Steeping is the process whereby the flavour or fragrance of the steeped ingredient is imbued or transferred into the steep, i.e. the liquid into which it is desired that the flavours/fragrances should be transferred. Tea, the most consumed liquid in the world, other than water, is made through a steeping process. In steeping tea, water is the most commonly used liquid, although other liquids, such as milk, may also be used. Given the pervasive nature of tea amongst humanity, it cannot be surprising that certain guidelines, rules, if we may so define anything that is so personal as to one’s tea drinking tastes, have been developed and established.
In steeping our teas, greens should be steeped in slightly less hot water than we do our blacks, greens being prone to produce a more bitter taste than blacks are at higher water temperature. Given that over ninety percent of the tea that is used in the West is of the black variety, let us look at how black teas ought to be prepared. Black teas should be brewed in freshly boiled water, and delicate blacks such as Darjeeling as well as broken leaved teas should be steeped for shorter time periods (three to four minutes) than are whole leaf teas, which, along with teas that will be served mixed with milk or lemon, ought to be brewed for somewhat longer (four to five minutes). Whole leaf teas require the additional steeping time because they have a smaller surface area from which the tea’s flavour is diffused than teas whose leaves are broken. When steeped for longer periods, teas have a bitter taste and, in the United Kingdom, home to the most ardent tea fans on the planet, such teas are described as stewed teas. About 2.25 grams of the herb should be steeped in about 180 millilitres of water and, once brewed to the drinker’s taste, the tea should be strained before serving.
Certainly it will not come as a surprise, even to the most casual of observers, that, when it comes to matters concerning tea tastes, the rules that guide such tastings have a British origin. The first set of formal rules regarding tea preparations were promulgated in 1980 by the BSI group which is the formally designated body for the setting of national standards in the United Kingdom. In BS 6008:1980, certain rules were set out, which rules were subsequently adopted by the International Organisation of Standardization (ISO) in ISO 3103, an iconic work that won the Ig Nobel Prize for Literature, 1999.
ISO 3103 does not set out to legislate proper tea brewing standards for the every day consumer; rather, it is designed to assist tea manufacturers maintain brand consistency, so that the workaday consumer, that’s you and I, can be assured that those properties that we have come to love and expect in our favourite brands remain more or less the same from cuppa to cuppa irrespective of any fluctuations in the quality of any particular planting season’s tea crop.
So, Sub-Committee 8 (Tea) of Technical Committee 34 (Food Products) of the ISO set out the ideal means of extracting the soluble matter contained in the world’s favourite herb, having recourse to such exoteric materials as earthenware or porcelain pots (metal pots are a no-no) to produce freshly boiled water (previously boiled water and bottled mineral water are bad, because they have lost dissolved oxygen which, as we all are aware, is vital when it comes to extracting the flavour from a tea), keeping in mind that the use of hard water is a definite no-no. once the tea has been brewed, we pour the liquor into a white porcelain or earthen ware bowl and then we are ready to make the requisite organoleptic assessment of the resultant brew: i.e. how does the cuppa affect our taste and smell organs. The addition of milk, lemon, sugar, or other such common or uncommon additive, will require further organoleptic assessment.
 The Ig Nobel Prizes are an annual award made at Harvard University by actual Nobel laureates and they are designed to honour scientific research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think, and are conducted under the auspices of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, a publication dedicated to the more humorous aspects of modern scientific research.
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