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Tea Ceremony 

Move over coffee

I'm a die-hard, in-the-mud coffee drinker. I have strong opinions about my beans (locally roasted, fair trade when possible) and how it should be brewed (French press or stove-top espresso). As the T-shirt says, life is too short to drink bad coffee.

And then there's tea, which for years, I drank only when I had the flu. My appreciation (and respect for the leaf) was low because my knowledge was close to nonexistent.

Even when a teahouse opened in my hometown in the late 1990s, my reaction was one of lukewarm curiosity. Green tea seemed interesting, but nah, I think I'll pass. Ten years later, I've incorporated more loose-leaf tea into my life, but admittedly I drink it out of the house and have someone else do the work.

That is to say, I've made lots of lousy tea at home and had sworn off the stuff until I could get properly schooled. Enter Mary Lou Heiss and her husband, Robert, who have written The Story of Tea.

In their book, the Heisses, who own a cookware/specialty shop in Northampton, Mass., have taken on tea in a way that this country has never before experienced -- as a subject worthy of study, discussion and exploration. It is a one-stop-shop volume of tea history, culture, customs and processing, plus all the how-to practical stuff for tea dorks such as myself.

I gotta say, I'm a changed woman. Although I won't be giving up coffee anytime soon, I am making loose-leaf tea at home -- about once a day -- because now I know how good it tastes when properly brewed. A little knowledge is an amazing thing.

How to Brew Tea the Right Way

According to The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss

No need to buy fancy equipment; in fact, the simpler the rig, the better. You can even brew freestyle in a cup or teapot, and pour over a strainer. Single teapots with a ceramic insert are also good, as are paper tea filters, baskets made of gold or stainless-steel or cloth tea "socks." What NOT to use, say the Heisses, are those cute metal tea balls with an attached mesh chain, which often are too small to contain enough tea and tend to break the leaves.

There are three key factors that make or break a cup of tea: tea-leaf/water ratio, water temperature and steeping time.

Measuring tea

Estimate 2-3 grams (.07 ounces) for every 6 ounces of water, but tea leaves vary in volume, which means not all 2-3 gram measurements are equal.

Black and oolong tea: a standard teaspoon; green tea: between 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon -- experiment to find which ratio works best for you; white tea: heaping tablespoon

Water temperature

This may come as a surprise, but tea hates boiling water. In fact, an instant-read thermometer is quite handy until you get the hang of eyeballing water based on steam or bubble formation. What I do is pour water, take its temperature, THEN add tea.

Japanese green tea and white tea: 160-170 degrees, when a column of steam begins to rise from the surface; Chinese green tea: 170-180 degrees, when large bubbles first appear; Oolong tea: 180-200 degrees, when tiny bubbles thread along the surface; black tea: 190-200 degrees, just under a full boil

Steeping time

Use 2 minutes as a rule of thumb. With green or white tea, immediately taste. If you'd like it stronger, steep for an additional 30 seconds. Oolong tea can steep for 3 minutes, at which point you can taste and determine strength. Black tea can sit in water for 3 minutes if it's finely cut, but larger leaves can sit for up to 5 minutes to open up.

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