All About Preparing Tea
Learn the many ways to prepare tea.
Whether you are drinking a delicious, high quality yellow tea or a medicinal herbal tea, preparation makes a huge difference in the flavor, aroma, and quality of your final cup of tea.
There are recommend methods of tea preparation for each tea and understanding the subtle differences can go a long way in improving the quality of your tea experience.
Traditional Brewing Methods and Variations
The most basic method of making tea is steeping hot water and tea leaves in a pot or bowl.
After pouring a certain amount of hot water over a certain amount of leaves, you let the watery mix steep for a certain amount of time before straining the liquid into drinking vessels.
Making good tea is an entirely other subject, and the one we are concerned with in this guide.
After all, the amount of time, manpower, nature, sunlight and transportation that those humble little leaves require is a profound miracle that should be appreciated by making the best cup of frickin' tea possible!
To start on the quest for the perfect cup of tea, we have to find the perfect cup of water.
Ok, maybe there's no such thing as the "perfect" water, but you can at least get really really good water.
In fact, finding quality water is the most commonly overlooked aspect of making tea. And considering water makes up 99% of the final cup of tea, it makes sense to find a water that is free from unpleasant metallic, chlorinated, or earthy flavors that might interfere with the final flavor of the tea you brew.
Filtered or high-quality bottled water is best for preparing tea.
Although it may seem superfluous to the process, materials like iron are useful for black or pu-erh tea because they require higher heat for longer periods of time and the iron maintains these temperatures longer and more consistently. The same reason that so many chefs swear by cast-iron pans is equally as important when it comes to brewing certain teas.
A material like glass or porcelain is beneficial for green and white teas because these materials release heat more quickly, helping avoid over-extraction of the delicate leaves.
Once you have the right water and the right brewing vessel, you are almost ready to make tea. I say "almost" because you still have to get a few things just right.
These are: the ratio of tea to water, the temperature of the water, and the steeping time.
There is much variation of recommended water temperature and steeping times depending on who you talk to, so be sure to take them all as a guidelines and adjust them to suit your tastes and preferences.
The longer, and hotter, you steep your tea, the more concentrated the flavor due to the more extracted compounds that end up in your cup.
Some people enjoy a strong, slightly bitter cup of tea, while others will be turned off by the slightest hint of tannic bitterness. Again, find what you like and stick with that.
Infusions and Quantity
The final consideration to make before brewing your tea is the final number of infusions you will perform with your leaves.
An infusion is another word for a single steeping or brewing of your leaves.
Most teas should be infused more than once. In fact, some teas taste better the second or third infusion!
Here is a rough guideline for brewing green tea using multiple infusions. (If you want a strong cup and/or plan to infuse only once, double the time.)
- White tea - 150° - 155° degrees F (1 - 2 minutes)
- Yellow tea - 160° - 165° degrees F (1 - 2 minutes)
- Green tea - 165° - 175° degrees F (1 - 2 minutes)
- Oolong tea - 175° - 185° (2 - 3 minutes)
- Black tea - 205°-212° (2 - 3 minutes)
- Flowering tea - 212° (2 - 3 minutes)
- Pu-erh tea - 205° - 212° (5-10 minutes)
Certain teas are more delicate than others and require less temperature and a shorter brewing time as a result.
Think of black and pu-erh teas as the "hot" end of the spectrum, needing higher temperatures and longer steeping times, while the white, yellow and green teas as the "cooler" and more delicate side of the spectrum.
As you can see above, each type of tea calls for a different variation of temperature, time and amount of leaves.
The younger and more frail the tea leaves, the lower temperature needed. White and yellow teas are delicate, young leaves from the tea plant plucked early in the harvest season. Water that is too hot will erode the quality of the these teas both in flavor and in health.
How Much Tea To Use
It's best to measure your tea with a scale. Because tea comes in many shapes and sizes, a measuring spoon is generally not an accurate way of measuring tea leaves.
Like coffee, tea is a game of ratios. In the case of tea, it's the ratio of water to leaves coupled with the right temperature and brewing time that determines the final cup.
If you prefer a stronger cup, it's advisable to add more tea instead of more time as a longer steeping will extract more of the tannins in the tea, resulting in a bitter cup.
(The same is said for temperature; avoid hotter temperatures for the same reason.)
The general starting point ratio of tea to water is 2 grams for every 6-8 ounces of water. For most teas, this is usually a teaspoon. For larger teas, you should consider measuring with a tablespoon—1-2 being a good starting point.
When it comes to most things, personal preference dictates the final ratios you use, and tea is no exception.
However, that being said, there is one thing you shouldn't veer too far from and that is the temperature. The temperatures recommended have been tested over thousands of years and are going to best produce a cup of tea that brings out the flavorful compounds over the bitter ones.
That's why it's best to experiment with everything but the temperature. Add more of less tea, water, infusions and steeping time to produce different cups of tea.
The Chinese Tea Method
In China, tea is usually brewed multiple times (infusions) using the same leaves.
The first infusion is typically known as the "wash" and is discarded, while the second and subsequent infusions are the ones you drink.
Using this technique, 3 - 5 infusions are recommended as the best tasting infusions to drink.
Forms of tea
The three most common forms of tea are:
Tea bags - Low quality mass-produced teas always come in teabags. These usually contain "dust and fanning," which is the tea industry's term for the leftover dust particles that are a byproduct of tea production process. We recommend buying loose leaf tea and filling your own tea bags if deciding to go this route.
- Loose leaf Tea (recommended) - Loose leaf tea is almost always the highest quality tea. Loose leaf tea allows the tea to more freely move around in the water, resulting in a better brew compared to teabags. Bigger pieces also equate to more nutrition in the final cup compared to tea bags that comprise super small cut/sifted ingredients that have dried out of their delicious—and nutritious—essential oils.
- Compressed tea - Less common. Usually black tea. More enhanced tea flavors. Often a favorite of tea connoisseurs.
Cold Brew Tea
Cold brewing tea is a method of tea extraction using cold water instead of hot. (Just like cold brew coffee.)
A benefit of cold brew tea is you don't get the same harsh, tannic compounds in your final cup the way you do with the hot method due to the gentle, and slow, form of extraction from using cold water.
It's also really easy... just add the right amount of tea and water to a vessel and place in the fridge for 8-24 hours.
To get the best result from cold brewed tea, use 1.5 times the amount of tea leaves you would use for a typical hot brew method. Then refrigerate for 8-24 hours.
Tea Ceremonies and Preparation
In many parts of the world, but primarily in Asia, tea is a ceremonial part of the culture.
The rise of tea is tied to many of the ideological and religious beliefs of those geographical areas of the world—e.g. Buddhism, Daoism, and so on.
In China and Japan, tea gardens and ceremonies are a cultural experience with rote traditional protocols. For example, one form of ceremony is called “Gongfu tea ceremony”, which uses only small Yixing clay teapots and oolong tea.
Another form of tea ceremony is the Japanese tea ceremony which uses matcha green tea for preparation.
While the cultural use of tea in social settings originated in China, and then Japan, it eventually spread throughout Europe, especially in places with British influence.
While varied in style and tradition, Indian, Irish, and English cultures still have ceremonial-like methods of preparing that have lasted for generations.
Enhancing Tea Quality
Ultimately, no matter how you prepare tea, the main factor for determining flavor is first based on the quality of the tea.
How it's grown, processed, transported, stored, and so on, all play a vital role in how "good" your tea leaves are.
As technology has developed, allowing the tea industry to produce tea faster and cheaper, the quality of tea has suffered in most cases. And this is nearly always the case with mass-produced teas you find in tea bags.
Of course, there are still craft tea farmers and artisan tea manufactures that create amazing quality tea using traditional methods passed down through the generations.
All that said, you can still ruin a quality tea by not respecting the nuances of tea brewing.
To get the best flavor and nutrition out of each cup of tea, first choose the best loose leaf tea leaves and then prepare them using the right temperature, water, infusions and time.