Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The "Perfect Tea Timer": An Hourglass Tea Timer

A while back, in my review of the Random Tea Room in Philadelphia, I shared a picture of this tea timer:

Several people pointed out to me that they have seen this tea timer elsewhere, and searching on the web, I found that it is actually fairly widely available, so I decided to write my own post just about this timer, and the thoughts that it brings up.

My Impression of the "Perfect Tea Timer":

I originally remarked that the timer was very cute, but not the most practical timer. Why? I think its cuteness is self-evident, much like this bunny:

Why, however, did I say it not practical? I found several possible reasons for this.

A Noiseless Timer: Liability or Asset?

For one, the timer makes no noise and indeed, does not do anything particularly visible when time runs out. This, however, on its own, is not necessarily a bad thing. One thing I like about the culture and ritual of tea making and tea drinking is mindfulness. I find that taking a break from tea can help us get out of the fast pace of our modern life, and slow down by focusing our attention on the tea. This timer requires us to focus a bit of attention on it, periodically, to enable us to see the passage of time. There is something a bit more natural about this process to me, than the chiming or blinking lights of most modern alarms or timers.

Lengths of Time to Steep Tea:

The other reason that I find this timer impractical is that I regularly want to steep tea for a briefer period of time. 3 minutes, to me, is my "middle" time. If I am brewing a new tea that I have never sampled before, and I am brewing "Western style" (i.e. about a teaspoon of leaf to make a single cup with one infusion), then 3 minutes is the default of what I shoot for. But by default, this means that some teas, even brewing Western style, I will prefer briefer times for. An example would be most broken-leaf black teas, which I tend to brew for only 1-2 minutes.

If I'm practicing something closer to gong fu cha (I say closer to because I rarely actually properly practice gong fu cha, with the proper teaware and all) I will use much briefer infusions...1 minute would be on the longer side for a first infusion. When you get really good at brewing tea, you don't need the timer as much, but I find the timer is helpful both for learning, and for recording times so that you can share your brewing experience with others.

If I were to make a timer like this "Perfect Tea Timer", I'd pick times of 1 minute, 3 minutes, and 5 minutes. The times don't need to be exact; you can see that the sand is half out at half a minute, and so on. But it's tricky to see 30 seconds on a 3 minute hourglass. That's why I said that, for me at least, this is not the most practical tea timer.

My Closing Question:

If you made a timer like this to suit your own particular tastes and habits for preparing tea, what times would you choose?


  1. Funny thing that this cute timer can be subject of a tricky question, "can you use this timer to time any given integral number of minutes?" And indeed this magic timer can :-D

  2. I'm not sure I follow...what exactly do you mean?

  3. Hi Alex,
    I think what Gingko meant was: If you start the cute timer and three minutes are over, then there is one minute left in the "white glass" and two minutes left in the "red/brown glass". So if you wait this three minutes (green glass is done) and at this moment turn over the timer again, you would be able to take the time for a one minute steep or a two minute steep with the white and the red/brown part of the timer. Great, isn't it? But that's more like a mathematical meditation and nothing I would like to do in general. :)
    Teafriendly regards,

  4. Ahh yes, that would work! Maybe this is even more of an exercise in patience and mindfulness...now you need to watch not just for the final hourglass to be done, but for the proper time to flip it over.

  5. I like the careful consideration of all of this, but I'd enjoy this tea timer at first just because for aesthetic reasons.

    Brewing 'Western style' for me would be a nightmare if I didn't use some sort of timer. My mind would wander and I'd definitely not let it steep long enough or, more likely, for way too long.

    But the thing I liked most here is not only not using a timer when brewing 'Gong fu-ish'. I do the same thing and try to feel what a good steeping length is. It definitely helps me develop my mindfulness.

  6. Yeah exactly what Stephan said. I got a lot of quiz questions like this (or about buckets of different amount of water...) in my childhood. So that's what I thought of first when seeing the timer set :D

  7. I think I either brew a tea for 2 minutes or 8 minutes, depending on whether or not it tastes too bitter after 2 minutes, and if it doesn't, I usually think it's not strong enough.