Experiments with tea
Short Takes, While It Steeps
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How Not To Make A Bitter Cup Of Tea

We sent our teas to Abhinav Subramanian, who is a material science researcher. He was probably having a good day for he decided to use our teas in an unusual experiment. Abhinav wrote back with a research paper! It’s a hoot and we thought we must share it with you all.

The effect of longer steeping times on samples of Camellia sinensis or how not to make a bitter cup of tea

Abstract

Tea making should be the simplest of activities: pour hot water over tea leaves, wait a few moments, and strain the water out; but what could be simpler than ruining a cup of tea? Steep the tea a minute longer, and the perfect cup of tea turns into a bitter mess. Use water that is a few degrees too hot, and your tea is now a toxic puddle. How do you avoid this? Should you pick up a thermometer and a timer and treat tea brewing as a chemistry experiment? Perhaps you should.

Introduction

What is a nice cup of tea? How does one make it? These are questions that have been answered by many, with varying degrees of subjectivity and complexity. The assumption is that the intended audience includes slightly clumsy and definitely lazy individuals who are satisfied with an electric kettle, a packet of tea and tap water. They may seek a tea that is neither bitter nor bland, and that tastes close to the advertised ideal. For such a person, the long-unanswered question of how not to spoil ones tea is finally addressed: there are some teas which allow for clumsy preparation, and these teas can be identified easily.

Materials and Methods

Nine teas were tested to find the ideal tea for the lazy soul – one which gains flavor easily without turning bitter. The two factors that determine flavor and bitterness of the decoction are brewing time and water temperature. To ensure that a consistent level of incompetence is maintained throughout, a simple method for preparing tea is chosen. Water at room temperature is mixed with freshly boiled water, in a ratio reflecting the desired temperature, and poured over the tea leaves. The ratio is obtained by assuming that x ml of water at T1C mixed with y ml of water at T2 C yields x+y ml of water at (xT1 + yT2)/(x+y)C. The tea is allowed to steep for the prescribed number of minutes and then strained into a glass. Stopwatches, measuring cups and thermometers are not used, and on repetition, different results may be obtained. An additional matter of concern for the frugal consumer is the re-usability of the tea leaves. To address this, the used tea leaves are steeped again and the resulting decoction is compared to the original.

The nine teas featured here are Harmutty Black, Lopchu Flowery Orange Pekoe, Panitola Classic, Seeyok Muscatel, Himalayan Black, Classic Clonal, Himalayan Shangri-La, Chamomile Ray, and Namring Exotic White. The labels A, B, …, G and H in the figure refer to these teas in that order.

Plotting_bitterness

Results

The following observations were made on these teas:
1. The Lopchu Flowery Orange Pekoe was a dark tea, with a nice woody flavor, but gave no hints of apple or lychee, as promised. While the tea had a very pleasing flavor, there was a tinge of bitterness. In the second brew, made by reusing the tea leaves, the bitterness was pronounced and drowned out the flavor. This is not a tea for the clumsy.
2. The Harmutty Black was slightly sweet, but with an otherwise ordinary flavor. The tea was slightly bitter, although that was not unpleasant. When re-brewed, the flavor changed, the bitterness increased, but the tea remained pleasant. The bitterness would be of concern.
3. The Panitola Classic had a pleasantly woody-but-regular flavor and is slightly sweet. There were no hints of bitterness, and when re-brewed, the flavor was more pronounced. This is an ideal everyday tea for the frugal consumer.
4. The Himalayan Black had a mild coconut flavor, which became apparent in the aftertaste. The tea was not bitter, and when re-brewed, retained its flavor. The lack of bitterness and the consistency of flavor are desirable qualities for the clumsy, but the price and comparatively mild flavor should be off- putting for the frugal one who wants his money’s worth as far as flavor goes.
5. The Seeyok Muscatel was the most flavorful of the featured teas. There were hints of grapes and the tea was sweet. There was no bitterness and the flavor was retained in the second brew. The abundance of flavors and the resistance of the tea to spoiling makes it ideal for the clumsy consumer. This tea tastes expensive, which is appropriate given its price, and the frugal buyer could consider it a luxury.
6. The Classic Clonal had a flowery aroma and flavor. While this tea was not bitter, it was mildly astringent. There was a mild sweetness, but the tea gave no hints of green apple as promised?. The second brew tasted similar to the first, with increased astringency. This tea is difficult to ruin.
7. The Himalayan Shangri-La had the unusual flavor of vegetables. The tea was not bitter, but was astringent. The flavor was retained when the leaves were re-brewed. There were no traces of sweetness, which sets it apart from the field, and coupled with the hints of spices and vegetables, makes for an interesting choice. This tea does not require careful preparation.
8. The Chamomile Ray was as advertised, not bitter, tasted of chamomile, with hints of coconut in the aftertaste. When re-brewed, this flavor was retained.
9. The Namring Exotic White was a disappointment. The tea had a very mild flavor of watered down regular-tea, and the flavor did not improve on re-brewing. It is possible that the tea required more skilled preparation. This tea is not for the clumsy, and is out of reach for the frugal.

The figure reflects these observations, with the various teas rated 0-5 according to increasing flavor, bitterness and price.
Discussion

Among the teas, the Himalayan Black, the Seeyok Muscatel, the Classic Clonal, the Himalayan Shangri-La and the Chamomile Ray present a wide and unusual range of flavors, and are difficult to ruin. Panitola Classic is the best everyday tea for the frugal consumer, the Seeyok Muscatel is the tea to aspire to, and the Classic Clonal is a close second.

At this point you should be screaming, Wont your judgment be subjective? and Who made you the expert? The response to both the questions is this: are not earwax and sewage water indisputably terrible? Expert and layman alike would prefer mucus and tap water to these. A judgment on bitterness (a form of terribleness) is as objective as any judgment on taste can get. This is not to say that mucus and tap water are delicacies, as that would be a judgment on flavor, which is subjective.

The degree of bitterness is a comparative quantity, and consequently, if you wish to continue this study with other teas, you would have to compare the bitterness of the new tea with the teas studied here. On the other hand, you might just pick one of the teas recommended here and get a great-tasting cup of tea with the minimum of care.

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