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Expert Advice: Sebastian Beckwith on How to Brew a Good Cup of Tea (Again and Again)


Expert Advice: Sebastian Beckwith on How to Brew a Good Cup of Tea (Again and Again)

November 29, 2022

Now that the nights have drawn in and we find ourselves drinking endless cups of tea, it’s worth noting that a good brew represents the essence of the plant, rather than mechanically chopped tea “dust.” As a beverage, it is best enjoyed in bud, leaf, or twig form, when hot water brings new life to a recently plucked plant (Camellia sinensis). Some tea develops over several infusions, once you become aware of the potential of what you are drinking. Curious to know how to sustain tea happiness beyond the first cup, we spent some time up a mountain in Connecticut with Sebastian Beckwith, merchant of the leaf and founder of In Pursuit of Tea.

Above: Tea in the wild is a type of camellia, Camellia sinensis (sinensis meaning “from China”). Although the garden camellias are named for Japan (C. japonica ), they are both native to the whole region. Photograph courtesy of In Pursuit of Tea.

For people who want to drink tea all day, for instance the British (or in the case of ice tea—Americans), there is no need to resort to fruit teas. In his very engaging A Little Tea Book, Sebastian addresses the question of caffeine. Yes, tea plants have more caffeine in their leaves than coffee beans. However, a lot less tea is used than coffee by weight per serving, so a cup of tea has about half the amount of caffeine than coffee. And for experiencing flavor, small cups are preferable.

As Sebastian sets out the tea paraphernalia in his wooden cabin, it quickly becomes clear that the usual way of making tea is not only lazy but ineffective (and we are not even talking about tea bags). “In the European or English way of making tea, you have this huge Brown Betty. You make it. It’s really good, and the second steep, that’s—good. But the third steep, that’s like ‘Oh man, this is horrible.’ It’s tannic, and bitter, and the leaves are still in there. And people throw milk or water at it to try to make it better,” he muses. “The Chinese method is to  have just hot water, and infuse the leaves quickly and drink it. Use a basket infuser and glass, just pull it out, then put it back in. That works. You just don’t want the leaf sitting in water because then it’s going to extract.” When tea no longer tastes good, dump it, he says. “Tea is much cheaper than latte.”

Above: Left, White Peony (white tea, leaves and stems) harvested when the leaves are young, for a sprightly ice tea, with less caffeine than darker, more mature tea. Right: Wood Dragon (oolong tea, stem and ball shape), a Sebastian Beckwith original.

And what is the secret to longevity in taste? “With many of the teas you can get several steeps. There’s a lot of flavor in there. With some of the oolongs you might do 10-15 times on the same leaves, with the flavor changing as you go.”

A quick explainer: An oolong is “between green tea and black tea,” and it is transcending for anyone who has been stuck in the Breakfast Tea rut for too long. Oolong teas are ball-shaped, rolled up, semi-oxidized leaves. Sebastian’s own version of oolong (which he markets as Wood Dragon) includes a good proportion of stems as well, and these are the most noticeable element of the used-up tea: it looks like a pile of small twigs.

Above: Jasmine Pearls (green tea, pearl shape) unfurl into distinguishable leaves, with the appearance of being freshly plucked.

Tea is tea: it all comes from the same plant, harvested at different times of growth (Camellia sinensis is a cut-and-come-again plant), and allowed to oxidize to different degrees. Black tea is completely oxidized, an oolong is semi-oxidized, and with green tea there is no oxidization (white tea is a young green tea, harvested young, with buds and downy leaves). “If you steam the leaves immediately (after plucking), or pan-fire them, they’ll just stay green.”

Orange pekoe, by the way, has nothing to do with the taste of citrus; it is named after William of Orange, also known as William III of England.

Above: Sebastian Beckwith, co-owner of In Pursuit of Tea, brewing tea in a gaiwan. Photograph by Bingo Bryant.

A gaiwan, or small vessel with a lid, is the preferred method for gong fu cha (making tea with skill). Made of porcelain or glass, a gaiwan is used for short infusions, with leaves opening out in less water. Tea is strained by pouring it out of the top with the lid loosely closed.

Above: A favorite kettle kept warm over a flame, modified with a cork in the lid. Also shown, a “tea presentation vessel” (available at In Pursuit of Tea) which elevates the visual and textural effects of the leaves before they are poured into a gaiwan or teapot. Photograph by Bingo Bryant.
Above: Conceived in China, developed in Japan: Black Cast Iron Teapot from David Mellor, £48.

From flame to pot: a cast iron Chinese teapot. In the interest of simplification, we would like to recommend investing in a kettle that can be kept warm over a flame, and which doubles up as a teapot, with its own stainless steel infuser.

Above: For cup or pot, In Pursuit of Tea’s Extra Fine Infuser, $21.50. Alternatively, a more lightweight Gold Mesh Infuser, $17.

The simplest setup, suggests Sebastian on the IPOT site, is an infuser in a cup. It is spacious enough to allow leaves to expand and express themselves, either in a pot or a single mug. A key to good tea is to not forget about it. Only infuse leaves when you want to extract their flavor, rather than leaving them to leach out and ruin your second cup. Taste, not color, is everything: you want to be drunk on tea. “Being tea drunk is the effect of the chi, or the energy of the leaf.”

For more on teas, see:

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