Luxury tea. No, we aren’t talking about most of the loose teas you buy…and we definitely aren’t talking about tea bags. Don’t be fooled by the little pyramid bags either that claim to be the best tea around. For those, you are paying far more for the packaging than you are for the tea.
Luxury, high-quality tea is a market that is more accessible than luxury wine, clothes, TVs, cars and homes. You can get really great tea for far less than it costs to get a really great watch. Even at the high-end level, tea is still expensive. However, it can be sold in small amounts, making it accessible if you can find it. An ounce of really good tea can often be purchased for a reasonable sum.
How often do you branch out and buy tea that is reputed to be of very high-quality?
There are a lot teas and terms out there that get hyped as fine tea, often with names you might barely understand. Oolongs, ti kwan yins, prized Yunnans, roasted dong dings from Taiwan, white tea from Darjeeling, senchas and genmaichas from Japan (the latter started as a poor man’s tea). Of each type, there can be found great ones and ordinary ones.
What makes these teas special? Tea farmers grow plenty of everyday tea, but the time, effort, knowledge and patience that goes into a great tea ensures that every aspect of the tea is worth some attention. From the way the rough dry leaves look and feel in your hand, to the richness of the liquor as you savor it, to the wet leaves slowly drying on your table. Every stage of the tea has been thought about by the producer to give you an experience that can rarely be matched. The taste and flavor of a tea is only the final act in a play that resulted from the hard work, attention to detail and knowledge of all the actors involved. The pickers, the farmer and the workers who roll and dry the tea. However, the most important of the actor in that play, the Prima Don or Donna, who puts the finishing touch on a production which often begins on a rural farm and then ends right over there, in the kitchen, is you.
With all the things that can right with a great tea, there is still plenty that can go wrong once you get your hand on it. Good tea, really good tea, requires work. From you.
How many times have you ruined a perfectly good cup of ordinary tea? How would you feel if you spent $20 or $30 dollars (or more) for half an ounce of really good tea and then ruined it in your kitchen? For rare, high-end teas, your normal habits are going to have to be put away. When you get a new tea in the house, especially one you might not be familiar with, it’s easy to screw it up. Too much or too little water, too much time, not rinsing it if it needs rinsing. While many higher-quality teas, especially blacks and oolongs, are often rather forgiving and will still give you a good cup when you err, they are certainly deserving the attention required to brew them properly.
The ritualistic methods of teamaking that originate in the Orient are based around the need to ensure the precision of every step in the tea making process. You may not need the flourishes, gestures and body positioning that are often used in tea ceremony demonstrations, but paying attention to detail – the water, the time – will go a long way toward getting you the most and best experience out of your tea.
Among the world of high-end, luxury items, tea is something of an anomaly. Fashion designers go to great lengths to ensure quality of material, fit and look. Engineers at Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari struggle over the littlest details. The minds at Sony and Apple all work to give you an experience that is beautiful and captivating all at once. Winemakers around the world fight with mother nature and consider even the cork used in the bottle. Architects detail minute corners and jewelers precisely position each setting. And every time, these products are delivered to you ready to use, to turn on, to live in, to wear, to drive, or to drink – all of them, perfectly presented for consumption based on the vision the designers had for them.
Tea farmers and producers spend just as much time and detailed effort in growing and processing rare and great teas. Teas that have depth and character that can often be difficult to describe. They do it in an industry that takes the prize of their labor and turns it over to novices and newbies to be processed in a final crucial step before consumption – the brewing. So much can go wrong, so many variables need attention. When a packet of really good tea is opened, appreciation is appropriate for the labor, knowledge and effort of the people who grew it. Taking time, consideration and effort will help ensure a big finish. The final steps in the production of the tea in your pot ends with you, and you will make all the difference for a tea that will be merely drinkable or absolutely astounding.