Talking Tea with Saveur Editor & Tea Enthusiast Max Falkowitz
Words Veronica Chan
What’s better than curling up with a comforting cup of tea on a blistering cold winter day? Tea has been steadily gaining popularity, and whether you enjoy the jolt of a stiff cup of English Breakfast as a morning pick-me-up or prefer slowly sipping a delicate oolong after a hearty meal, there’s a cup of tea for everyone. We asked our friend Max Falkowitz, Executive Digital Editor at Saveur and our go-to tea expert and connoisseur, for some of his good tips on tea and best practices for brewing it at home.
When did you first become interested in tea and what piqued your interest?
I got hooked on tea in college. It started with just a few grams and pots here and there, but soon led to buying by the kilo and taking trips across the world to keep digging deeper. What’s so fascinating about tea? Everything. It’s one of the oldest beverages in the world. Our history has been shaped by it. And there’s always something new to learn about it. The more questions you ask, the more rewarding it all becomes.
But most importantly, tea is inherently social. It brings people together and brings the best out of people—tea folks are generally a chill and humble crowd. Tea is generous and wants to be shared, and I appreciate the connections it’s allowed me to make around the table as much as anything in the cup.
What are some of your favorite teas and why do you like them?
I have different teas for different moods, but my go-to is traditional tieguanyin, an oolong style from China that takes very floral leaves and, after processing, hits them with a dark roast for something rich and almost coffee-like but with layers of caramel, minerals, iron, and beneath it all the orchid taste of the leaves. When made right, the tea literally makes your mouth water and sends off what feels like a tingly spark of electricity along your cheeks.
I’m also a big fan of raw puer teas from China, sencha from Japan, dong ding oolong from Taiwan, and white tea from Nepal. Which one I reach for depends on what I’m after at the moment: do I want something deep and moody or light and playful? Something more aromatic or a tea that practically seeps into my bones? It’s a lot like cocktails: there’s nothing better than a Manhattan on a brisk fall night, but some days only a frozen slushy daiquiri will do.
Your best bet for trying new teas is seeking out specialists—not just tea-focused businesses, but businesses that specialize in particular kinds of tea. For most of us, that means hitting the internet, which is full of new and established companies with strong reputations for Japanese green teas, Taiwanese oolongs, Darjeelings—whatever you’re into. I have some general recommendations here to get you started.
What are some tips for how to best select tea to try if you’re not as familiar with different types of tea or are looking to pair a dish or dessert?
Even really great teas are pretty subtle compared to wine and beer, which makes pairing difficult. That’s why, for the most part, I don’t recommend specific pairings at all. Generally speaking, the lighter the tea, like green or white, the more I prefer it alone; a cup of sencha may be great with a red bean mochi, but I’d rather focus on the tea. Darker teas like blacks and roasted styles hold up much better at dessert and with the extra sugar that hangs around your palate.
Do you have any advice for brewing tea at home?
If you’re starting with good tea leaves, the simplest thing you can do to make a more tasty cup is to use more leaves and brew them for less time. Good tea re-steeps well—some characters of the leaves may not even manifest until the third, fifth, or fifteenth brew—and by using more leaves, you’re literally getting more stuff out of the tea. Using less tea for a longer time may give you a cup that looks just as dark and smells just as good, but a lot of the tea’s complexities get collapsed into one big brew, and the body and finish won’t be as rich as they could be with more leaf. As for how much more leaf? Play around and see what works best for you.
There’s a lot of anxiety over dialing in exact weights, times, and temperatures when it comes to tea, but few hard rules. (An exception: some green teas get really feisty and bitter if you brew them above 175 F, or even 140.) In truth, tea is flexible, and good leaves can tolerate a range of brewing parameters. That said, control over those parameters is a great thing. Cooler temperatures will bring out more sweetness in a tea; hotter ones will draw out more bitterness and astringency but also more body and flavor. (Author’s note: and you can easily select the water temperatures you want with this kettle!)
Once you take the time to buy good leaves and brew them well, also make sure you’re storing them right. Treat tea leaves like any herb: keep them away from light and heat, which means in a closed cabinet away from your stove. Also store tea separately from your spices—tea leaves absorb aromas very easily, so keep them in tightly sealed airtight containers away from strong odors.
There are some interesting flavor profiles and notes for coffee beans grown in specific regions and terroir. Having traveled to Taiwan and Yunnan to visit tea plantations, can you share some insights into what affects the flavor profile for tea?
Growing tea is a maddeningly complex process, and it’s nearly impossible to identify what exactly in a tea comes from climate versus soil versus altitude versus the whims of the weather. Two different lots from the very same farm may come out differently if it rained one day a batch of leaves was picked!
To make it all the more confusing, the way a tea is processed after picking matters just as much as how it was grown. Some styles are only produced in certain regions—does the tea’s character come from the terroir, the processing, or some interaction between the two? Other styles get replicated all around the world, or certain cultivars. Are your eyes glazing over yet?
All of which is to say: There are some broad differences you pick up on as you dig deeper into tea, but it’s never good to rely on origin statements over your own palate. Vendors may lie to you about where their tea comes from. But your own tastes never will.