Tea: The App For Tea Drinkers


I hadn't bothered looking up brewing suggestions for Gyokuro. Three months into my tea journey, naturally I had thought myself some kind of expert. The packaging for the tea had been torn open mere moments ago and lay beside my foot on the kitchen floor. With water that had been cooled to slightly below boiling and a timer set for three minutes, I lowered the infusion basket of glossy leaves into a mug, watching with delight as my first cup of Japanese tea began to assume the expected green hue. "This," I thought to myself, "is the fanciest, most expensive green tea that money can buy. And it's going to be awesome."

It wasn't awesome. The taste was a bitter melange of spinach and zucchini, both overcooked and exceedingly concentrated. Burnt, even. Turning to the Internet for guidance and reading over the various preparation suggestions, I concluded two things: Gyokuro should be prepared at nowhere near boiling and it should be steeped for nowhere near three minutes; otherwise it will taste like a sock. Aside from these two generalities, it seemed up to the tea drinker to discover his or her preferred flavor by what can be referred to in the tea community as "tinkering," "experimenting," or "trying different stuff."

A key insight about tea preparation is that, not unlike gourmet cooking, fine tea is an art: one size most definitely doesn't fit all. We've all been let down at one point or another by the directions on the back of the packaging. A tea company could recommend five minutes to steep black tea, but what if your preferences are for lower caffeine content, or tea that isn't as strong? Perhaps four minutes is better, but this isn't the tea company's fault. Surely five minutes for that black tea worked well for whoever decided to put five minutes on the package. Better put, these directions are a mere starting point, and the idea is for us to explore the rest of the way. And that's a good thing, and part of what makes tea the extraordinarily personal and enlightening experience that it is.

But if you think about it, tea tinkering is no simple matter. Consider that there are four numbers to keep track of: tea amount, water amount, time, and temperature — per tea, per steeping. When I opened my tea cabinet, I noticed that I had five or six teas, with a couple of new ones being added each month! It would be impossible to keep all of the possible steep times and temperatures in my head. What occurred to me, after thinking about this problem (and, being the technophile I am) was that an iPhone app would be the perfect solution. This is where the concept for Tea, my first iPhone app, was born. Together with designer Mac Tyler, we thought up the ultimate tea app and went and built it. It's unlike any other tea app on the App Store.

So what is Tea, and how does it work? At its core, Tea is a tea timer and tasting notes journal rolled together into one app. This means that each time you use Tea as your timer, you get enter in a rating and tasting notes right in the app. You can choose to view your tasting notes for all teas in chronological order or view just tasting notes for a particular tea. Included in these tasting notes are your brew settings: tea amount, water amount, time, and temperature. With just one flick through your list, you can see which brew settings are working and which ones aren't. And of course, all of your tasting notes are fully searchable. For example, if you enter "Oolong" into the search box, Tea will return only the search results for your oolongs. If you type in "Bitter," you'll get all of your notes that mention the word "bitter."

In addition to organizing your tasting notes, Tea keeps track of your tea inventory. Here's the idea: most of our teas live in containers in a cabinet somewhere around our kitchen. Wouldn't it be wonderful to know, in a glance, how many brews we can make with each of our teas? Next to each tea in your list, there's a little number that Tea calculates showing you approximately how many brews you have left of that tea. So for example, if you start out with 200 grams of Earl Grey and you tell Tea that you used 10 grams in the first brew, Tea will calculate that you have 19 brews (190 grams) remaining. There are some other fun features, but you get the idea. We had lots of fun making this.

Tea was launched three weeks ago. How has it done? To date, Tea has sold several thousand copies worldwide. Federico Viticci, writing for Mac Stories, calls tea "one of the most beautiful pieces of software...that have landed on the iPhone recently," adding that "with an impeccable attention to detail and a great feature set, Tea for iPhone is the best app to prepare your teas, collect notes, share your results and manage your inventory." One of our users, Jonathan H., wrote on our Facebook wall, "Absolutely brilliant... I've been waiting for a long time to see exactly this hit the app store, so many people do it well for wine tasting apps... you've even out done those apps too! Thank you so much :)"

** In many ways, that first foray into Gyokuro was something of a lucky disaster; it was the reason this whole Tea app project was started in the first place. As the saying in technology goes: "Build something that you would want to use yourself." After the great response that Tea has gotten in its first few weeks out there, it's most relieving to know that I'm not the only one who could use a helping hand (or app) to brew a better cup.