How to "Cup" Tea

Bill Todd of Todd & Holland explains how to fully savor a cup

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By David Hammond

Bill Todd of Todd & Holland in Forest Park knows a lot about tea.

Recently, Todd gave me a lesson in “cupping,” the time-honored ritual for savoring tea. As with wine tasting, there’s a precise procedure in place for detecting the subtle nuances of a tea.

If you’ve ever been in Todd & Holland and watched Todd or his team prepare a pot of tea, you know they take it very seriously.

Todd measures out exactly the amount of tea he will need for one pot, and he’s very careful about the temperature of the water. For black tea, you can use water right off the boil; for green tea, you need to be more gentle: the water should be around 150 to 160 degrees.

The amount of time the tea is allowed to steep is also critical.  For the Japanese black tea that Todd was preparing for me, the tea was steeped precisely three minutes. Todd explained, “In the first minute the tannins start to come out of the tea, and that’s what colors the tea, the tea gets darker. In minute two, the vitamins come out, but the most critical of those three minutes is the third minute, which is when the minerals in the tea leaf come out. What flavors your tea is the binding between the minerals in the tea leaf and the minerals in the water. We’re fortunate in Chicago to have about 8 grains of hardness in our water. Lake Michigan water is good tea-brewing water.”

Todd explained the steps for savoring tea:

1. Inhale

2. Take a sip of tea and squish it with our tongue against the backside of your mouth

3. Keeping your mouth closed, exhale through your nose as you swallow.

4. Inhale

5. Take a slurp of tea (make some noise!), close your mouth and exhale through your nose as you swallow.

According to Todd, “Breathing out through your nose is how you get the taste of the tea. Tea is an aroma beverage more than it is a mouth beverage.”

Todd encourages slurping tea because that way you fill the sinus cavity with aromas, “and you’ll get that intensity of flavor that you’re drinking.”

“There are a lot of similarities between tea tasting and wine tasting,” Todd explained, “but when you take a sip of wine, you open your mouth and inhale to evaporate the alcohol off your tongue so that you can get the subtle nuances of the wine. With tea, there’s no alcohol, so if you open your mouth, you dilute the tea flavor.”

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David Hammond from  

Posted: May 5th, 2011 12:57 PM

Tea as an ingredient is fascinating to me. Was at Marion Street Cheese Market last night and had cured salmon seasoned with tea, which adds a light, grassy flavor that goes well with fish.

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