household bowl, though you may want to consider shape and dimensions as some might be easier than others. 

I did not mention the sifter because its a bit of a funny story, the only tea infusing basket I have in my apartment, is actually my matcha sifter.  Without buying a sifter designed specifically for matcha unless you really want to, find any somewhat fine mesh screen, the type you somewhat often find on some infuser baskets, it does the trick and will save you quite a few dollars. 

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