Q&A: Robert Wemischner’s Tea 101

Want to train your palate to pick up even the subtlest of flavors? Start with tea.

Most people in the food business know Robert Wemischner as a pastry chef and instructor. He’s also the author of four books, including Cooking with Tea, and has a fifth book in the works. When I want to try a new type of tea, I ask Wemischner what he’s been keeping in his vast tea cabinet lately.

Here, he shares his own Tea 101:

What’s a good tea “starter set”?
Get a good brewing mechanism. You want a tea strainer, or any stainless steel or metal filter that fits into a mug or cup, with a fine mesh, so that none of the tea leaves—not even those that are finely ground—get into the cup.

What five varieties of tea do you think every tea drinker should have on hand?
White, green, Oolong, black, and puerh. They should be unflavored, pure leaves, so that the tea’s flavor is what you taste. One of each variety, because your taste will vary with your mood or the time of day. You also get to hone your palate—not just for tea, but for the subtlety of flavors in general—by tasting tea from each category.

Where do you like to shop for tea?
Locally: Chado Tea Room, in Pasadena or Little Tokyo. Online: Upton Tea Imports.

Why is loose leaf tea better than tea in a bag?
Loose leaf tea is of higher quality than tea in a tea bag because the space in a bag doesn’t give tea leaves enough room to stay whole. They are easily crushed, and this diminishes their flavor by the time they are steeped. When they are in a bag, they don’t have space to unfurl in order to release their full flavor into the water. This is not to say that all tea bags are bad. Some of the larger, silk mesh bags from better tea companies can be quite good, but it becomes more about speed and convenience. I feel that the process of brewing tea properly takes time and shouldn’t be rushed.

How do you prepare your ideal cup?
I eyeball the amount of tea leaves that I need (weight should be two grams of tea leaves per six ounces of good quality water). I then heat the water to the proper temperature and put the tea leaves in and keep track of how long they steep. The times and water temperatures vary depending upon the tea. For example, white tea is brewed at 185 degrees F. Green tea is steeped at 180 degrees F, and Oolong should be steeped just under a boil. Black tea is steeped at 212, boiling temperature, exactly. Then, the times for each vary from 30 seconds to five minutes. The sweet, high quality, orchid-y Oolongs can brew for as little as 30 seconds for a first brewing. Black teas can steep for over three minutes.