Do you like my attempt at a clickbait title? Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your top three tips for new tea drinkers or people who are just discovering tea. Now, I’ve actually written a multi-part series on approaching tea from various points in your journey, but I like the idea of distilling my tea philosophy down into three top tips, particularly since my own philosophy and attitudes have changed in the nearly two years since I published my Tea Primer.
Step One: Be Very, Very Wary of Anyone Claiming to Be Teaching the “One True Way”
Like with anything, there will always be evangelists who want to convince you that the tea they sell or the way they brew tea is the best way or even the only way to brew tea to truly enjoy it. Or they will claim some ancient, unbroken lineage for their methods or traditions. No, we do not brew tea the way that Lu Yu, the “Sage of Tea,” author of the earliest known written work exclusively devoted to tea, did. Maybe some people do, and of course more people might try it once as a curiosity or an historical exercise, but for the most part, the Tang Dynasty method of tea is not the same as modern gongfucha or even very similar to the way most of us drink our daily tea, even without the salt.
One thing that studying the history of tea culture around the world has taught me is that tea is not monolithic, even within China, its birthplace (although that is up for debate, as there is evidence that tea plants evolved independently in other parts of south and southeast Asia). Tea was originally used as a medicinal plant; that’s why the most common story of its origins as a beverage involve the legendary founder of traditional Chinese medicine and its mention is traced to medical texts. While it eventually developed into a pleasure beverage and aesthetic pursuit, tea has always been considered for its health benefits, and it has always been drunk blended and flavored by many of those who use it. Flavoring teas is not a new phenomenon. Drinking tea for the benefits is not a new phenomenon. And what is now popularized as gongfucha is not an ancient secret, nor is it the only way tea is drunk by those who really appreciate it.
Step 2: Drink What You Like, How You Like It
Do you prefer your tea unsweetened and un-lightened so you can really taste the intricate flavor notes of the particular cultivar or processing style you’re enjoying? Great! Do you like a brew so strong you can stand the spoon up in it, sweetened within an inch of its life, and with enough milk to keep your mouth from turning inside out at the tannin? Also great!
Again, historically, the British did not invent putting milk in tea. Even the supposed tale of the British learning it from the French is likely not true. The truth is that the Qing Emperor who reigned during the early heyday of Western tea trade was a Manchurian who drank milk tea (much to the supposed dismay of the Han Chinese, who preferred their delicate green teas). Was this emperor a literal barbarian? Well, that term has all sorts of uncomfortable racial connotations, so perhaps it’s best to just let him have his milk tea, and let the rest of us add milk or not as we like.
Sugar is also a common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicinal concoctions, with different sorts of sugars having different supposedly benefits for the body. Traditionally-prepared brown or unrefined sugar is supposed to have all sorts of lovely benefits for women, at least according to one of my favorite Chinese YouTubers. So, again, it is entirely possible that it was the Chinese who taught Westerners that sugar was a good thing to add to tea. So there is no historical basis for the tea purism that sometimes permeates modern tea communities and discourages new people from coming in and trying the tea, since they sometimes need a spoonful of sugar, at least at first.
(Please note, I am not going to get into it about anything to do with the healthfulness or unhealthfulness of sugar. Carbohydrates are a necessary macronutrient and that’s where this post ends on the matter. Ableist or fatphobic comments will not be entertained or approved.)
And I’ve already talked about how tea was originally blended. In my video on the earliest archaeological evidence of tea, I talked about how it seems likely from the chemical signatures found that the tea was blended with barley and other botanicals, possibly even the citrus peel, ginger, and scallions mentioned by Lu Yu (who was actually a bit of a tea snob, it seems). I’ve actually found that the combination of green tea, ginger, and orange peel (pictured above) has quickly become one of my favorite blends personally. Does it obscure some of the flavor notes in the tea that might come forward without the additions? Yes. But does it “ruin” it? Absolutely not. And, no, just because I don’t personally prefer most added artificial flavors doesn’t mean you should feel anything but enjoyment at your own favorite mocha-blueberry-s’mores-rooibos-puerh blend.
Step Three: Experiment and Explore
Now, that said, while you’re drinking what you like, you should never feel afraid to experiment. Yes, it can be scary to think about “ruining” a cup of tea by steeping it too hot or too long or with the wrong teaware, especially when you start getting into the realm of 20-year-old oolongs or puerhs from the year you were born that you can only afford 10g of at a time. But ultimately, it’s just tea. It’s an ephemeral pleasure, no matter how long you want to store and age it, it is ultimately meant to be consumed. Try to pay attention more to what you do enjoy and merely make a note of what you don’t like to try to avoid it in the future.
Once again returning to the blend in my photo, did I added citrus peel and ginger to the very last of my 2020 fresh all-bud expensive green tea from white2tea? Yes. Was it awesome? Also yes. No regrets.
If you’re 100% brand-new to tea, yes, it’s a good idea to look up some general guidelines or read the packet to get an idea of how to brew this tea. But “brewing instructions” are like the Pirate Code — they’re really more like guidelines. Don’t fully enjoy that tea made the way the instructions say to make it? Try something different with it! Try brewing at a different temperature or with a different amount of leaves or for a different amount of time. I’ve written in the past about how I “troubleshoot” a difficult tea, and that is a good place to start, but I also love Rie’s experiments at Tea Curious. If you have the time, try to catch one of her tea practice Live sessions on Instagram where she often performs experiments to see how different parameters really affect tea. I’ve even tried my hand at these experiments, by testing out whether a bamboo whisk is really the best way to make matcha, and I have more tests planned in the future.
So there you have it — my top three tips for new tea drinkers. We were all new to this once, and honestly, the best thing I’ve brought to my tea practice is the concept of “beginner’s mind.” Always be learning, never consider yourself finished or an expert. There is always something new to explore and always someone who can teach you. Happy sipping!
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