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Dilmah School of Tea Part III: How to brew that Perfect Cup of Tea!

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Watte-Series-1

Brewing a Perfect Cup of Tea might not be everyone’s Cup of Tea…. yet. But I hope that after reading this next post, you will find yourself brewing that perfect cuppa in your own home. The great thing about it is that it is much easier to brew a cup of tea than a cup of coffee! Unlike coffee, you don’t need to have a grinder and a machine that creates pressurized steam! All you need is a few simple equipment and more importantly, a few things to keep in mind and you are on your way to drinking a great cup of tea!


1. The Tea

It goes without saying that you are not going to get that great cup of tea by using lousy tea leaves. That’s not to say that it has to be expensive. You can make an enjoyable cup of tea using pretty affordable tea. But the thing to keep in mind is that your tea must be fresh and it has to be stored properly so that it is kept fresh.

I have experienced this myself. I have in my cupboard, some teabags which I have kept in a container for a few months with some other herbal teas. I made some tea with these teabags and compared it with a pack of the same tea which I have just bought from the supermarket. The taste and aroma was markedly different! Not only does tea lose its aroma if not stored properly, it absorbs whatever other flavours it is stored with. So, one of the most basic tips is to buy only small amounts of tea, keep them in airtight containers away from light and finish using them as quickly as possible.

The other thing about the tea is the quality and freshness of the tea that you buy. I have already written about the process of manufacturing tea in my first post. Whether your tea is manufactured by the orthodox or the CTC process will make a difference in the flavour and aroma of the tea. That is not to say that one process is better than the other. If you are after body and colour, which is what you need when making Teh Tarik, then CTC is fine. But if you are after tea that has flavour and aroma like the Seasonal Flush, then your tea really needs to be made with the orthodox method.

Watte Series
Watte Series

As consumers, we do have some means to obtain fresher teas if we bother to do read the labels. Freshness refers to the length of time between the picking of the tea leaves to the time that they are processed and packed. Nowadays, many teas are a blended product using tea leaves from around the world. As tea ages in ships and warehouses, they lose freshness, absorb moisture, develop various bacteria and lose flavour and antioxidants. This is why one of the key commitments that Dilmah makes is that they only sell Single Origin Tea. By buying Single Origin Tea, you are assured that your black tea comes from a single source ie Sri Lanka and not mixed with teas from other parts of the world. This usually means that the time between the picking of the tea leaves to the packing is shortened, resulting in what Merril J Fernando, the founder of Dilmah likes to say is “Garden Fresh” tea.

In order to showcase regional differences in tea, Dilmah also introduced their Watte series which highlights the “Terroir” nature of tea. Just like wine, the nature of tea depends on regional factors such as altitude, geology, soil depth and type and general climate. The Watte series is a range of four teas that are sourced from 18 tea gardens in Sri Lanka which best showcases the characteristics of teas produced at different locations across Sri Lanka.

From left, Ran Watte (6000ft), Uda Watte (5000ft), Meda Watte (3000ft), Yata Watte (1000ft)
From left, Ran Watte (6000ft), Uda Watte (5000ft), Meda Watte (3000ft), Yata Watte (1000ft)

In general, high grown teas, like the Ran Watte which are made from teas grown at 6000 feet above sea level are more delicate, mellow with subtle in character, akin to a fine Champagne. Yata Watte on the other hand are made from teas grown between sea level to 1000 feet. These teas are heavy, robust and intense, more like a Carbernet Sauvignon. Whereas the Ran Watte are drunk without milk and are best paired with light food such has steamed dim sum, the Yata Watte is best enjoyed with milk and sugar and pairs very well with sweet pastries.

The Watte Series is not yet available in Singapore, but is available at the Dilmah online store. We are planning a High Tea makan session soon to showcase the Watte series where we pair the different teas to different foods. So do keep an eye out for it!

2. Water

Water quality is another important factor in making tea. Various contaminants in water like calcium, flouride or chlorine can affect the quality of the tea. That said, I must admit that I usually make my everyday cup of tea using normal tap water. However, when I need to make that extra special cup of tea to “wow” my friends, I would use filtered water or natural mineral water to make sure that I get everything right.

The other thing about water is that you should always use water that has been freshly drawn instead of reboiling water that has cooled down. When water comes to the boil, the air inside the water is released and if you reboil it and use it to brew tea, you will end up with a lifeless brew which might sometimes taste a little metallic. So remember to always use freshly boiled water.

3. Temperature

You should know that by now that different teas need to be brewed at different temperatures. In general, fully oxidized black teas need to be steeped at 100 degrees whereas a more delicate green tea needs water that has been cooled to 80 degrees or the brew would become bitter.

So how do you tell if your water is at 100 degrees celcius? I guess many might simply answer that the water needs to be boiling hot. But water starts to bubble by around 80 degrees and only gets to 100 degrees celcius when it hits a vigorous boil for a period of time. If you use a electric kettle, you might notice that the water bubbles vigorously for quite a while before it cuts off. Well, even when it is on a vigorous boil, the temperature of the water is still climbing gradually from 95 to 100 degrees, so you do need it to boil for a while to hit 100. So if you boil water from a pot, do make sure that the water comes to a vigorous boil and hold the heat for at least a good 10 seconds before turning it off. In case you are interested in being able to tell the temperature of water just by looking at it, do check out this very interesting article which talks about the relation between the temperature of water and the size of the bubbles.

I have a thermometer at home, so it is pretty easy for me to tell the temperature of water when I brew tea. For black tea, it is quite simple as all you need is boiling water. However, if you have some green tea, I found that a good rule of thumb is to bring a full kettle of water (1.7L) to the boil and then wait for the temperature to drop. For a 1.7L kettle in Singapore,, the water temperature drops by 10 degrees to 90 degrees in the first 5 mins, then to 85 degrees in the next 5 mins and 80 degrees in the next 5 mintutes. Therefore, you need to wait approx 10-15 mins if you wish to brew green tea.

4. Tea Pot

For black tea, a porcelain teapot is usually recommended. The thing to remember about your teapot is that you should always using boiling water to rinse it before brewing your tea because you don’t want the water temperature to drop too much when you add water to the tea leaves. The second thing is never to use detergent to wash your teapot as it may leave some nasty fragrance to the pot. (So if you use lemon scented detergent, your next pot of tea might taste like Earl Grey!) And thirdly, you should always make sure your teapot does not have any tea stains as they would make your tea bitter. To get rid of tea stains, add boiling water and 2 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda to the teapot and leave it for 2 to 3 hours to get rid of the tea stains.

5 Timing

Different teas will need different steeping times. In general, the lighter green teas will require shorter steeping times then the more robust black teas. Black teas will usually need at least 3 mins to brew. You might notice that after one minute or so, the colour may be already quite dark, but it would be a mistake to remove the teabag then, because you would have a tea with colour but not flavour. The flavour only really gets released by 3 mins. If you prefer your tea weak, then dilute it with water after a 3 minute brew. The other mistake you might make is to leave the tea bag in the pot/cup for too long. The tea will get too astringent and bitter. So the best way to brew your pot of tea is to use a tea sock and remove the tea after 3-5 mins instead of leaving the tea leaves in the pot and pouring it out using a tea sieve as you gradually nibble on your scones!

Conclusion

I have been a convert to the Dilmah brand ever since I came back from visiting their tea gardens. Not only have I learnt of their passion in making teas and preserving tea culture, but I am very impressed by their efforts to use their profits to help the people of Sri Lanka. From my conversations with Merrill J Fernando and his son Dilhan, I sense their passion not only for Tea, but also for the people of Sri Lanka. Dilhan shared with me that he spends his weekends with his own family visiting the various charity projects that Dilmah is involved with. These range from environmental projects like their elephant orphanages which look after elephants affected by the civil war to the various creches and medical centres that are supported by the MJF foundation. Another of their more recent projects is the Makanda project where they empower an isolated community from the Udawalawe region by enabling them to produce terracotta art pieces. All these projects demonstrate Dilmah’s commitment “to make business a matter of human service” and it is good to know that when you drink your cup of tea, you are helping instead of exploiting the people who work hard to produce the tea.

My other posts on Dilmah Tea can be found here.
Read about the MJF foundation’s various social enterprises here.