Tuesday, December 26, 2017

More Paradoxes of Brewing Tea....or Producing Anything of Quality

In my post "Almost Nothing is Harder Than Brewing Tea", I forgot to mention an important parameter: quantity of tea. Obviously, I'm not using pre-measured teabag tea here. And every extra tea molecule makes a difference! Limster (co-editor of the "Eat Everywhere" app, and a tea enthusiast) notes some other parameters:
Besides steeping time and temperature, also important are the tea pot matters (aeration, how fast or slow the water cools, absorption of various aromatics), and the water (mineral content and pH dictate what can and cannot be extracted from the tea leaves at a given temperature and within a certain time). It is advanced chemistry.

My friend with the tea shop basically tries a range of waters including easily available commercial brands to limited bottled at source stuff. They use kettles with no plastic parts. Maybe no aluminium. They use handmade tea ware from some of the top potters in China.

Once, we did tastings with identical tea, water, kettle, brewed with the exact same timing (side by side at the same time) in different brewing containers (gai wan/covered cup) versus clay teapot and the results were very different. It wasn’t better or worse, as some people preferred the tea from the pot while the tea from the gai wan, but we all agreed on what the differences were. And the effects were consistent - doing the same comparison on a different day with a different batch of tea, water, brewing times etc led to similar effects from the different brewing containers.
While the choice of all those materials will be, er, material, I don't think variables like teapot or water source are limiting factors. Great tea (and also lousy tea) has been made using every conceivable type of teapot and water chemistry. You can brew bad tea with perfect water, pot, and cup (and, even, tea!). And you can also create perfection with bad tools and ingredients. An awful lot of evidence compels you to accept that quality is not a function of any of these things, in spite of great commercial effort to make us think otherwise.

I pointed once before to this sensational article by Ken Rockwell, the online photography guru, about how you can take great photos with a bad camera. Ansel Adams worked with equipment vastly inferior to my iPhone's camera, but his stuff turned out pretty good.

If you accept (and I don't know how you can avoid it) that ideal results can be achieved with mediocre ingredients and tools, and that superb ingredients and tools can yield mediocrity - that a great whole is much more than the sum of its parts - then it becomes very hard to proceed without using mushy terms like magic, which upset narrowly scientific-minded people (Von, featured in my video, was very scientific-minded...which is why he was so embarrassed and skeptical as I insisted on pointing out the paradox of his earth-shatteringly delicious cookies being made from lousy ingredients via the oatmeal box recipe). It's a sticky wicket, and it's not logical. John Locke surely brewed lousy tea!

I propose another experiment. Try, with your friend, brewing identical tea, water, kettle, the exact same timing in the same brewing containers! But have a different person produce each one (without cross-consultation/communication/synchronization; i.e. both mind their own business). I think you'll find the results surprising. Even more so if it can be one of you, along with someone meticulous about following instructions but unexperienced in brewing tea (maybe you know a lab technician?).

You can probably throw away most of your fancy cooking gear (and every other kind of fancy gear) - at least if you buy that stuff thinking it will improve results. It may increase your efficiency and/or help you avoid careless errors, but it won't help you create deliciousness. In fact, if you replaced all your pots and pans and such with fabulous quality cookware, it would not take you long to unconsciously find a way to use your new gear to make things taste exactly as before (see "George's New Piano").

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