In a sense I’m not the right person to be writing about tea gear; I just stick to the basics related to what I own and use.
I usually use a French press to make tea at work (some of you can stop reading here), and usually a gaiwan at home. I own two clay pots I bought in Taiwan (almost certainly not yixing; they didn’t come with certificates). As is typical I only use those with one type of tea each (Wuyi Yancha and sheng pu’er), with a lot of people narrowing use down to one level below that, a certain tea or a certain aged range. I’ve not noticed they make a lot of difference in results, but I did brew a Rou Gui in the sheng pot once, and it did seem off so they must be contributing something.
It was just in the news that one of the better regarded, most expensive brewing devices (systems?) by Teforia has been discontinued. It seemed like spending $1000 on a way to brew tea isn’t in high demand (actually $1499 per this product review article, which more or less concluded “don’t buy it”).
Per my understanding at least one of their devices was based on a capsule system, and I really don’t have lots to say about those. I tried a tea made in one at an expo once, and even if it had been better I still wouldn’t be interested. The same is true of trying Thai tea—the orange spiced kind—prepared in an espresso maker. A lot of teas turn out better infused in water at temperatures under boiling point, and using 40 seconds of contact with steam doesn’t seem ideal.
An online contact developed an automatically timed version of a basket type infuser, under the brand name Teaflo. It’s the type where you push a button to allow the tea to drop into a mug, except in this case you don’t need to push a button. An interesting variation of this design based on an hourglass shape was first developed in 2011, the Tea Time Tea Maker, but apparently it still hasn’t entered into commercial production. Handmade brewing devices that combine function and artwork are another interesting sub-theme, but I’ll only mention in passing an Instagram profile of one well-known example.
Cost as a concern mixes with function. A $1000 solution seems like overkill but even an inexpensive infuser or French press is going to cost something. The standard rate for that Teaflo device seems to be $48 per that link; not so bad. The automated device that gets mentioned the most, the Breville tea maker, also covers the heating function (kettle part), and it “only” costs $230 at Walmart.
I usually spend around $10 on basic, inexpensive French press versions, but then I live in Bangkok, where some things can cost less. I bought a gaiwan for around $8 in Chinatown NYC last January, and one well-known vendor sells versions starting from there and up towards $20.
My parents bought me a really nice “For Life” infuser basket device for Christmas. It’s a bit of a gamble, them giving me that kind of thing, but it’s compellingly simple, effective, and nice looking. I just looked it up online; it goes for $26.50 on their website. That seems a bit much, but then it is nice. You could brew anything at all in it, probably even coffee. That’s provided you want to make a whole cup of it at one go, and use something like a Western-style brewing proportion (a part that gets complicated). It’s cool the way the lid serves two different important functions since you want to enclose tea that is brewing (to maintain the same temperature and reduce volatile component evaporation), and it helps to have a place to set the infuser basket.
I checked what a push-button drop-style maker might cost–the type of design the Teaflo is based on–and Teavana’s normally had cost $22.95, now down to $16.07, unless they’ve cleared all their stock as part of going out of business. Pushing that button yourself might seem no big deal, but that’s not really the point. It’s about not needing to time it, or forgetting to do that, about the tea turning out better, or being able to jump in the shower instead of waiting.
Right around this point, it would make sense to start in on a narrative theme. One possible version: each to their own; it’s all good to make tea in any way that works for someone. Or another: soaking dried leaves in hot water for three or four minutes really doesn’t need to be gear intensive, and people might be looking for solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist. A more subtle, developed version than those is possible. People seem to naturally transition tea interest preferences, related to both tea types and brewing methodology, and a sophisticated mechanical solution that “brews the perfect cup of tea” is not regarded as a natural end point by most tea enthusiasts. Let me explain.
Based on people having so many preferences (yixing or other clay pots, gaiwans, infusers, tea bottles/tumblers, etc.) “most” tea enthusiasts don’t agree on any one best approach. Many people gravitate towards a Gongfu brewing approach further along the experience curve (it seems to me), which is based on using a higher proportion of tea to water, and a higher count of short infusions. Some tea types give better results made in such a way, and most others just turn out about the same.
It doesn’t stop there; I’ve run across two other people with “the next best thing” ideas for brewing tea, and there must be countless existing devices and ideas out there. This article lists more than a dozen, but that’s only scratching the surface. Per my own take, someone should try out an inexpensive gaiwan before getting too far into other gear, to try out that other main process approach. If that timing step really is an issue for someone a $48 gear solution doesn’t sound so bad. Or in a pinch, someone could mix tea leaves and water in a coffee mug, and then strain those into a second one.
Images provided by author.
John, I’ve talked with Michelle many times about our commercial 1 min. (or less) loose (or bag & sachet) tea brewer. We are in the process of putting together rep teams but I have to say that tea brewing electronic devices in general are usually very costly, whether commercial or consumer, and haven’t made much headway. We hope to change that. However, we are not targeting a ‘nicie’ market, but rather mass foodservice/fast food/QSR. Yes, our brewer does make tea’s taste as good, or better, than a traditional steep, and it’s been verified by some of the best palates we could find in the industry, for their reputation in tea knowledge. I’ve had ‘sommeliers’ who think that tea cannot be enjoyed any other way than in some type of a ‘tea transcendental state’ with the traditional devices/implements, but that’s not true, and we’re hoping that many more people will try it and really taste it for the first time once it goes mainstream being brewed correctly. Most places now, even tea paces, hand you a cup with a sachet string slopped over the edge for you to ‘brew yourself’ and then dispose of a soggy mess. I’m ranting. You can do tea in any purist infuser and ruin it because there’s more to tea than what it’s brewed in. There’s truly a science involved.
By the way, many of these devices are taken to market by VC-backed entrepreneurs who know very little about working with tea on a full-time, professional basis, but just ‘love tea’…such as Teforia…or by big tea companies. Here’s Lipton’s latest stab at it in the consumer venue: http://bit.ly/2j2dv2o
I saw that about the Lipton capsules; haven’t tea capsules been around for awhile, so the only change here is a new brand being offered? It was interesting hearing about a new brewing system solution, as you mentioned before, but without hearing any details there’s not much to say about it. It would be interesting if it could work, and of course I could speculate about how, but I don’t imagine it would ever be personally relevant to me. Maybe eventually I’d try tea made from that developed system–when it’s out–but even that seems unlikely, and then it comes down to whether or not one cup of tea actually tastes like it was infused conventionally or not. It almost wouldn’t matter if it did or didn’t, in my own case. I don’t see a commercial machine solution that can drop infusion time from four minutes to one minute as the future of tea, but it might still be viable. Or it really could be the future of tea, the one way to make a Starbucks-like approach work; who knows. For me the act of brewing tea is part of the experience. I don’t mean in some mystical sense like those Zen inspired hippies, or even like pu’er-group-active yixing collectors, but in my own way I like both tea the drink and making tea.
It is in working form, which we use every day at home for our own tea. And, as a tea retailer for years, I can tell you the results totally beat out traditional steep. Results are the definitive/bottomline. That’s why we had people within the industry known for their experience and/or palate taste the results, including importers, retailers and industry-related group. We know our target market and it isn’t people who are not ‘chain store/fast food tea drinkers’ on their way to work, etc. So, either large chains will buy into it as a way to realistically serve better-tasting and more versatile tea menus or not. If not, we’re certainly not going to offer it as a consumer machine because of reasons you describe: Home tea drinkers are usually either ‘experience-oriented’ or throw a bag in hot water and call it done. There’s no consumer tea-only machine market, obviously, at this time, especially not in the USA..Teforia spent millions of dollars proving that!! Starbucks spent millions proving there’s not a viable enough tea-only retail concept in the USA. If you want to see visible infusion comparison results, I posted them on John Bickel’s tea group FB page here: http://bit.ly/2ir6XNM As for the capsules, don’t know about capsules other than the Keurig type pods. But leaves can’t sit confined and taste right. Advantages of our machine, which I can give publickly, are it is a fraction of the size, fraction of the price, compared to machines like the BKON, Steampunk or Trifecta. Busy drive-throughs, etc., can’t offer much counter space and need fast, easy and great taste or there’s really no use in ‘going there’. It can also do bags and sachets as well as loose which is necessary because the large chains aren’t going to be offering tea in a loose state to-go any time soon…if ever. As far as I can tell, what we are attempting to accomplish here is a plus for the tea industry overall. Coffee would be a much smaller market without the espresso machine. Tea has been held back by lack of brewing solutions in the mass market. I would hope the tea industry would be rooting for anyone with a real solution. Our target customers are chains like Panera, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and others of that scope…and that market normally doesn’t open their arms overnight and invite you in. If we weren’t completely dedicated and know what we have is better than traditional steep in taste, we would have given up long, long ago. Yes, I’m passionate. :) By the way, you said you like ‘making tea’. That’s exactly what I do when I use our machine. The fact that it’s done differently doesn’t matter in the least to me. What I love is tasting it and finding it smoother, richer, and just plain tastier.
It sounds great. I have reservations about accepting those final conclusions, which you would already be familiar with, but I’ll write it for others. Tea outcome and aspects varies per all the inputs and parameter choices; water used, proportion, temperature, and time (and others, but those are the main ones). Of course that’s because compounds in the teas extract in varying proportions. You are essentially claiming the true potential optimum is beyond all the permutations currently in practice, what can now be accomplished. Of course I’m skeptical of that. It’s not inconceivable but does seem highly unlikely. Roughly matching effective brewing is something else, that seems more feasible.
I’ll just quote what someone known for one of the best palates in the tea industry said after tasting the results on a number of their own teas (an importer..who signed a very tight NDA and never saw the machine but brewed his traditional steep while we brought out samples of the 1 min. brew): “I don’t know how you did it, but you cracked the code.” My husband and our patent attorney both had a tech and science background; our patent attorney had actually been a chemist, so the science of the leaf is not being ignored. However, seasoned taste buds are the best way to know if what you have works, bottom line. What I’ve tasted with other quick brew machines are weaker infusions than traditional steep. As the photos show, and as the taste of our infusions reveals, our infusions are actually stronger and richer than traditional steep. Now a ‘sommelier’ may question my term ‘richer’ but I think tea drinkers in general will understand that I simply mean a ‘fuller bodied’ and also a smoother infusion. This goes way beyond roughly matching traditional methods of infusion. The quality of the infusion is dependent on the quality of the tea, the quality of the water, the time, temperature, and physical conditions the tea and water are exposed to while brewing/steeping. It sounds as if your argument is that all the components of the leaf are absolutely rigid in the way they will respond. Take a cake, for example. You can have exactly the same cake mix and those ingredients/components will respond differently to a conventional oven, a convection, or a microwave oven, or even cooking in a cast iron skillet over a fire. In fact, the cake may be more tasty done in the covered cast iron skillet. Or, it may be better in the convection oven in less time than it would be in the conventional oven. So, the components respond based on the method used to ‘bake’ them, so to speak.
My husband had surgery on tuesday so I’m a bit late to the discussion. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this brewer for a very long time. I have no doubt that the taste is exceptional. I remember a conversation with Diane when she shared with me different industry leaders feedback after trying her machine. When I hear something that on the surface sounds too good to be true, my red warning flag begins to flutter but knowing Diane and Vern and their integrity, I believed it completely.
Now, hearing about your target market, I have a question. As you mention, a good cup of tea is dependent upon a number of variables. Good quality tea is an important one. On the one hand, using the machine to provide tea for the masses, to finally have them drinking a great cup of tea is very exciting. My concern however is in the quality of tea these modestly priced companies will be putting into your unique machine. Can we expect even the most amazing brewer to make great tasting tea with low quality tea? How do you hope to deal with this issue? Also quality water plays another important role in success with tea.
I just can’t wait until we get one of your machines in Portland Oregon.
Hi Michelle, I’m truly humbled by your post. We’ll be praying for Sandy’s quick recovery. About the quality of the tea: We knew there were large chains who were targeting getting a more extensive/better tea program in place; however, they use bags or sachets and batch brew iced and bag-in-water hot. So, we tested bags of average quality in the brewer and, even with very old bags, the machine produced a very drinkable infusion that far surpassed the traditional steep of the same bags which wasn’t drinkable, in some cases..not for me anyway! As for water, many chains have excellent filtration systems in place because of the hot competition in the coffee segment. Most of the ‘quick brew’ machines or even consumer machines on the market, other than large mfr’s, have provided choices for the artisan shops or the ‘home tea geeks’…and you have seen the results..tons of money lost and/or not great growth in sales and distribution because of a number of factors. Our goal is to get much better tea to the masses, or, at the least, much better brewed tea to the masses, thereby introducing more people to tea than would be if we went to the same target markets as other tea machines have. Hope that makes sense. As we have watched what’s happened with Teavana and American Tea Room, and others, it appears that the artisan/tea-only concept is one even those with funding haven’t been able to really ‘crack’ and scale. We are hoping to go where the need is, and where the sales/market is, so to speak, and going there isn’t easy. Seriously, thanks again and we are praying and working to try to see that it gets the best possible chance to get into the QSR/fastfood/large chain venue.
I think it’s terrific what you’re attempting to do. This has been the goal of T Ching – to bring tea, the healthiest beverage on the planet, to the masses. It’s fascinating to hear that your machine can actually improved the taste of lower quality tea. It highlights the importance of brewing, which all of us tea nerds are well aware.
Please keep us posted. I am disappointed to hear that there is no home brewer in the plan. I noticed a dramatic increase in my tea consumption 16 years ago when we added an insta hot at the sink. That was in the days of drinking bagged tea of course. But having hot water available at a moments notice made all the difference in frequency of drinking for me. We humans are a lazy lot I’m afraid. Today I use a Bonavita – which I love – and it provides a small cups worth of water quite quickly to the proper temperature which for me is the most time consuming aspect of my tea preparation. Perhaps once you’re rich and famous, you’ll throw us tea lovers a bone and create a machine for home use. Perhaps you’ll loose the purists but the rest of us tea lovers will be delighted.
Hahaha!! You know, I know you know, that being an entrepreneur like you are and we are, is not an easy road. I’m amazed at the things/people that get funded quickly. I think life is about faith, timing, and perseverance. You don’t fail until you give up. I’ve always appreciated your encouragement and I hope to write an article soon here on 2017 and the tea scene because a LOT of things, some surprises, some not, happened this year. 2018 looks to have more.