Tea Tasting with Harney & Sons at the International Culinary Center

"Tea tastings will lack the acidity, bitterness, and slurping and spitting associated with coffee and wine tasting."

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A sampling of the Harney & Sons tea leaf varieties throughout the evening.

What is the latest time you'll drink tea? If you don't have a problem with sipping black or oolong teas at 9 p.m., I'd recommend attending a tea tasting with Harney & Sons' lead tea buyer, Mike Harney, at the International Culinary Center. The first tea tasting ever at FCI began, in true chef-like form, with the deconstruction of traditional, complex Earl Grey, with Harney & Sons' version consisting of black teas Ceylon-Kenilworth, Assam, Kemmun, Formosa Oolong and bergamot oil.

We moved onto stripping tea down to its essence—the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. Starting with white, then working through green, black, and oolong teas, a teaspoon (coincidence?) of loose tea was placed in a six-ounce mug, filled with hot water, capped, and timed for approximately two-and-a-half to three minutes. Once the tea-infused water was poured into a small white dish, we sipped and swallowed, and savored the numerous varieties of young and processed teas.

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The French Culinary Institute's version of the Taiwanese tea egg.

Generally, tea tastings will lack the acidity, bitterness, and slurping and spitting associated with coffee and wine tastings, and according to an endless number of studies, you'll probably better your health in the process. You'll also get to pair tea with much more unique foods than offerings at a wine tasting. We paired Taiwanese tea eggs with oolong tea, crunchy nori rolls with green sencha, Marie Belle chocolates with iced green matcha, and scones and gravlax sandwiches with black British legacy teas.

While tasting through the least processed tea leaves, white and green, then progressing to the "death of the tea leaf" with oolong and black, we discovered it's possible that all teas have roughly the same amount of caffeine. (It's impossible to measure consistently since caffeine levels depend on the variety of tea, size of tea leaf, and length of brewing time.)

However, we're at a culinary school, and we're here for the taste.

The best flavor extraction depends on appropriate water temperature. Black and oolong teas should be infused at around boiling temperature, while white and green teas should wait for a dip of about 30° F. Kettle and burner enthusiasts can estimate this by letting boiling water sit for a bit before infusing leaves. If you have an electric water boiler, you're in better shape. Three minutes is all most loose tea leaves need, as anything longer will produce bitterness.

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From left: Wenshan Baozhong and Taiping Houkui tea leaves. Images from harney.com

There's nothing negative I can say about the way Harney & Sons tea tastes. The best of the best that evening were: Wenshan Baozhong, an oolong with green characteristics and hints of honey and gardenia, Taiping Houkui, a long-leafed green tea on the sweeter side, and Bai Mu Dan, a delicate white tea which will remind you of picking dandelions and running through freshly-cut grass. These are high-quality loose teas at a high price. For special occasions and presents, I will gladly buy a few tins—for the everyday brew, I'll most likely stick with a tea less than $15 for 2 ounces. In time, my wallet may give in, since not much on the market shelves will compare.

Though the class was scheduled to start at 6 p.m. and last for only three hours, in order to get through 75 percent of the ambitious tea list, we stayed until around 9:45 p.m. In typical FCI fashion, a team of students (and Mike Harney's son), assisted with every minute of the learning experience, pouring and timing water, and serving and clearing dishes. The evening ended with a tea-infused cocktail conjured up by FCI professor and class attendee Dave Arnold. While I couldn't handle vodka after a serene three hours of antioxidants, Arnold clearly had a blast with his creation. In fact, as I left I walked through a giddy group of students, knee-deep, literally, in liquid nitrogen with the cocktail genius.

Keep an eye on the International Culinary Center's course list for the next session of the tea tasting.