TeaCollectionA little history

So as you may have gathered, I’m an American. But not just any American. I’m from The South. In fact, I’m a very special kind of Southerner: the mythical Atlanta native. (Though some would argue that prevents me from being really Southern.) While most of you are likely to pass through our airport, I was born and raised here. That has resulted in a certain expectation when you mention the word tea (i.e. it should be used in the phrase “sweet tea”). Now Southern sweet tea isn’t “one lump or two” but more the kind of thing that induces diabetes. You don’t make it by the delicate little tea pot, you make it by the gallon and it’s always caffeinated. If you’re feeling really fancy, then you make sun tea. Carefully. Or you mix in a bit of lemonade and voilà, Arnold Palmer. The important thing to remember here is to serve it sweet – and cold.

Wait, what?

So you can imagine my curiosity when I discovered that most of the world drinks tea hot and brews it from “loose leaf” not tea bags. What’s that about? I had to find out! When I mentioned it to a friend, she showed up at my house bearing a beautiful enameled tea pot as a gift. It was time to learn a few things. I made a foray to a local tea shop and discovered that not only were there non-black tea options out there, but not everyone drinks it sweet. (Okay, so I might be livening things up here a bit, but it was still rather revelatory that this was a complex process.)

An app for that

I found out that the retail chain Teavana has an app. I decided I could use some help with brewing tea when my friends were not available to tell me what to do, so I downloaded it onto my smartphone. While the app clearly has a revenue purpose, driving you to purchase their detailed catalog of products, directing you to their online shop or to a local store, and showing recommendations for blending teas, it also has a tea timer. So I tapped on the brewing icon and stopped to investigate.

The first thing I noticed was the list of tea types that defaults to having Oolong selected. I don’t even know what oolong tea is, so I tried tapping the icon for additional information to no effect. I thought about referencing their catalog of Teas with its detailed descriptions of tea varieties in order to understand it better, but I didn’t see that option in the buttons at the bottom of the app. Accepting this usability problem in favor of actually making some tea right now, I went for the old standby and selected Black Tea. The generic black tea brewing instructions included measuring a volume of tea, but since I typically brew more than a cup at a time I had to do the math. No way to set up a preference for a full pot of tea here. The usability could use some love.

Some science

Then some perplexing data: 195 degrees. While I’m American and appreciate this default to the Fahrenheit temperature scale, I don’t have a kitchen thermometer, only human thermometers to use in case of illness. I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be suited to the purpose. (And it turns out there are thermometer testers! Don’t forget to calibrate!) Now I found myself heading to the internet for more data about water temperature. I’ll admit that I don’t know the temperature of boiling water in degrees Fahrenheit off the top of my head. And the first search result wikipedia article about boiling point, while interesting enough to open in another browser tab, weren’t helping me out here when what I wanted was a simple conversion. Okay, got it. 212 F is boiling and so too high for my black tea. Obviously I’d been doing it wrong my whole life. In the past, I’d just microwaved the water or boiled it on the stove, but now I should care about accuracy. Well that’s why I’m using the app in the first place, to gain some nuance in my tea preparation. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Let’s do this!

So I get the water hot but not quite boiling and take it off the stove burner with my tea ball filled and ready to steep. Pressing the helpfully labeled Ready to Steep button takes me to an adorable screen that looks like the tea steeper they sell for a single cup brewing. I’m happy to go with it because pressing the Start Steeping button plays lovely music as it counts down and that music varies with the variety of tea. The animation of the water level adjusting with the tilt of the phone with bubbles rising up and tea drifting down is so cute – until my smartphone’s screen goes to sleep. The music cuts right off. I go to wake the phone up only to see the prompt to begin steeping again… What? I glance at the clock, wondering how long I’d played with rocking the phone back and forth. What time did I start brewing? Argh! For a tea novice, this flaw is fatal. My tea comes out just as satisfactory as usual, but I’ve had enough hassle with the app that it’s not a useful tool.

Clearly time to turn off the phone, sit back with my “cuppa,” and find some creative inspiration.

[Note: Although this post is not related to Tea-time with Testers, you should definitely go read that testing ezine too!]