In today’s food-forward culture, there is an increasing amount of emphasis placed on preparation—we want to know where our food comes from and how it is made. Tea, however, has largely been left out in the cold. “It’s kind of a low-status beverage in this country,” says Aaron Shinn, who co-founded Los Angeles–based tea company August Uncommon in late 2014 with his wife, Gina. He says many North Americans think of tea as something to drink when sick or craving an exotic experience, such as a British high tea or traditional Chinese tea ceremony. “I think all of that exoticism prevents people from engaging with tea in an everyday kind of way,” he says. August Uncommon aims to change that by honing in on a few key variables.
The company works with experienced blenders in Germany to create five flavours per season. Each offering is dazzlingly unique, even surprising; in Los Angeles, aside from selling dry leaves in stores, August Uncommon brews tea in kegs so that the flavours can be poured on draft (outside of the city, the only place August Uncommon can be found is at Litchfield in Vancouver). According to Shinn, brewing an ideal cup of tea involves controlling four aspects: quality of water, water temperature, ratio of water to leaves, and infusion time. By doing this, he says, a consistently high-quality cup of tea is resulted.
Quality of Water
“There are a lot of variables in water that can influence the flavour of tea in either a positive or negative way,” says Shinn. He recommends using bottled spring or filtered tap water, and advises against reverse osmosis or distilled water due to its lack of minerals: tea “requires you have to have enough mineral content in the water for it to have a fully rounded flavour extraction,” he explains.
“Different teas require different temperatures to get ample extraction,” says Shinn. A full boil is great for black tea, for example, but white or green teas should be infused with water before it reaches its highest temperature—otherwise the leaves will burn, resulting in bitter taste. To ensure precision, Shinn recommends a kettle with temperature control functions.
Ratio of Water to Leaves
For optimal flavour, August Uncommon follows a ratio of 0.35 grams of tea for every ounce of water. Shinn says it is best to use a scale (as opposed to eyeballing with a spoon or scoop) because every tea, depending on its contents, has a different volume; for prime results, it is best for the scale to have accuracy down to 0.1 gram. To avoid having to measure the water, Shinn proposes a standard 295-millilitre mug.
Lastly, August Uncommon recommends an infusion time of five minutes to ensure the drink is neither too weak nor too strong, and stresses the importance of setting a timer. “It seems kind of ridiculous, in an era of smartphones, to have a dedicated kitchen timer for tea,” says Shinn. “But it’s just another one of these things that helps prevent you from forgetting about it.”
All in, the process takes approximately seven to 10 minutes, but Shinn assures that “it’s not like you’re bent over the stove in serious concentration.” Rather it’s a simple if calculated method, meant more as guide than scripture, leading to dependably pleasurable tea. “We are presenting a method that we think of a starting point for people,” he says. “Our goal in focusing on preparation is not to define a standard that nobody may deviate from, but to give them the tools to delight themselves.” To that, we’ll raise a cup.
August Uncommon products are available at Litchfield and online.