I’ve decided to provide a rough sketch of the equipment and method to make good tea at work.
First off, it’s necessary to get some tea. This means purchasing loose tea. I’m partial to Upton Tea Imports. I’ve not had great luck with supermarkets and health food stores. A lot of online shops cater more to fruit teas, flavored teas, and tisanes. I figure most people know what they’re looking for, but that might be foolish. Upton has a lot of great sampler portions for the inquisitive.
Water’s the only other ingredient in a cup of tea. Some will argue about the merits of bottled water. I haven’t found it worth the hassle to keep bottled water for tea at work, but then my tap water is good. That’s not always a given. Distilled or RO water is too flat; I would avoid it.
Water needs to be heated to make tea. Let’s start with the simple case. Making black tea, it’s necessary to bring water to boiling. I’m sure some people have hot water taps of some sort that reliably produce boiling water. I’ve never encountered one of these in a corporate setting, so I’ve had to pursue other options. The easiest way to solve this is to purchase an electric kettle. Small plastic plug-in varieties can be found for $20 or so; fancy glass and steel cordless can cost quite a bit more. It turns out that nearly all of them have the ability to boil water, so it really comes down to convenience, aesthetics, and personal preferences about materials used in electric kettle construction.
Some teas need a temperature lower than boiling. Electric kettles with variable temperature settings seem to be a solution to this problem, but in reality most are gimmicky or unreliable. Bringing a kettle to boiling and then pouring the water when it reaches the desired temperature is still my preferred method. To do this, we’re going to need another piece of equipment: a thermometer. An instant-read thermometer (a misnomer, they still take several seconds to produce a reading) that runs a few dollars is sufficient. Of course, everybody already owns a Thermapen1, so it works out.
So we’ve got tea and hot water. Let’s make tea! Not so fast. It’s important to measure the tea so that the ratio between the water and tea is correct. The standard guidance is 2.25 grams of tea per cup. One can adjust based on preferences, but the only way to ensure consistency from cup to cup is via measurement. Forget that things like teaspoons and tea spoons exist. The only way to reliably measure tea is with a scale. A digital scale accurate to a 20th of a gram will run about $30. Yes, measuring small quantities of tea at work makes one look like they’re a drug dealer. There are hazards to drinking tea at the office.
The second problem is the notion of “a cup” of tea. A cup of tea is six ounces. This anachronism is a pain in the ass. Use 3/8 of a gram of tea per ounce of water and forget the rest of the guidance.
Alright, we’ve got appropriate quantities of hot water and tea, now we need to combine them. If folks have made it this far, this is where things usually get screwed up. Combine the tea leaves and water and let them steep an appropriate amount of time. This is more complicated than it sounds.
First, we’ll tackle the problem of time. There’s probably advice that came with the tea, follow it or adjust to preferences. As with measuring tea with a scale and temperature with a thermometer, the only reliable way to measure time is with some sort of clock or timer. One of these is necessary for making tea. Most folks have a timer on their phone. There are also websites like steep.it. Of course, one can use a timer proper, but they have a nasty habit of pissing coworkers off. Over or under-extracted tea tastes like crap, so timing is important.
Second, I said combine the tea leaves and water. I didn’t say combine the tea leaves with some of the water. It’s important to give tea leaves room to unfold and to provide an even level of extraction for the tea. Many devices ostensibly designed for making tea are horrible cauldrons of horribleness. Tea balls or other devices that constrain tea to a small volume of water are awful things. When steeping fannings, this works well enough. For good loose leaf tea, it doesn’t. This also means tea pots with inserts for the tea leaves or small column presses embedded (ala Bodum’s tea press pot) aren’t going to work. A tea pot without an insert works. The carafe for a French press works great. For better results, pre-warm the vessel with hot water. I know it’s not traditional, but resist the urge to buy some crappy newfangled teapot unless it gives the tea leaves access to the entire volume of water at once.
When time runs out, the next step is separating the tea leaves from the steeped tea. This can be done with careful pouring or by pouring through a tea strainer (go figure). If using a French press pot, the solution is probably obvious. It’s important to immediately remove the finished product from the tea; leaving it there (even if it’s compressed to the bottom of a press) is going to make the tea worse. This means we’re going to have to pour the tea into a second vessel. Don’t cut corners; leaves that have been steeped the appropriate time should be disposed[^2].
The IngenuiTEA from Adagio is not perfect, but it’s pretty good for the workplace. It’s not fragile. It obviates the need for an intermediate vessel. It’s mildly entertaining. Tea leaves and water go in this device, the tea steeps, and then it is set on top of a cup; doing this causes the tea to drain through a strainer into the cup.
So, that’s how one makes good tea at work. It requires some equipment and costs more than tea bags, but it’s worth it.
other instant read thermometers, it’s nearly instant and quite accurate. No kitchen should be without one. [^2]: Some will argue that certain varieties of tea can be re-steeped. Re-steeping tea is like remouillage; it’s one thing trying to increase the stock yield on a bunch of expensive veal bones, but let’s think this through. Even extraordinarily expensive tea costs very little on a per cup basis. Life’s too short to re-steep tea.
A Thermapen is fantastically expensive for what it is, but unlike ↩