A standard guide to tea drinking would not recommend that you start in Spain. It is a country of coffee drinkers, with over 82 variations on the standard cup of Joe. Yet, Madrid is exactly where our passion hatched from a humble chrysalis of desires and imaginings to the full-winged moth of tea obsession. In London we had perhaps 40 types of loose-leaf tea to home, so we were hardly new to tea, but at the core of it lies the common yet evasive Earl Grey.
Earl Grey is a popular black tea blend, created using a mix of Chinese black teas (Yunnan is one, but it is difficult to pin down the others) and adding oil from the bergamot rind. It took us years to realise that the little blue flowers often found in Earl Grey add zilch to the flavour and are purely decorative. It is only the bergamot orange that makes it distinctive (the orange itself is a cross between a lime and the bitter orange, and is most commonly found in Italy where it is planted for decorative purposes). A bad Earl Grey, which is undoubtedly more common, is made with a generous dose of bergamot oil which is then mixed in with the lower-quality black tea. It is overpowering and too citrusy. A good Earl Grey takes more time and effort to make, as it requires high quality tea to be infused with the orange rind only. It is light, it is smooth yet fresh, and would be utterly ruined by milk.
When living in London, we had a few trusted Earl Grey suppliers, but in Madrid the situation was more dire. The grocery stores offered a meagre area of bagged herbal teas, as well as a few boxes of black tea bags, under the brand Horniman. We did try the Horniman, but ironically were left wanting more.
On our rather hipster street we were lucky enough to have a loose leaf tea shop, but they had only one pure Earl Grey (contradictory, as even Earl Grey is a blend); all the others were mixed with cherry or cinnamon. We tried a sample and the bergamot oil attacked our noses, leaving us smelling citrus in everything for the afternoon.
Then, one happy rainy evening, we stumbled upon Te Valle, an elegant and welcoming tea purveyor with a decent selection. Their Earl Grey was better (though still a bit strong), but the encounter changed our lives beyond finding a new tea: it was the beginning of a strong friendship that remains to this day. It also opened up the world of tea to us, and to far more than even their excellent selection and quality of teas available.
We ended up leading English tea events, teaching the basics of tea production and manufacturing to groups of semi-interested Spanish people (taught to us by their tea sommelier and now friend that works with the same tea shop). We also ended up trying some beautiful teas that we would not have otherwise encountered, such as green rooibos (unoxidised needles), milky oolong, butter oolong; plus a yellow tea shipped from China at great cost with thanks to our sommelier, and an ancient pu’erh gifted by the Chinese ambassador to Spain with thanks to the patron of Té Valle….and many more.
We also were taught some Key Tea Rules to live by, which include:
The two variables when making tea are TIME + TEMPERATURE. A pu’erh tea that is rich and earthy when brewed at 100C will be ghastly if brewed at 70C. A sweet, vegetal green tea from Japan (a Sencha, for example) will burn and scorch if brewed at anything above 80C, with the highest qualities brewed with water as low as 60C. Likewise, if the pu’erh is left for more than three minutes, it is likely to be too strong to drink. If high quality Sencha is left for longer than 10 seconds, it will also be too bitter for a normal person to consume. We had one guest at a tea event who complained that tea is strong, bitter and horrible. He then confessed that his technique was to put a few bags in his thermos, fill it with hot water, then go to work. He would drink the tea a few hours later, the beleaguered bags still steeping…
Water is important, but less than you might think. Of course fresh spring water would be ideal, but tap water will do just fine assuming it’s been cleaned and filtered to a good standard. Reducing the amount of particulates, though, such as calcium, lime and salts will certainly impact flavour. Some purists say a pH of 7 is perfect, whereas others say below 7 (perhaps 5 or 6) gives the tea a better chance. No one has ever said that hard water is a good thing (except for the Yorkshire Gold brand, but that’s their unique selling point…).
Just like a teenager, tea needs its space. The larger the filter the better, which allows the tea leaves to fully contort and expand in the hot water bath. The ideal scenario is to do away with the filter entirely, but this is only practical on the rare occasions where you pour the entire pot of tea after it has brewed so no water is left to over-steep.
Regarding filters and pots, the best are glass because they do not interact with the tea and you can see exactly what’s going on. However, glass breaks, which bumps metal filters up to the top of list, leaving plastic filters at the bottom. DIY teabags are okay, but don’t give much room for the tea to expand. Ceramic teapots work nicely because they don’t reach the same dangerous levels of heat as metal pots. (Note: ceramic pots also break!)
If you are drinking tea for health benefits, do not leave it for more than 2-3 hours, as the various chemical things that tea does to your insides won’t happen. The caffeine will also vanish, leaving you with a still tasty but under-performing drink. Also, adding milk dramatically reduces chemical goodness (so some say – recent studies suggest ambiguity).
If you are drinking tea to really taste the tea, don’t eat. Save the digestives for the second mug.
Lastly, for the anaemics out there: don’t drink tea an hour before or after a meal, unless you dislike absorbing iron…
Once our tea education took flight, our snobbishness rose to new and more obnoxious heights. As we spent much of the day working in different cafes, we would share notes as to which places we should patronise again and which should be avoided at all costs. The root evil in most venues was the commercial coffee machine: As it spends most of its life making coffee, the machine itself can be forgiven (old dogs and new tricks, etc.). But it simply does not produce water that is hot enough to make black tea. And most cafes served Horniman bags, which were strong and bitter.
There were a few venues that, whether or not they were using hot enough water, committed the ultimate sin of not providing enough tea leaves. Six leaves in a filter does not a pot make. And so we expanded further afield and learned that only green or white teas should be consumed when out, as the water temperature was usually right for them. Whenever we wearied, though, we simply had to swing by Te Valle and be restored.
And now we are on our journey – flying straight towards the light of tea that glows across the world, whether it is the covered tea fields of Japan, the misty mountains of India or the terraces of China. As a moth, I hope we don’t get burned, but I do hope the water is hot enough for that to be a real possibility.