Erie County chemist is a walking, talking tea party
FAIRVIEW, Pa. (AP) — All Clint Jones wanted was a decent cup of tea. And with Amazon.com and other internet sources, Jones’ trek to the tea mountaintop was much simpler than it would have been just 10 years ago.
The only trouble is, along his journey, he fell into a deep well — and he doesn’t want to get out.
Let’s back up. Jones, 48, grew up near Atlanta, Georgia, land of sweet iced tea. He moved here as a chemist specializing in polymers in 2006 and now serves as associate provost at Mercyhurst North East, in charge of all two-year programs, while also teaching chemistry. His wife, Amanda, is a veterinarian.
On a fateful night sometime in 2015, he was sipping a plain old grocery store tea and his scientist’s curiosity bubbled up. “I just wanted to see if I could find some really good green tea,” Jones said.
Since then, he’s found many, many really good teas: white tea, Japanese green tea, Chinese green tea, oolong, black teas (which include Darjeeling and Earl Grey), and intensely flavored pu-ehr. Most of them he orders directly from the Asian companies that produce them. Meanwhile, he’s filled a dining room buffet in his Fairview Township home with authentic pots and trays and tools for serving each kind in the way of each culture. The room is decorated with Asian-themed art, curtains and lamps.
“My wife would say I have enough,” he said with a laugh. “But anyway.”
Meanwhile, he discovered The International Tea Masters Association, an organization which offers training and courses all over the world in tea appreciation, science, flavors, cultivation, evaluation and everything else you need to know to become a certified tea sommelier (suhm-ahl-YAY). This is, basically, someone who can speak intelligently about tea for several hours if sufficiently caffeinated. Now he’s officially one of them.
Four things I learned:
1. All true teas in the world come from the same plant, which goes by the mouthful of a name, “camellia sinensis,” which I’ll heretofore call CS. The plant naturally contains caffeine. The differences among all true teas — and those differences are dramatic and innumerable — are due to differences in the “terroir” or location CS grows in, as well as methods of harvest (called “plucking”), rolling, drying and oxidation.
Interestingly, CS is not grown anywhere in the United States except Hawaii. So tea isn’t something you’re ever going to be able to buy local — unless you move to Asia. Jones isn’t that far gone, though he dreams of visiting a certain spot in China where a certain tea is grown in a certain river. As I said, the guy is hopeless.
His wife, by the way, drinks Diet Pepsi. He whispers this, with a sigh of resignation.
2. Besides terroir, the variables in teas are caused by:
Plucking: which is done either by hand or machine.
Drying: laid flat in the sun or in a pan over fire.
Rolling: rubbing by hand or machine to expose the enzymes in the leaves, like crushing or bruising a fresh herb such as basil.
Oxidation: when oxygen hits the exposed enzymes it changes the color of the tea to dark brown.
3. Got all that? Good, because the following builds on it. I bet at least once, in the rest of your life, you will be very glad you read all about tea and will look like a cultured genius as you explain it. So let’s continue:
While Jones orders his from the Eastern Hemisphere, most versions of these are available in some form at the grocery store. Loose leaf varieties are probably better because they’re less processed and, if you brew the leaves the way Jones does, you might get a good approximation of their beauty and flavor.
He let us (photographer Greg Wohlford was with me) smell each pot he brewed, encouraging us to appreciate the aromas and see if we could name them (grass, chocolate, mushrooms, fruity), much like a wine sommelier might.
White tea: After plucking, the leaves are barely handled other than to dry in the sun before it’s packaged. The heat of sun kills the enzymes in the leaves and “fixes” the delicate flavors of the leaves.
When you buy your tea from the other side of the world, you don’t just drown it in boiling water. Jones uses an inexpensive instant-read meat thermometer stuck through an electric kettle spout to check the water temperature, looking for 85 degrees C. (185 F). (Partly because Jones is a scientist and partly because his teas come from places in the world that use the metric system and that’s what the directions say, he sticks to Celsius. I’m converting them to Fahrenheit for us.)
When it was just right, he poured the water over the tea leaves in a clear glass teapot — and then poured the water out. He was rinsing it. “Because there’s so little processing, there can be debris and dust on the leaves,” he said.
Then he poured more 85-degree water over the leaves and turned over a one-minute sand timer. Just one minute. Then he poured the tea into gorgeous glass tea cups and served it with Fuji apple slices and cucumber and butter sandwiches. Don’t even think about adding milk, sweetener or lemon juice. They would destroy the subtle flavors of the white tea, which is a pale yellow and had an almost imperceptible tea aftertaste. The second sip had more flavor than the first, but it’s something you actually have to think about while you’re drinking it.
One nice thing about the temperature is that I didn’t burn my mouth on a 212-degree liquid and kill my taste buds at the start of this show. The authentic teacups are also tiny by American standards, 3 ounces at the most, which is nice if you’re the only one in the house who feels like a spot.
Green tea: There are two major methods for producing green tea. Like white tea, green tea is not oxidized, so to kill off the enzymes, it is steamed (in Japan) or pan-fried dry (in China).
? Dragon Well: This is Chinese green tea. Because the leaves are pan-fried, it had a subtle, roasted nutty flavor, almost sweet by itself. He served it in a special set that included a “Gaiwan” (guy-wahn) or “fairness pitcher,” in which the tea was brewed and then strained into each cup through a small shot-glass-shaped cup with a screen filter for a bottom. 85 C (185 F) for 1 minute again.
Jones served multigrain toast with local honey and talked a bit about the polyphenols, or nutrients that make tea healthy, as well as a delicious hobby. I recommend, if you’re curious, looking into that. The Chinese originally used tea as medicine way back in 2700 BC. They might have been onto something.
? Japanese green tea: Jones says the Japanese green tea or Sen Cha, he bought from Teavivre was what sent him down this rabbit hole. He brewed it at 77 C (171 F) for one minute. This time, though, as he poured it, Jones did it in layers, pouring a small amount in each cup and going back to pour more in each cup. This he did three times.
“You pour a little tea at a time in each cup for different flavor layers,” he said. “So one person doesn’t get a different flavor than another.”
He served the tea with small strips of smoked salmon because he said this tea contains theanine or a savory flavor note. Worked for me. Of course, any of this would work for me. I was having a blast.
Incidentally, the green tea powder “matcha” that has been trendy for several years is ground up Sen Cha.
Oolong: “The Taiwanese are the very best at making oolong,” Jones said, showing off a pot known as a “yixing,” after the type of clay used to make it, adding that it’s dedicated to making oolong teas. Oolong tea is partially oxidized before the enzymes are killed.
When brewing, you actually pour hot water all over the outside of the pot as well as into it. This time he let the water get just below the boiling point, 90 C (190 F), and brewed it for 1 minute.
This Jones served with fresh fruit. Incidentally, Jones has a cat named Oolong. But it doesn’t drink tea.
Black teas: These leaves are allowed to fully oxidize. You boil the water and steep it for 90 seconds.
? One black tea Jones served us is called “Keemun” and is produced in China. It’s a favorite there and it’s coveted in the British Isles as well. It actually brews a dark red and tastes mellow and smooth. It gives you a lot to think about if you’re a flavor sleuth like I am. Calling the Keemun “homey,” Jones served this with asiago and artichoke dip on simple crackers.
? Another black tea he shared — gasp! — in a tea bag, was Haring & Sons Earl Grey. “I like Earl Grey,” Jones said laughing, “but the loose leaf is too strong.”
Earl Grey is actually a black tea doctored with oil from the rind of the bergamot orange. This Jones served with cheesecake. Oh. My. Gosh. I started waffling between going back to the office and extending this interview to book length.
Pu-ehr: This stuff comes pressed into a brick so tough that you have to have a special tool to break off a piece to brew. Jones’ tool looks like a small screwdriver, and I guess you could use one of those, but if you’re going to get pu-erh, I’m thinking you might as well get a proper tool. I found them at https://yunnansourcing.com from $5 to $50.
Pu-ehr is a tea that’s drunk after dinner. It’s medicinal in Asia, said to soothe an upset stomach “if you can get it down,” Jones said with a laugh while digging at his block of it and pulling off a 1-inch chunk.
The tea is aged in caves and has a mushroom scent and flavor. You pour boiling water over it and rinse it and you can steep the same chunk up to 20 times.
4. Jones said what drew him into tea wasn’t just the taste but learning its role in geopolitical history, its complex chemistry, and wonder at how people can take one plant and turn it into so many fascinating flavors. He likes wine, too, for some of the same reasons, but tea gives him more options.
“This is something I can prepare,” he said. “It’s like working in a lab for me.”
When he discovered a sommelier training course in Pittsburgh, “it opened the flood gates.” he said. “I would have so many teas. That was my weekend. It was a while before I knew about that (course), and I was wondering ‘Where can I go with this?’”
Quite far. He hopes to build a side business with tea tastings, including meditations on Chinese teas. He also switched his chemistry specialty from polymers to tea and said the students love it.
“This generation is very health conscious,” Jones said, adding that they’re also concerned about the effect of climate change on CS. “The more their eyes are open and that appreciate teas that can be passed along, the better.”
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com