I realize that to many tea brewing begins and ends with dunking a teabag into a mug of variably tepid/boiling water for an indeterminate amount of time and then adding in sugar and/or milk to mask the acrid brew that was just unleashed. I cringe when I see folks at cafes get handed a cup full of improperly heated water with a single-use tea strainer/bag in it and that is where it remains for the duration of the drink. No wonder people don’t get tea or think it needs to be doctored up in myriad ways to become palatable. There are other extremes of thermometers and timers and digital scales too, but as with anything, there is a balance. This post is meant to be a primer, not the final master class, and I plan to continue to cover this in increasing depth to help everyone realize that there is so much more to the world of tea and that it isn’t hard.
Water, Temperature, and Time
Water is one of the most important parts of the whole equation. You want to make sure the water is absent of any flavors or chemicals. Water that is poured from the little orange/red spout from coffee machines might be filtered but it also may have some hints of the coffee present. Water straight from a tap might have chlorine or sulphur. There are many options but two inexpensive options are to buy a simple faucet-mounted filter (Pur, Dupont, Brita, etc.) or buy the 1, 3, or 5-gallon jugs or containers of spring water. Starting with a solid foundation is the only way to get a great final result.
Temperature can make the same tea brewed the same way taste completely different. Sometimes this range is a good thing and can allow for a range of flavors from the same leaf, sometimes too much heat can destroy a delicate tea. This is a topic that entire books could be written about, so what we are aiming for here is just a good reference point and we will dig into it in more detail in the future. There are also debates on how the water is heated: microwave, gas stove, electric kettle, etc. And while there is some merit to some of these arguments, for right now the method will be ignored and we will just focus on the final water temperature no matter how it got that way.
The basic rule goes like this:
Black tea – full boiling water or just off boil at the least
Oolong tea – small bubbles/almost boiling or boiling water that has been allowed to cool for a minute or so
Green tea – hot but not boiling, allow boiled water to cool for a few minutes before using. You should be able to touch the water without suffering a burn, not literally but as an illustration of the temp we are going for here.
Tisanes/Herbal tea – full boiling water, the hotter the better. This is not tea and as such you are trying to extract everything you can from the herb/flower.
As you can see, the one-size-fits-all orange/red coffee machine lever is not useful for almost anything but green tea and some oolongs. So if you are at a cafe or situation (like an office) where this is the only option, your best bet is to select a green tea or oolong and just make do.
Time is the other important piece in this equation. Again some teas allow for some variation here and will offer up different flavors and complexities depending on how short or long it is steeped, some will become undrinkable (bitter or astringent) if left for too long. Each particular tea within a larger category (green, black, etc.) will have an optimal time and temperature but again we are setting up the basics here.
I start from 30-45 seconds to about 1-2 minutes and an occasional tea will work well with 3-5 minutes, herbal/tisanes always go 3-5 minutes. Start shorter and then try longer brews and find your particular sweet spot for the specific tea. Some do well with even longer 3-5 minute brewings, some become bitter and too strong. It is all about what tastes good to YOU, not what a package or “expert” states is correct. With the right water and temperature, you can experiment on time to find what works for you… but leaving the tea in the cup for 5+ minutes until you finish it is not really the proper solution for ANY tea.
Quality tea makes a huge difference as well as does the amount used. Start with a solid teaspoon’s worth of leaf if in doubt and adjust from there to your taste.