When Russian novelist Dostoevsky famously said, "Let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea," he wasn't being dramatic. While nothing can solve the nightmare of 2020, there's something about tea that never fails to give our souls a much-needed boost. We pick up a cup and saucer and talk to Jennifer Commins, tea sommelier and founder of Pluck Teas, to discover what really goes into the perfect brew (but if you're really into this soothing hot drink, you should visit Canada's tea capital, Victoria, B.C.).
How is tea made?
"A lot of people think that green tea is a different plant to black tea, but actually all [except herbal] tea comes from the camellia sinensis. In most areas around the world, the leaves are physically plucked off the plant and then they go through what's called a withering process where about 10 per cent of the moisture is evaporated out of the leaf. Then the leaves are rolled and crushed. From that point, the level of oxidation will depend on which tea you're making – for example, black tea is oxidized all the way, resulting in a dark cup that's high in caffeine."
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What are the best tea-growing regions around the world?
"I love Japanese greens, and any matcha worth its salt comes from Japan. Taiwanese oolongs are just absolutely spectacular and you can re-steep them several times. Right now I'm really excited about Rwandan mountain tea – it's phenomenal and nobody seems to know about it. Darjeeling is an amazing tea region in northern India with 85 estates. They won the battle to make it a protected word, so you can't call it that unless it's 100 per cent Darjeeling – so you know it's going to be good."
What are the main types of tea?
A traditional black tea might have malty, toasty or even citrus notes. You'll also get a fair few tannins which give it its dry, sometimes bitter flavour. Many black teas are blended, like English breakfast and Earl Grey.
A healthy bracket of teas ranging from jasmine to matcha, which is ground into a fine green powder. In a green tea you won't get as many tannins but you'll get astringency (a puckering sensation) and freshness.
White tea is minimally processed and harvested while the plant is still young. Tea leaves are plucked, placed into the sunshine and allowed to dry naturally. The taste is characterized by gentle flavours like light stone fruit and magnolia.
A semi-oxidized, traditional Chinese tea that's twisted and curled. In terms of taste, oolong can be everything from nutty to flowery to milky.
A broad category of mostly caffeine-free tea, from mint to chamomile to rooibos. Some herbal tea like maté from South America is highly stimulating – so make sure you always check the label.
How should we brew?
"Teabags are convenient, and at Pluck we don't overwrap them because we believe in sustainability every step of the way. I prefer loose because I love to watch the tea leaves fully unfurl. When making a pot, my family always prewarmed it to avoid losing heat. Steep temperatures are critical and vary for each type of tea but steep times depend on preference."
Which tea should you add milk to?
"In the land of bubble tea, all rules go out the window. But I would avoid adding milk to teas that have a strong citrus note – often they have essential oils in them that could curdle the milk. If you are a milky tea lover, look for black teas like English breakfast or orange pekoe. They tend to be blended with enough astringency to stand up to milk."
Milk: first or second?
"Here's my take: if you eat with your eyes, pour your tea, add your milk and you'll be happy. You can't argue with someone about tea traditions because you're arguing with their grandmother. Back in the 1800s people were drinking tea in bone china, and milk in first was the way to control the temperature so the cup wouldn't shatter. On the other hand, if it wasn't for tea, the Industrial Revolution may never have happened, because it meant all the drunk people became sober at work. It was supplied to workers on 'tea breaks' – many of whom would pour more milk than tea in their cup because they couldn't afford milk at home."
How should we taste tea?
"Get your nose in there and lean into the aromatherapy side of tea. If you smell basement or cardboard, that's a sign of stale tea. To open up all the flavours and to activate all parts of your mouth, you should slurp tea – unless you're dining with the queen. You also don't want the tea to be piping hot, and actually, it's amazing how many flavours start to shine through when you cold brew tea."
What are some great tea pairings?
"Something like a jasmine tea can be great if you're having a fried food extravaganza. For creamy desserts, I always love a black tea – there's just something about all that fat coating your mouth which helps bring down the tannins. Pairs oolongs with fruit. Plus green tea served with something sweet like milk chocolate is a match(a) made in heaven."
Where to drink tea in Toronto
Tao Tea Leaf
934 Yonge St.
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Whether you're looking for antique teaware from Japan and China or just a really great oolong, Tao Tea Leaf in Rosedale has you covered. Though workshops have been temporarily paused due to COVID, their classes – including a Chinese Gongfu tea ceremony – are a great way to steep even more tradition into your cup.
Say Tea Limited
2362 Bloor St W.
With over 200 teas and tisanes (herbal teas) on offer, this independent tea supplier in Bloor West Village knows a thing or two about making a great cup. Say Tea has been around since 1980, so ask for help choosing from the single estate teas and special blends – and don't leave without a jam or preserve.
367 Roncesvalles Avenue
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If you're looking for a more polished place to ponder your next pot, Tealish's trendy flagship store on Roncesvalles is your cup of, erm, tea. Choose from calming herbal teas and refreshing iced teas, or scan the aesthetically satisfying lineup of tins containing rooibos, oolong, green and black tea behind the counter.