I first heard of Ian Bersten through a LinkedIn thread (The Tea Club): ‘Traditional Tea Goes Off the Boil as Britain Opts to go Fruity,’ I asked Ian if I could interview him and he kindly agreed.
Ian Bersten has an obvious engagement in tea and coffee. I admire his curiosity and intensity, his directness, his willingness to explore, probe and question tea traditions and the craft of brewing it.
Bersten’s brewing method has already added substantially to the terrain of our tea knowledge. If you read his writings on the subject, he is not attempting to arrive at a definitive method of brewing tea, but rather expand our understanding and appreciation of making it so we can be better informed. If there is a ‘definitive’ method of making tea, the aim should be to produce as good a cup as possible.
The following interview was conducted via email in early October 2013.
Peter Micic (PM): Which came first for you, tea or coffee? When did you start getting interested in the coffee and tea business?
Ian Bersten (IB): Coffee was first. I became interested in coffee in 1967 when I was working as an economist. I was very bored doing the work and used to bribe myself to go to the Commonwealth Statistician’s office in Sydney, NSW by buying a marzipan bar. I asked the owner if he would supply me if I opened a chocolate shop and he suggested coffee. I checked whether it was a growth commodity and the import price of raw coffee seemed much lower than the retail price so it seemed interesting. At lunchtime I went to a large Italian roasting company and asked if they would supply me with green coffee and the owner pushed me down the stairs saying: ‘No’. I spend the next weekend reading every book at the NSW Public Library trying to find out what the industry was all about. There was not much to read so it became an intellectually curious subject. The more I looked, the more interesting it became.
PM: Who has taught you the most about the fundamentals of making tea: water temperature, brewing techniques, understanding flavours?
IB: The question really ought to be ‘Who taught you least?’ Practically all the available books in the world today are wrong about brewing–the authors are just reporting established opinions rather than teaching the truth. They have been taught that traditional brewing practices are like a religion – never to be changed. If you want to remain a part of the congregation you have to continue believing.
Effectively, I had to teach myself everything based on simple experiments in my own kitchen. It then became clear that tea brewing theory was a prisoner of its past and that very few people were prepared to even think about new ideas. The tea world was a closed mind. The experiments were grinding tea fine and making a concentrate to make a tea cappuccino, grinding a ten year old tea leaf and discovering that inside the leaf it was fresh and not stale, and brewing tea for 30 seconds and discovering that there was very little astringency.
The position of the filter in a cup or pot was important. If it was suspended, the water was likely to run around the tea causing under-extraction. If the filter was sitting on the bottom, the water reflected from the bottom causing turbulence and maximum extraction. From these experiments certain facts followed: tea became stale on the outside and remained fresh on the inside, the finer you ground any tea, the more flavour you got, and most large leaf tea is stale when it is delivered to the consumer who never gets the benefit of the original fresh flavour.
PM: Your book Coffee Floats Tea Sinks: Through History and Technology to a Complete Understanding (1993) is an extraordinary text which should be required reading for everyone interested in the history of coffee, coffee-making equipment and the brewing process. Can you explain what you mean by coffee floats, tea sinks? How much of your research on the coffee brewing processes, past and present, informed your understanding of the brewing processes of tea?
IB: All of the research on coffee was important as I learnt the different scientific relationships which applied equally to tea. I have the opinion that there are very few people who understand the basic science of brewing tea or coffee.
If you grind coffee freshly the carbon dioxide released by adding water causes the particles to float and as the gases are expelled, they absorb water and sink whereas tea generally sinks to the bottom as it absorbs water.
The floating and sinking were important because they determined the shapes of coffeepots and teapots and where the spout needed to be.
One of the most important incidents came when I was in Utrecht (Netherlands) in 1974 and I learnt that the Dutch method of making pour-over coffee was so much better than was the fashion in Australia. They used a lot of fine ground coffee at a higher temperature than we did with coarse ground coffee brewed at a lower temperature.
PM: Why are we told that large leaf teas are ‘better’ than fine or ground tea? Does it depend on the tea?
IB: It is very difficult to get into the minds of people decades ago but I believe that when teabags became popular from the 1950s, many in the tea trade said they were inferior because they used small leaf tea. They were actually inferior because they stopped the brewing process. If small leaf tea was inferior in teabags it was inferior all the time…Additionally the Chinese are prejudiced against anything but whole leaf tea. The only thing left for the tea trade to sell was large leaf tea, so they had to denigrate small leaf tea. They were wrong. You can never get a strong cup of tea from large leaf tea unless you use a lot of it – good for business, not the consumer.
PM: Getting a better flavoured cup of tea is what all tea lovers aspire to, but how do we go about getting there?
IB: There is absolutely no doubt that making the tea particles small intensifies the flavour over larger particles. When so few people have ever had a good strong cup of tea it is not surprising that so many have given up and accept that tea is a weak beverage.
PM: What flavour components are present in a tea leaf? What happens to these components when the tea leaf is cut up?
IB:The same components are in small leaf tea as it is made from a large leaf. All that happens is that those flavour components are intensified. The flavour components will vary from tea to tea but will be the same in small and large leaf tea of the same type.
PM: Discovering brewing processes that produce better flavours is for me is a constant learning curve, trying to make it better day after day, and developing something called finesse. You have produced a wonderful brewing system. When did Tea-Cha begin?
IB: Around 2007. It was a decision to use small leaf tea to make a concentrate for tea cappuccinos that triggered the idea. After the Tea-Cha I developed the Chaicoffski system which was easier to use and suitable for coffee as well.
PM: Is finely-ground tea the best tea for the Tea-cha? Can all teas be ground or are we talking about a particular tea?
IB: The finer the better. All teas can be ground.
PM: Not everyone is one hundred per cent driven toward perfecting a cup of tea or coffee. At the same time, some are striving to refine the technique while others might say: ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ How do you go about informing people about making better tea?
IB: The last time I looked there were 25 million hits for ‘The perfect cup of tea’ on Google and not one defined it – they all discussed how to make it but not how to recognise it if you met it in the street. This means that it is personal decision as to what is a perfect cup of tea and I have no problems with that but I really suggest that there are scientific criteria that could be used.
Three questions come to mind:
1. Can you recognize that this beverage is tea? Yes or NO.
2. Do you like it? Yes or No? This allows people to drink with milk and sugar or in any fashion they like and presupposes that they have tried other ways to make tea so that is a relative decision rather than an absolute decision based on a sample of one.
3. Does it taste recognizably the same as you would expect for that style of tea?
PM: What tea trends do you see developing over the next five years? Are people’s palates becoming more refined?
IB: I do not see much changing. The tea industry is in the hands of people whose minds are closed and they will prescribe more of the same to the consumer who will never learn if something is better. There are too many people making money out of teabags and selling large leaf tea at very high prices to resist the juggernaut of misinformation that has swamped the consuming public and the media.
It is interesting to look at a distribution system which would deliver the best cup of tea to the consumer:
1.Tea is vacuum packed within 24 hours of manufacture.
2. It is delivered to the consumer in this form or to shops which have tea grinders.
3. The shops encourage the use of fine leaf tea by selling devices which make good tea.
Contrast this with existing systems. The customer is almost certain to be sold stale tea and the shops are full of devices which do not work. The consumer does not stand a chance.
I think it is important to note that everything is fashion in tea and coffee. People do not buy the best coffee or use the best brewers – they use the ones that are in fashion and unfortunately the fashions are sometimes determined by self-righteous people who control blogs and other sources of information. With psychopathic intensity, they browbeat members into agreeing with them. On the other hand, some are excellent.
PM: Where are some of the more interesting places you have travelled in the pursuit of tea? Can you share a tea story that has left an indelible impression?
IB: I have visited 95 countries and many tea countries. The places are not as interesting as what happened there. My first tea tasting was with a so-called expert from Sri Lanka. We had to position the tea so that the morning light reflected on it just right. I thought – what a load of mumbo-jumbo.
–I was in the offices of Basudeb Banerjee, the High Commissioner for the Indian Tea Board and he said to me, “You are a problem. You are making better tea from the lowest grades of tea, better than we can make from the best grades.”
— I was in a tasting room on an Indonesian plantation and the taster was comparing tea made my way in 30 seconds and her traditional way and she said: “You are making tea for drinking and I am making tea for tasting.”
–I was not permitted to give a talk at the largest Tea Expo in the USA because my message was unpopular.
— I made a presentation to the Tea Faculty at Anhui State Agricultural University in Hefei. The flavour received approval but when I made a second cup from the same cup knowing it to be flavourless, I was told it was better than the first without actually tasting it. I learnt that Chinese judge tea by colour more than by flavour.
PM: What criteria do you use to appraise tea or coffee?
IB: I do not appraise any statements about tea or coffee without proof. Every writer is full of instructions which if not followed to the letter will cause a degradation in the cup.
Two instructions which are wrong for coffee are that whirling blade grinders are not good for making espresso coffee because the grind is uneven and the coffee heats up too much during the process. As regards the heat I have measured the heat with an infra-red thermometer after grinding in a commercial grinder and a whirling blade grinder and the difference was 2 degrees Celsius.
I defy anybody to tell from the taste which grinder was used. As to the uneven grind, this is true for coarse grind coffee but for very fine espresso grind, the particle size is fairly even. We use at home a domestic espresso machine called a Jura Subito espresso machine which differs from every other espresso machine in that it automatically changes the volume of the coffee basket and controls the pressure on the coffee. A brilliant machine. My wife who has never been to an espresso making course uses the Subito and the wrong sort of grinder to make better coffee than practically every coffee shop using an expensive machine and grinder.
The other thing is that flavour extraction is allegedly proportional to time. It is easy to demonstrate that this is wrong by pouring boiling water over grounds, pouring off the brewed liquid and pouring some more boiling water over the grounds. Very little further extraction takes place. It can be concluded that flavour extraction is proportional to the surface area of the grounds.
To demonstrate how misunderstanding this point leads to the wrong conclusion: If espresso ground coffee is packed too tightly into the basket and the brewing time is extended the result is bitter coffee. WRONG. When the brewing time is extended too long the temperature in the brewing chamber becomes too high making the coffee bitter because the heat exchanger is extracting too much heat from the water in the boiler…The important message is: to measure how good a process is by testing it in your mouth. Never, ever think that your palate is inferior to some self-appointed expert. There are too many reports of experts who cannot tell the difference in sound from a Stradivarius and a cheap violin; who cannot detect the differences between cheap and expensive vodkas; between wine experts who cannot tell white wine from red wine blindfolded and who rank the same wine differently.
Ian Bersten can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Images courtesy of Ian Bersten.