Are You Making Tea All Wrong?

Mj 618_348_samovars jesse jacobs talks tea
James Chiang

It sounds so simple: Boil water. Fill up a mug. Throw in a tea bag or two – maybe even the loose stuff. Grab a spoon, and wait. But there’s actually more to making a good cup of tea.

Just ask Jesse Jacobs, the founder of San Francisco-based Samovar Tea, who knows how to make a damn good cup. And it makes sense: He’s been in the business for more than a decade with Samovar’s lounges and, with his company’s new Mission District location, is serving hundreds of daily customers – coffee purists and tea bag users alike – what he calls “third wave tea.” According to Jacobs, you can think of tea in three different stages – the current and third one we’re in now goes beyond the little mesh bag (or the “factory-produced dust stuffed in a bag”) to give people “boutique, artisan, hand-crafted, family-sourced teas” that are just as readily available as good, artisan coffee.

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“No one’s done that in tea,” says Jacobs. “No one has made it accessible.” Jacobs did just that by paring down the tea menu at Samovar’s new shop and providing his customers with a healthy alternative to coffee.

“You need energy to stay focused and present,” he says. “And that’s really where productivity is at. And I think that’s where San Francisco and a lot of the tastemakers and foodies and techies have gravitated to tea because it’s about that level of effectiveness, more than just busyness.”

So if you can’t make it to San Francisco, how do you brew the best cup of tea on your own? Jacobs offers some tips:

Step 1: Trade the tea bag for whole leaf, unflavored tea.

“The first thing with brewing the perfect cup is to source good tea. And good tea is tea that’s produced in small batches, and that is unflavored, because unflavored tea will have its own flavor … It’s like the wine cooler versus wine. Wine coolers are sugary and taste good, but there’s a whole world of health benefits and appreciation you get with a great Pinot. Doesn’t have to be expensive.”

If possible, stay away from tea bags, Jacobs recommends. “In terms of health benefits, caffeine, and flavor, you suffer all of those in exchange for convenience. And even price.”

To pick which type of tea to drink, Jacobs says to decide by function and the amount of caffeine. “You want chill out and relax? Go with a green or herbal tea.” Otherwise, stay with an oolong, a pu-erh, or a black, which Jacobs says you can re-steep more than the lighter options.

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But what does good tea look like? “Anyone can become a tea expert just by looking at the leaves,” Jacobs explains. “The leaves need to be consistent in size, shape, and color. And that consistency is only possible when there’s a human hand involved in the process, picking and processing the leaves. No machine can mass produce consistent tea leaves.”

Step 2: Use fresh, boiling water.

“Bubbling, brook-fresh is ideal from a mountain stream, but second to that would be filtered.” Jacobs suggests boiling about a mug of water per 1 Tbsp of tea and steeping it for 3-5 minutes. For gear, he recommends getting a kettle and a strainer or infusing basket — all things you can find on Samovar’s website or in most grocery stores.

Step 3: Make it personal.

“The most important thing is – here’s the deal – tea is personal. Brew it to how you like it. Good tea has what they call patience, which actually means like a tolerance, a threshold, for brewing it many times. So try with these guidelines: a tablespoon of tea, three minutes, 16 ounces boiling water. If it’s bitter, reduce the water, reduce the temperature, reduce the tea. That’s where tea is cool. It can be very personal. There’s really no doing it wrong other than: Use whole-leaf tea, use good water, and boil it.”

So you’ve looked for the right leaves, followed the brewing instructions — what’s next? Jacobs says you should look for one more thing. “Any good tea brewed with those instructions I gave you will have a complexity. And by that I just mean it has an aroma, it has a taste, it has a body, it has an aftertaste. If you can enjoy any decent slice of pizza, you have what it takes to enjoy a good tea.”

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