It is not relevant how expensive the tea you buy, if you brew it wrong, it can be dreadful.
This is a lesson many beginners learn the hard way. Most people who claim that they “don’t like the taste” were repelled by an incorrectly brewed tea. This can create a terrible misconception that can last a lifetime. This can be easily avoided with better brewing techniques.
Most restaurants, cafés and households that serve tea try to cut corners by simply throwing all teas into the same temperature water and serving visitors without any direction. This makes about as much sense as opening a premium wine bar and serving white wines at room temperature, or opening a prime steakhouse and serving all steaks well done.
Steeping good tea does not take a PhD, but it is also not as simple as throwing it into boiling water and letting it stew. There are easy ways, however, to steep the perfect cup. In fact, there are nearly as many brewing methods as there are teas. We’ve evaluated the many steeping methods and will provide the most effective and functional ways to infuse the ideal tea in this article.
The trick to steeping tea correctly comes in five parts: water, weight, temperature, time and equipment.
Perfect water isn’t necessary, but if your water “tastes funny”, so will your tea. ‘Ideal’ water will have between 40 and 50 parts per million of mineral content. In a conscientious tea shop this will usually mean a rather expensive reverse osmosis filtration system and a calcium carbonate cartridge to introduce the proper amount of mineral content to the water.
Water that is too hard (too many minerals) will extract extra astringency from your tea and give you a harsh brew. Water that is too soft will not extract enough of the polyphenols that deliver astringency, health benefits and taste and you’ll have a weak, muddy cup. Fresh water is also best. When water boils, oxygen is released. The Chinese call water that has been boiled “dead water”. You can’t get the best cup of tea from water that has been repeatedly re-boiled.
Using too much tea will make your tea bitter and your wallet empty. Too little tea will bring a weak cup and a sense of longing. The volume that is considered the “golden ratio” of leaves to water is one teaspoon of most tea leaves (approx. 2 grams) per 6 ounce cup of water. Please note this is for a traditional 6 ounce cup.
Most mugs are nearly twice that at 10 to 12 ounces. Here’s where it gets a little complicated. A large, open leaf tea like a White tea or some Oolongs may require two or more teaspoons to equal 2 grams. Broken or tightly rolled teas like gunpowder may pack as many as 3 grams of tea into a single teaspoon. At the end of the day perfection is less important than keeping an eye on the leaf size and adjusting based on your taste preferences.
Some like it hot but, the ideal temperature depends on the tea. Use boiling water (100C) when preparing Black, dark Oolong and Herbal teas. These teas are tough, they can take the burn, and even require it in order to break down the leaf and release the flavor and antioxidants. However, it’s important to use cooler water when steeping more delicate teas, such as Green, green Oolong and White teas. Water that is too hot will cause a delicate tea to taste overly bitter or astringent. Water that is too cool will cause a tea to taste flavorless and weak. If you don’t have a thermometer or a kettle that lets you gauge temperature, you’ll typically find that boiling water that is allowed to sit for 5 minutes will have dropped to roughly 80C.
Allowing the tea to sit for too long makes most teas turn bitter. The rule of thumb is 3-5 minutes for most black teas (depending on your preference for strength) – any longer, and they’ll become overly astringent (a taste like bitter only located more along the sides of the back of the tongue). Dark Oolong and White teas, on the other hand, are much more forgiving. These teas will taste best when steeped for 3-5 minutes but will still be drinkable if steeped a little longer. For light Oolong and green teas, a little care must be employed, steeping for only 2 minutes, 3 minutes maximum if you’re looking for a strong cup.
The proper equipment is also very important in the steeping process. When hot water is added, tea leaves can unfurl up to 5 times their dry size. So to make a great tea you need to give your leaves some leg room. A large infuser area is essential to instill as much flavor into your cup as possible. Thus, commercial tea bags are not recommended, due to inadequate expansion room and low quality tea.