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Discovering Black Tea: What Not to Do

Discovering Black Tea: What Not to Do

When I tried my first cup of loose-leaf black tea, my first reaction was, “Oh, it tastes like black tea.” Hardly a culinary epiphany of gastronomical proportions. I was disheartened and worried my journey into the world of the camellia sinensis plant would end before it began. But only one or two cups later and I became hooked. In this blog post, I’ll share with you what I did wrong with my first cup of black tea, my impressions when I tasted other types of black tea, and how this all factors into writing romance novels.

My Early Years With Tea

I’ve drunk tea most my life, but by “tea” I actually mean herbal infusions. My family took health awareness by the horns and Celestial Seasonings became a staple in our cupboards. Even my grandparents on both sides of the family offered it when we visited. The only time I drank anything from camellia sinensis was “tea, Earl Grey, hot” because yes, I’m a Trekkie.

A fun collection of snippets with Captain Picard and his favourite tea.

What Not to Do When You Try Loose-Leaf Black Tea

Thanks to all those years of drinking herbal infusions, I ignored steeping time: I preferred the intense flavour of a long steep. During my tea discovery phase, though, this was not the way to go.

When I spoke with George, the owner of a local tea shop, about my idea for the first novel in Love on Belmont, I asked him to recommend a few black teas so I could introduce myself to the world of tea.

George recommended a second flush Darjeeling, a Keemun, and a Ceylon.

I started with the Darjeeling. I read the instructions—two to three minutes—and assumed I’d need the full three minutes. Nothing worse than a weak tea.

Unfortunately, though, I also drank my first cup of straight-up black tea on an empty stomach. Again, not an issue with herbals but it was for me with black tea.

Oops. The aftertaste of the tea lingered even into the morning.

But I wouldn’t let one failed experiment interfere with my tea discovering.

What to Do When Trying Loose-Leaf Black Tea

Although black teas can be steeped for up to seven minutes, and the common recommendation is three to five minutes, I crave a more balanced flavour to my teas. Not drinking black tea on an empty stomach also makes the entire experience more pleasant.

If you’re unsure if you’ll like a tea or not, steep it for only two minutes to start. The longer you steep tea, the more bitter flavour you’ll release from the tea leaves. Some people love that. I’m not one of them.

When Discovering Tea, What Did I Think About Bagged Tea?

Throughout the short story prequels to Tea Shop for Two, Claire, the owner of Claire’s Tea Shop, frequently rails against tea bags. That is her character, and many people reading those stories and the subsequent novel may wonder why the big deal.

First off, tea is about enjoyment. If you have bagged tea you love, keep drinking it, regardless of what I or anyone else says. But I can at least explain to you why I prefer loose-leaf tea.

It comes down to control. That cup of Darjeeling had the unfortunate fate of being the first tea I tried while discovering teas of higher quality. I steeped it too long for my tastes. By reducing the steeping time when I next brewed it, I could alter the flavour to something more pleasant: a tiny hint of sweetness, a noticeable absence of the bitter tannins. Now, when the mood hits, I crave that Darjeeling.

You can certainly change how long you steep bagged tea, but you have less leeway. Tea bags are made for convenience. The tea is in powdered form, because that requires less space for storage and therefore shipping. I can only steep grocery-store bagged tea for 20-30 seconds before it becomes too bitter for my liking.

Loose-leaf tea, on the other hand, is often whole leaf, which exposes less surface to the hot water. This means you can extract the flavour more slowly. You should also find that loose-leaf tea has a more complex flavour profile.

When I tried black tea in tea bags, I found it underwhelming and not something I really wanted to try again. I’ll drink it if it’s offered at someone’s home, of course, or when the only option is to not drink any tea when I crave one and am out and about. But at home, I have a nice-sized collection of black teas. I love discovering tea shops anytime I’m in a new city. My collection shows that.

A 4-tier shelf with baskets of mostly tea. Also a kettle and a Keurig machine.
The basket on the second shelf from the bottom is about two feet deep by 18″ wide by maybe 18″ deep. That’s black tea only in there.

My Favourite Black Tea? Keemun

Piles of different types of black tea leaves

Claire calls Richard her “Keemun” for a reason. It’s because Keemun quickly became my favourite of the first three teas George suggested I try. In my initial notes, I wrote it was the most pleasant to my nose of those three teas. It had a milder flavour, but I also only steeped it for two minutes. I’ve come to perceive its maltiness and the floral notes often associated with a good Keemun.

Keemun has recently met its competition on my palate: Kambaa, a black Kenyan cut-tear-curl pekoe. However, Kambaa is currently in second place: Keemun tea is still my favourite.

A Priority for Discovering Tea: Your Enjoyment

I know I’ve already said this, but it can’t be said enough. Although tea apparently has many health benefits (but also side effects–getting tea drunk is most definitely a thing), drink it for enjoyment, no matter what form it comes in. Inhaling the scent of your tea, appreciating its liquor (its colour), and savouring its flavour create the joy in tea drinking. The enjoyment of tea is also Claire’s raison d’être. Because she believes every emotion, problem, and celebration has a tea, she believes that tea creates happiness no matter the situation.

I know tea can’t fix all my problems. But it has helped me savour life that much more.

Looking for a Quick Read? How About a Short Story About Tea?

Just like there are many teas to discover, there are many books to enjoy. Claire’s Tea Shop is the first story in my Love on Belmont series and will take about as long to read as it does to drink a cup of tea. Perfect for an afternoon break. How would you like to enjoy your book?

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