Though my mother and father were pretty heavy coffee drinkers, and most of my older siblings followed suit, I never developed a taste for it. Which is probably not such a bad thing; being one who doesn’t sit still for long, adding caffeine to my diet was likely not a good idea.
In my later years, the social aspect of having a hot beverage began to have appeal. I’d always loved hot cocoa but the sugar required to make it palatable didn’t seem a healthy choice, either. Besides, not every pantry has cocoa in it. Tea seemed a logical choice and I quickly became a fan. At first I bought tea bags and made individual cups, experimenting with blends. Earl Grey was an early favorite and remains so today. Soon I had several teapots and an array of tea cozies to keep them warm.
As time went on I discovered the joy of brewing loose tea. I owned a small furniture/home accessories shop at the time and brought in several different types of tea pots with built-in infusers, which invariably sold well. I took a few of these home for my own use.
When I closed the store, I decided to launch a tea shop. It was so much fun. We sold tea pots in every shape and size. I loved discovering new designs. There were elegant glass ones; some of ceramic (many colorful and whimsical); sophisticated brushed stainless steel with a thermal layer to keep tea hot longer; hand-painted enameled pots from Europe; and beautiful hand-made cast iron from Japan. Many came with their own hot plates to keep the tea warm.
Of course our raison d’etre was selling the teas. The entire back wall was filled with shelves of large canisters of every type of tea imaginable. Each time we opened one to fill a bag or give a customer a sample sniff, the fragrance burst into the shop. Goldie Hawn had a home in the ‘hood in which we had the store and I will never forget one Christmas Kurt Russell coming in to purchase a gift for a friend. He was fascinated with the variety of teas and when he saw we were flooded with customers, he asked if he could buy the large canisters and could he help himself. He had a great time coming around back of the till and opening the canisters, scooping his choices into bags or smaller canisters and stuffing the whole into the large canisters once they’d been rung in. He swaggered out with a couple of armfuls, followed by many pairs of star-struck eyes.
I also learned a thing or two about making tea. The best way to make black or herbal teas is to oxygenate the water by bringing it to a full rolling boil for at least 10-30 seconds, which brings out the flavor. For delicate teas such as green, white or oolongs, bring the temperature to about 185 degrees. Always start with fresh cold water for the cleanest taste. Brewing times, too, vary. For black tea, 4-5 minutes; for delicate teas, no longer than 3 minutes. Herbals may require 5-8 minutes to release the full flavor.
There are many rituals relating to tea. A Japanese tea ceremony can include confections or a meal and last for many hours. For a casual gathering, my all time favorite tea party features flowering tea. Each little ‘bud’ comprises a dried flower in the middle around which tea leaves are painstakingly hand rolled by master artisans from China, then left to dry. When infused, the bud slowly unfurls into a beautiful flower before your eyes and emits wonderful fragrances. They are best made in a glass teapot set in the middle of a table, or served individually in large stemmed wine glasses, brandy snifters or the recently popular wine tumblers. Typically made with green or white tea leaves, the blossoms can be infused several times without losing their distinctive flavor. Afterward they can be placed in the tea pot or a rose bowl with cold water and enjoyed as decoration for a few days.
I sold the tea shop a few years ago when I decided to devote myself to writing full time. It was probably my smallest business venture but it provided great joy.
Writing is a solitary thing, with no mandated breaks for coffee or lunch. I found myself always with a cup of tea at hand. Getting up and making a new pot was occasionally a welcome break, but mostly it became an unwelcome chore. I bought a large thermos carafe and began to make my tea in there. Last year my daughter ran across an automatic tea maker. She suggested I have a look. My family always buys me one larger gift for Christmas and she thought I might like it. I did finally get to see it but chose another gift instead. This year she began hinting at a couple of things I might like. But I’d been thinking of the tea maker all year and delved into some research. There were really only two choices and I decided on the one my daughter originally found.
Although not perfect, I love my new device. There are handy pre-set brewing times for various tea types, though I prefer to customize for my own tastes. There are enough settings options to satisfy even the fussiest brewer and it always remembers the previous settings. The basket travels up and down a few times during the brewing. If one wants to brew for longer, it has an option to lower the basket for as long as you like. As much as 1 ½ litres can be made at once.
The tea maker is a bit fussy; one has to be careful not to get water down the sides as it could cause an electrical short. But that is still far and away better than having to get up, put on water to boil, wait for the whistle, and get up again to measure and steep the tea.
I recently began using the automatic brew feature, which can be prepared the night before and set to turn itself on at a given time. It’s a delight to wake up to fresh tea and saves precious time before sitting down to write.
The biggest flaw in the device is the keep-warm feature, and it is threefold. Back in the seventies my friend’s mother had a saying I have long adopted: That thing was designed by some dumb man. Not very PC in the world we now live in, what she meant was the designer (who in those days had a high percentage of being male), had probably never set foot in the area or use for which it was intended (also a high percentage of being true then of males). But I digress. The maximum temperature of the warmer is 175 deg. F, which to my taste is tepid. The maximum time it keeps warm is sixty minutes. Who is going to drink 1 ½ litres in one hour? Certainly not me. And worst of all, once you have lifted the pot to pour a cuppa, you must re-set the warmer button. See, some dumb man who does not drink nor make his own tea designed the device. Of course I don’t necessarily think the designer is male, but ‘person’ and ‘their’ does not have the same punch, and some sayings are simply better left non-PC. I have taken to making a second pot in the morning. The overnight brew I pour into my thermos carafe, which does keep the tea hot enough for hours. The second pot I sip until it is too tepid to tolerate then slip the remaining cups into the microwave to heat (oh, sacrosanct!). This way I have enough tea for the entire day. I often alternate between caffeinated tea and herbal (my faves are Rooibos and Honeybush, both from South Africa, and have the look and feel of ‘real’ tea), depending on my whim.
I sometimes make fresh ginger and lemon tea for a break and it is fabulous for that. Much less fussy, and as mentioned elsewhere I am a lazy cook. I used to wrap the chopped ginger in pieces of cheesecloth, which I had to cut from large sheets as I could never find a proper size gauze, and tie up with string so the pieces didn’t enter the cup. The basket eliminates the necessity for all of that and furthermore there is a fine mesh strainer attached to the lid at the spout which catches any stray bits, cleans easily and is pure genius!
A bonus is the machine can be used as a ‘variable temperature’ kettle, however I’m not sure how useful that would be, as the tea is brewed in the carafe and would inherently impart a residual flavor.
But it is not just the convenience of it all that sold me. All types of tea (and yes, I sometimes toss in tea bags) made in the maker have and retain that crisp, clear taste only otherwise found by throwing a handful of tea straight into the pot of boiled water and dealing with the mess later. That is golden to me.
It seems I am not the only one who sips tea all day. Recently Richard Branson posted a piece on LinkedIn entitled, Where I Work: Surrounded By People (and Swimming in Tea), about his casual outdoor office on his island, with staff and visitors coming and going. Beside him was not a cool iced drink as one might expect. He mentioned that the mug on the table beside him contained tea and that he always has some at hand. I smiled, imagining his staff fetching tea for him all day long. I wonder if they have discovered the magic of automatic tea makers…