It is a time for tea. The small bowl of tea from which I sip daily–with its wood-fired whorls and hand-thrown variations in texture–has brought me joy like no other treasure since long before the shelter-in-place order, when those who could began working from home. And perhaps such a predicament has created a greater need for routine, for ritual, for zen, or all of it.
Kyle Stewart of the Cultured Cup in Addison and Brandon Friedman of Rakkasan Tea Company in Deep Ellum are uniquely positioned to be our guides as coronavirus leads us into new realms. Whether black, green, oolong, white, fermented, or flavored, brewed in clay or porcelain or with the meticulousness of a Chinese tea ceremony, let it lead you toward inner calm. If you’re like everyone I know right now, you’re desperately seeking it.
“We taste differently,” is one of Stewart’s foundational principles. Beginning with that philosophy, he advises that you feel no shame about brewing your tea exactly as you want it. That said, a few precepts.
Steep Times Matter
First, “know your tea,” both will tell you. What kind of tea you’re brewing will dictate everything about steeping time and temperature. Most teas require one to two minutes; some five to eight minutes. This chart is useful.
Pick Your Brewing Vessel
The more water reaches the leaf, the better, so a wide strainer is best for brewing. “If you could expose the leaves to all the water, that would be ideal,” says Friedman. Those tiny tea balls? Not ideal. Instead, choose something that lets the leaves unfurl, which begets more nuanced flavor. This is especially true when steeping rolled loose-leaf teas, like oolongs. Ceramic, porcelain, glass, or iron—all offer different properties. (I personally like brewing in glass, so I can observe the leaves relax and the beautiful color.) And if you don’t have a large infuser, you can steep the leaves without one and then strain.
Watch Your Water Temp
Yes, different teas are best brewed at different water temperatures, though 90 percent of people don’t know that, Friedman says. A rule of thumb if you’re at home without a drawer of thermometers on hand: a rolling boil is 212°F, appropriate for black teas that you essentially scald. For more delicate green teas, look for the first small bubbles to appear (170 to 175°F). When they first start coming to the surface, that’s 185 to 190°F, oolong range. Fragile white teas need a shade less than most greens; fermented pu’erhs, rooibos, and herbals follow black. You can learn to use your eyes. Or, says Friedman, invest in a $30 electric tea kettle. It’ll change your life.
Create a Ritual
What tea is and means for us goes beyond brewing it correctly. “Coffee is kind of the drink of going. It’s the ‘go’ drink. Tea is the ‘stop’ drink,” Friedman says. “If your mind is a runaway train, it puts on the brakes.
Choosing a sipping vessel itself can be a centering ritual. Stewart nudges that we choose something we love (that might have meaning), that feels good in the hands, whether because of shape or texture.
“Watching the tea change color and then drinking it—even if it’s not a ceremony, there’s sort of a ceremony to it. It can focus your brain and calm your nerves,” says Friedman. “A lot of times, I’ll reward myself at the end of the day at the office with a cup of tea. I like the ritual of making tea. When you first taste it, I really enjoy that. It really just kind of re-centers my brain.”
Stewart agrees. “I try to make this into a mini ritual,” he says. He grounds in the body, taps into his senses, and tunes out the rest. “All I’m aware of is my movements. [It’s like] what a runner does, they stretch their muscles, and we’re stretching our minds, that inner calm.”
Create your own personal rituals. And, if you can, bring it to others. “I make it in front of people,” Stewart says, and the tasting bar at the Cultured Cup was until recently his stage. “When we are quiet and we aren’t talking and we are doing these kinds of graceful movements, it breaks up all the chatter, it gets people’s attention. Not only for myself, but for people that I make tea in front of,” he says. “I think that making [of] tea [for others] goes through the generations. It’s not just kind for ourselves, it’s kind for them.”
What the Pros Are Drinking
“When I need to chill out and drink tea, I go to black,” says Friedman. It’s how he first learned to drink it, stuffed with milk and sugar, in the Middle East as a soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As for Stewart: “I’m reaching for a lot of green tea right now. That’s my thing right now. And if you’re really having a lot of stress, I hear from customers that green tea and matcha, especially shade-grown matcha, really have the biggest effect.”
But ultimately, the pivotal thing: Let it be something that you really enjoy.