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the weekly tea
Salt your tea!
~a stress test~
weekly tea: a salt-your-tea stress test
Several of you sent me this article about an American scientist who suggested that tea should be salted. This suggestion was met with such horror from British people that the US embassy released an extremely funny response.
I am not horrified by the concept of salt in tea. Twenty years ago, when I was in law school, my husband and I sometimes went to a breakfast place that had a chai they served with steamed milk and honey. I always constructed a careful mix of milk, honey, and brewed spicy tea. I also always added salt. Why? Because it was tastier that way. Same concept as adding a pinch of salt to apple pie: salt enhances flavor.
Plenty of people—including people who have been drinking tea since before Britain got the idea of drugging China so they could have their national beverage without a trade deficit—put salt in their tea. This week’s newsletter has therefore become a salted tea comparison extravaganza. Be forewarned: here there be salt.
But first…

The Devil Comes Courting
Cover, The Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan: A Chinese woman wearing a red dress, sits in front of an ocean at sunset
Amelia, the heroine of this book, was raised by a white missionary. Her journey over the course of the book includes learning about the culture she was stolen from. This journey, of course, includes tea, and since it's relevant to the next little bit of this book, I'm doing it first.
“A minute!” The woman widened her eyes. “No, no, this is good green tea. The first steeping finishes in ten seconds. How can you taste each steeping properly if you let the leaves sit in water for minutes on end like you’re boiling soup?”
“That’s how the English make it.”
“Ah!” The woman threw up her hands. “The English! Fight two wars for tea and can’t even make it properly!”
Buy The Devil Comes Courting from:
Anyway, that's my segue into…

The cover of Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea by Michelle Francl. A green metal mug, with steam rising, sitting next to a teabag
The uproar started with Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea, by Michelle Francl. I got a digital copy from the Royal Society of Chemistry, via this link
The book is charmingly written and extremely accessible (to me, a person with a graduate degree in chemistry, not a great judge here). Everything about me LOVES the idea of being an absolute dork about scientifically figuring out the best cup of tea. Except… 
This book states that tea should be brewed with a ratio of 2g/tea to 200 mL/water (oy) and for brew times of around 4-6 minutes (oy!). Brew time, tea to water ratio, and other things were held constant throughout this book.
The book made other assertions I found sus: “Plants that are exposed to a great deal of sunlight have more caffeine and antioxidants”—Japanese gyokuro has more caffeine than almost anything but is shade grown. And “Truly do not bother reusing tea leaves”—ooof, no.
Despite these issues, I will always fundamentally delight in people using science to enjoy their favorite things even more, and this book absolutely does that.
British Twitter took issue to the assertion that metal ions (like the sodium in sodium chloride) reduce the perception of bitterness. Thus: salt makes tea taste better. Let’s see how that plays out in practice.

Left to right: Miyuki matcha, Goishicha, Miao jian king.

Matcha: I prepared two cups of matcha in the usucha style, using miyuki matcha, a competition grade matcha from Ikkyu tea. The matcha was foamy with good balance.
Verdict: I could definitely tell that salt here was undercutting the slight bitterness of the matcha: it made for a rounder, fuller flavor. I am pro-salt in matcha.

Japanese twice-fermented tea: You may remember my prior newsletter about goishicha, a twice-fermented tea from Japan. The second anaerobic fermentation that this tea goes through imparts a sharp, sour lactic acid taste for the first handful of steeps, which gives way to something sweet, subtle and enduring.
Verdict: For the first 3 or so steeps, I preferred the unsalted tea–the salt undercut the taste of the lactic acid. My husband, who does not appreciate sour things as much as me, preferred this with salt.
Thereafter,  the subtle sweetness of this tea, became almost hauntingly perfect with a few grains of salt.

Chinese green: Mao Jian King is a mild green, made from the first leaves of spring as they delicately unfurl. (It’s also almost a year old now, alas). The taste is delicate and fresh, like the beginning of an involuntary smile.
Verdict: with salt, without salt… I couldn’t actually tell much of a difference with this one. I experimented with more and more salt, until I was tasting the salt. TL;DR did not really care one way or another.

Left to right: Charlie, Bai Rui Xiang, and Point of No Return (Dragon tea pot, pale gold liquid tea).

Ripe pu-erh: I’ve featured Charlie twice before—it was my first real pu-erh (I’d had grocery store versions, but I don’t think those count). Charlie is aging and evolving: the first steeps have become so sweet that there’s an almost chocolatey vibe to it. With each success steep, it gets more complex, more woody, more figgy.
Verdict: As with goishicha, I felt that the salt interfered with some of the flavor complexity. Yes, some of those flavors are bitter, but bitterness married with about 17 other flavors is actually delightful. Better unsalted.

Rock oolong: Bai Rui Xiang, from Old Ways Tea, is a classic yancha (or rock oolong) (If you want to know what that means, see this old newsletter and also perhaps this one.) The tea has a distinctly mineral taste that feels almost magical, as if it is taking you on a visit to its place of origin.
Verdict: I should have guessed this before trying, but yancha is already so minerally that adding salt really just disturbs the balance. Yancha with salt tastes “off.”

Raw pu-dry: This is a stupidly expensive tea from white2tea. I bought a sample because as far as my tastes are concerned, 25 grams of stupidly expensive tea—about 3 sittings, each longer than an hour, spent savoring extraordinary tea—is about the cheapest form of luxury that I can experience. It’s cheaper than a massage. It’s a lot less than a cruise or a fancy dinner or a concert. And (in my opinion) it’s far more satisfying.
This is a sweet and delicate tea that is so good I could cry over it.
Verdict: A dash of salt really takes this tea from extraordinary to something beyond.

Left to right: Sunskate, Uji Honzu gyokuro, Karst.

Sunskate from white2tea is a delightful velvety black tea (in Western parlance, a red tea in the East) that I brewed up just so I could do a taste test on a black tea.
Verdict: Minorly preferable with salt, but it’s so mild as to not matter.

Uji Honzu gyokuro from Tezumi is a Japanese green tea which I steeped with a really high leaf to water ratio (8g / 80 mL), at a very low temperature (130 F/55C), for two minutes. The tea itself is luscious and creamy with that distinctive taste that covered Japanese teas impart, rich in savory and umami flavors.
Verdict: I’m unsurprised that I like this better with salt—this tea has a real savory punch to it, and a little bit of salt makes it feel even rounder and more luscious.

Finally, because I think no test is finished without a white tea: Karst from white2tea. Most of the time, white teas fall somewhere on the “delicate” spectrum, but this one, while being clear and sweet, was actually quite robust—like a high church bell.
Verdict: I actually thought in advance that white tea would have been a perfect pair with salt, but I found myself indifferent between the salted and the unsalted cups.

Further experimentation is necessary…
My conclusion is that salt improves the taste of many teas, particularly where “sweet” is the predominant flavor and hints of bitterness are unwanted. In complex and interesting teas where bitterness is a single undertone woven with other flavors, salt may interfere with the complexity and interest of the tea itself.
In line with all good (and, I guess in this case, vaguely haphazard) scientific inquiries, I am left with more questions than I started with.
  1. This experiment was performed with Hawaiian pink sea salt. What about another sodium salt—specifically, monosodiumglutamate? (Please don’t tell me MSG is bad for me—I will consume less MSG this way than I would eating a bag of Doritos, a thing that I don’t do.)
  2. Some of you may remember my experience of tea made with a seasoned Japanese tetsubin, where I commented afterward that it felt like tasting seasoned tea for the first time in my life. I now own a seasoned tetsubin; I now suspect the reason that seasoned tetsubin make better tea is basically that they’re adding metal ions. I would like to compare salted tea with tea made in a tetsubin.

Until next week!
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