And the Water Was Hot, Hot, Hot

The process of brewing tea seems so simple: boil water, pour over tea, steep, pour out and enjoy. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it is so much more than that! There is practically an art form to brewing the perfect cup of tea, and everyone has his or her own methods. We’ve been over some of them like teabags or loose leaf, steep and strain or steep and remove, milk first or last, milk at all…so let’s go one step further and talk about water.

Tea kettle with boiling water; steam against a black background.

You can’t have tea without water. Try it; I dare you (okay before you fire back at me I am excluding milk teas from this dare). Water is essential to tea! Tea is basically flavored water after all. Delicious, soothing, varied, and even healthier water but water nonetheless.

However water can also ruin your tea. Yes, by steeping your chosen tea in a water bath of uncoordinatedly high temperatures, you can essentially burn the tea leaves and be left with a bitter cup of tea that you won’t discard because that would just be tragic but you certainly won’t enjoy to its fullest. It may even result in your not liking tea, which would be even more tragic than you pouring tea down the drain!


So let’s quickly go over the proper water temperature and brewing time for each type of tea. Sounds good?

Black Tea: Because black tea is so robust and is the most oxidized of the teas, you can actually brew this one in boiling water for about 3 minutes. Try not to pass 5 minutes or you will be past the bitter point of return (I’m a little punny while writing this, my sincere apologies).

Oolong Tea: Brew between 185-205°F for about 5 minutes. Basically allow the water to boil and then cool for 30ish seconds before brewing.

Green Tea: As we move further down the oxidized ladder, the teas should be brewed at lower temperatures. Green tea is optimal at 150°F for only 2-3 minutes. Green tea becomes bitter very quickly so keep an eye on it!

White Tea: Oddly, this tea can be brewed a little warmer than green tea at 180°F for about 4-6 minutes. Why odd? White tea is a gentler tea than green tea so you’d expect to coddle it a bit more, but there needs to be an exception to every rule I suppose.

Rooibos: Note that I didn’t label it rooibos tea because technically it’s a tisane and we are all about technicality today! This South African tea can handle it’s stuff; feel free to brew it with boiling water for longer than 5 minutes. It probably won’t get bitter.

Herbals and Tisanes: The rest of the not-teas can be brewed at boiling water for 5 minutes as well, but as there are no hard and fast rules about tisanes, feel free to experiment to your taste.


Now you know, now there are no excuses, and now you are going to completely disregard these guidelines because who wants to use a thermometer when preparing a kettle?

Another Story of Milk: Does Order Matter?

Turns out the debate over the order of doing adding things to afternoon tea doesn’t stop at clotted cream, jam, and scones; the proper sequence for pouring milk into a teacup is also hotly contested. It may be a relaxing pastime, but who said afternoon tea didn’t have its complexities?


Nice Tea Has Milk First

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

We already know that milk made its emergence into the tea world partly to temper the hot water so porcelain cups didn’t shatter. The Milk-In-First camp believes that adding tea to milk instead of the other way around makes for a better mixing of the fluids. Also adding cold tea to hot water can caramelize the fat in milk and possibly alter the flavor of the brew. Of course bringing the milk to room temperature or heating it up may fix that. It’s a lot like tempering your eggs before making a custard.


Second the Best

Photo Credit Mark Harris

Photo Credit Mark Harris

Tea originated as a beverage for the genteel, so it is only natural that there be considered a “proper” way to add milk to this drink. Etiquette supports adding milk to the tea as it allows better control of the color and strength of the cup. The Victorian upper circle tea parties involved the hostess or servants handing filled teacups to guests who were then directed to help themselves to milk, cream, or sugar to their taste.

Also, by adding the milk to the tea, you have the opportunity to try the drink first to determine if it even needs any milk. There is nothing worse than wasting or ruining a perfectly delightful cuppa.


No Milk Is the Best Milk

IMG_3725Now most of this debate centers around black tea. It is an understood rule of tea aficionados that you do NOT add milk to green, oolong, or white tea. Pu-erh is close to black tea so that is acceptable. Why? Because it ruins the delicate taste of the leaves and added flavorings. Black tea is the strongest type of tea and can withstand the flavor dilution of milk. Tisanes are also a big no-no when it comes to adding milk. As most tisanes have fruit in their mix, the milk can actually curdle if poured into a too tart tisane. Curdled milk is just gross.


Science Says

Science is no help here. Half the scientists point to the possibility of caramelized milk fat ruining the flavor of the tea as reason for milk first; the other half of the scientists cite the laws of thermal gradients supporting milk in last.


The verdict? Just like the arguments over clotted cream first or jam first and whether or not to even add milk at all, The Great Milk Order Debate will have to be determined by your own personal preferences!


What is your milk-order preference? I pour my milk in second because I can have the most control over the strength of my tea, and I am a little bit of a control freak. But many of my British friends insist on milk first!

Review: Teaism in Washington, DC

I was on vacation! As many tearooms as I have found and intend on visiting all around Los Angeles, it was exciting to have the chance to expand to another coast. And surely with Washington DC being closer to England than is LA, afternoon tea would be a common find.

Teaism Penn Quarter

Teaism Penn Quarter

Not so much.

But I was able to find an Asian tearoom just north of the Mall for a quickie review. Teaism was conveniently located, yet there was the one hiccup of my dad and brother being along for the trip and they were adamant that I was not dragging them along to an afternoon tea. I told them it was for a good cause—you—but they continued to refuse. So due to time constraints, I was only able to pop in for a glass of tea and a scone taste; even from this seemingly meager sampling, though, I think I got the measure of the place.


First Impressions and Service

I had to relook at my map because this store didn’t seem like a tearoom that serves afternoon tea. I mean, there was a takeaway counter and the menu printed above the cashier. Eventually I saw the stairs leading down, so although I doubt there is a formal dining room a la Langham Pasadena, there is probably enough seating there to serve the proper number of courses.

I can see it being a popular lunch spot.

I can see it being a popular lunch spot.

Nothing was what I expected at all. You have to order at a counter and they call out your number when your food is ready. I don’t know if that is how they serve afternoon tea as well, but for a make-our-own cream tea the kitchen rang a bell when our scones were plated. Service is pretty nondescript. I asked a few question; the cashier made adequate answers. There was no warmth to the place at all.



There is a second floor below; maybe it's more formal?

There is a second floor below; maybe it’s more formal?

Everything is painted in nice, cheerful colors of yellows and oranges, pleasant but not too much as to burn your retinas. Bright woods and gray stone complement the design. The main room is laid out just like you would expect in a lunch café: basic tables and chairs spread out with no real rhyme or reason. The menu is in removable slats above the cashier and doesn’t have any descriptions of what you are eating; they have printed menus that are more detailed. Despite being an Asian tearoom, nothing is over-the-top Asian decoration. It just looks like a nice escape from the humidity of DC.


Tea Selection

They have a fair number of teas (and also beer and wine if your interested) in all the major categories. They put more of an emphasis on straight, nonflavored teas but there are some options if you prefer a taste of something other than straight Silver Needle. Everyday they offer unlimited refills of a house chosen black tea, green tea, and tisane. Washington DC was ridiculously humid so Mom and I both went with the Berry Tisane.

Daily Special: Unlimited Berry Tisane

Daily Special: Unlimited Berry Tisane

Lightly sweetened and mildly tart, the berry drink was so refreshing it was perfect. Of course, at that point anything iced might have made our taste buds do a happy dance. We attempted to be objective and both agreed that the dash of lime was very brightening and enjoyable.



They offer an extensive meal menu, very PanAsian cuisine. For afternoon teas served only between 2:30-5:30, there is an Asian menu and a traditional menu. Again due to time constraints we couldn’t partake in a full service, so we stuck with tasting their only two scone flavors: ginger and carrot cake.

That’s right, no plain or cranberry scones here. No clotted cream either, you are served with butter and orange marmalade and honey. The ginger scone was rather bitter, not like the ginger scone from The Scarlet Tea Room, and texturally tasted like the scones had been baked the day before. Stale and crumbly, this scone was left abandoned on our plate after only a few bites. We just discovered that we like ginger scones, so it was quite a disappointment.

Ginger Scone; Carrot Cake Scone

Ginger Scone; Carrot Cake Scone

The carrot cake scone at least tasted fresh and moist. And it did taste like a cross between a carrot cake and a scone. I know, you say duh isn’t that the point? But so many baked goods or candies that are supposed to taste like a different type of baked good or sweet just don’t come close. These did. They weren’t overly sweet, had just enough spice to evoke carrot cake, and there were actual shreds of carrots in them. I think that carrot cake requires cream cheese frosting, so this might have actually gone well with clotted cream (or just give me cream cheese frosting in an IV and I’ll take care of the rest).


It may seem like saying we are glad we didn’t come for a full afternoon tea is a hasty answer, but between the unwelcoming staff, fast-food fast-meal atmosphere, and only one good scone, we doubt that an afternoon tea here would’ve been anything special. But some of their lunch offerings sounded tasty so I’d be willing to try the full service just for the experience.


Visit Teasim at 400 8th St. NW, Washington DC, 20004 (202) 638-6010.


A Tea for Every Time

We all have our favorite kind of tea, that one type that we gravitate to above all others. Mine is lavender earl grey, my mom’s is traditional earl grey, my best friend’s is any green tea, and I have more than one coworker who swears by mate (though mate isn’t really a tea, remember?).

Officially though, we should all be basing what type of tea we order, not on flavor preference, but on the clock. Certain teas better suit the time of day that you are drinking it, much like some teas are more complementary to the palate, food being served, mood of the drinker, season, or the weather. So no drinking herbal teas with breakfast, and keep the Earl Grey to the afternoon.

Morning and Breakfast

Strong black teas are the best choice in the mornings because their caffeine content and robust flavor. A lot of cooked breakfast foods and breads need a tea that can stand up to them. Choose an English or Irish Breakfast, Assam, Kenya, or Yunnan tea for your wake-up jolt.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Mid-Morning and Lunch

Your first cup of tea is beginning to wear off, so the best choice now is one that will maintain the alertness you received from this morning. Stick once again to black teas, unless you are eating Asian food for lunch and then a strong green tea is better. Choose any of the Morning and Breakfast teas or Lapsang Souchong for a black option; choose Sencha, Chinese Chun Mee, or Gunpowder for a green tea.

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Early Afternoon

As the day progressively gets brighter, your teas should progressively get lighter. And with the work day in full swing, a lighter or fruity tea will best calm and soothe you. Choose peachy or mango flavored teas like an oolong, a fruity Darjeeling, a light Ceylon, or a green tea.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Afternoon Tea Time

Instead of worrying about time pairing, with afternoon tea focus on pairing tea with the food. Choose Earl Grey for courses with cheese, savories, or lemon desserts; choose Darjeeling with creamy offerings like scones and clotted cream; choose Lapsang Souchong for smoked offerings; choose Ceylon for fresh fruit and vegetable based items; choose Kenya for chocolates.

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Evening and Dinner

Yes, you’ve had a lot of tea today, but why stop now? Night is when the lighter teas and delicate flavors can shine. Teas should now be focused on calming and cleansing, both in terms of digestion and stress. Choose light oolongs, light greens, whites, and herbal infusions or tisanes.

Photo credit

Photo credit

What Exactly Is Tea?

We call all sorts of things tea that are not really tea (insert astonished gasps). True tea actually has a really narrow definition: it must contain the leaves of camellia sinensis. And yes I struggle to pronounce that plant name as well. So let’s–for ease’s sake–just call it the tea plant and the leaves of the tea plant. Much more manageable, no?

Camellia Sinensis leaves

Camellia Sinensis leaves

The tea plant is native to subtropical and tropical regions, so it’s really only found in the wild in Southeast Asia (most tea comes from China, India, and Japan). Nowadays tea is grown on plantations called tea estates. Unfortunately for all of us American tea drinkers, there are no tea estates in the US, though there are small tea gardens that are no where near able to supply enough tea for us to consume. Tea is one product we should be glad is made in China! Between the climate, soil, and available farmland, Asia is the perfect location to grow the massive amounts of tea that I…I mean we…consume daily.

Tea Estate in Sri Lanka

Tea Estate in Sri Lanka

So what “teas” are actually teas and not tisanes? (By the way, tisane is the technical word for any doesn’t-contain-tea-leaves beverage of water-steeped fruit, leaves, herbs, or spices.) If it says white, green, black, oolong, or pu-erh, it’s a legitimate tea. Otherwise it’s a tisane. Rooibos, dried fruit, herbs, flowers, and spices are all tisanes rather than teas. But most of us call many of the tisanes “herbal teas” just because it’s easier. Or we really didn’t know the difference between tea and tisane. Of course, now we all do so there are no more excuses on our parts 😉



Basically the fun facts/answer to the question boils (pun intended, ha that’s funny) down to a single factor…the presence of camellia sinensis. If it’s there: tea. If it’s not: tisane. Either way, they taste delicious with finger sandwiches and a scone.

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