Drinking tea is embedded in the fabric of many cultures, ceremonies and rituals across different lands around the world. Most of us make tea in a bit of a hurry, yet the ritual of tea making is important and worth perfecting. Whether you’re a casual tea drinker or an expert tea fanatic, there’s a steeping method attached to all types of tea that’s worth getting to know.
There’s nuanced flavours of delicate white teas, aromatic properties of herbal tisanes or strong and heady notes of black and fermented teas. Each variety deserves the time, technique and ritual to bring out the wonderful flavours that have been loved by people for generations. For the perfect cup of tea every time, you need to learn some brewing basics. Depending on how committed you are to your teas, you can bring out some big gun traditional brewing methods or stick to the quick and easy Western styles.
Important things to have set and ready are tools, temperature and time. Plus, it helps knowing your teas!
Here’s the ultimate guide for steeping tea, from elegant to robust teas and everything in between.
Use High Quality Tea
This part should hopefully go without saying. If your goal is to make the most incredible, fresh and healthful cup of tea, it starts with using high quality tea leaves. Whenever you’re buying tea, check for damaged leaves, find out where it’s made and ideally you’ll want to use loose leaf tea leaves. A tea producer worth any attention will always be transparent about where the tea is sourced and harvested. Some teas will also come with a tea grade on their label. Fresh leaves, whole flowers, herbs and spices that you can see in the packet also help assure that you’ve got a top quality tea which will produce wonderful flavours every time.
Know Your Tea Tools
For the daily tea drinker, a cup of tea brewed for one doesn’t need to be more complicated than dunking a tea bag in boiled water for a couple of minutes. Most of us can make a simple cup of tea with a few tools and no need for fancy equipment. A teacup or mug, kettle, your favourite tea and teaspoon are all you need to achieve a wonderful warming cup of tea. After you’ve achieved this level of tea proficiency, you’re likely to dabble in loose leaf tea making. This means you’re eligible for the next level of tea making, using a few extra tools.
Welcome to loose leaf teas. You’ve now embarked upon a whole new world of teas and can begin to learn how to brew them in their originally intended way. In the view of most tea connoisseurs, this is the real tea you should be drinking. This means it’s time to invest in a tea strainer or mesh cloth to make your tea.
Loose leaf teas are typically more fragrant and fresh with higher levels of antioxidants and health benefits to boot. They have discernable tea leaves, flowers, buds and herbs that react when in contact with water to infuse and make a wonderful tea. Using a tea strainer means you can allow the tea to expand, unfurl and bloom, which ultimately gives a more delicious tea. A tea strainer does what it says, and they’re incredibly easy to use. Often it’s just a matter of perching your strainer over your tea cup and pouring your pot with tea leaves over. The strainer catches the tea and you’re left with a perfectly steeped hot tea in your cup, ready to enjoy.
Tea Balls & Infusers
These contraptions are more of a contemporary tool used for making tea. A tea ball is a hollow ball where you can drop a spoon of your favourite tea leaves into and enclose the sides. The tea ball often has a tail so you can remove it from your cup after you’ve steeped the tea in water. Usually, they’re made of stainless steel, but more modern tea balls and infusers are made of silicone. Infusers sit at the top of your mug or cup and can be removed when your desired steep time is reached.
Newer tea drinking products have gone one step further to make life even easier for tea lovers. A tea bottle or tea mug has everything built in, including an infuser piece, lid and mug. These are usually tall and solid mugs that have a uniquely designed infuser that sits on the mug’s rim. Whatever tool you choose to brew your tea, have fun with finding one that suits your personality and tea needs.
Top Tip: It’s important not to overfill your tea ball or infuser. The loose leaves need room to move, similarly to a tea bag. About ½ to ¾ full is fine, but always be guided by the steeping instructions according to your individual tea.
Tea Cups, Mugs & Bowls
Just as important as choosing the right tea, is the receptacle from which you drink it. There’s countless different types of tea vessels available these days. Elegant and dainty tea cups that suit an occasion such as High Tea are wonderfully traditional. Many Chinese and Japanese teas benefit from using a porcelain gaiwan or yixing cup. Yerba mate tea, for example, is a South American tea that uses a clay gourd and bamboo or metal straw, known as a bombilla if you were to brew it the traditional way.
Different teas can be brewed and enjoyed from the same vessel, whereas other teas are usually steeped in a larger pot and then poured into individual cups for drinking. Using a designated tea vessel for each individual tea is ideal, particularly if it’s made of porous materials such as clay. Clay naturally absorbs the flavours and aromas of the tea, which accumulate over its lifetime. This intensifies the overall flavour of the tea, which is noticeable particularly in many varieties of green tea. Changing teas in this situation would alter the final taste of the tea being brewed.
The overwhelming majority of tea drinkers simply use an everyday kitchen cup or coffee mug. This suits a large range of teas, including green, oolong and black, as well as fragrant herbal teas and white teas alike. If you’re a traditionalist, you may enjoy broadening your repertoire of tea steeping, especially for friends and family. Using ancient tea making methods, including the tools and vessels used, makes the tea drinking experience all that much richer.
Get The Right Temperature (And Use Top Quality Water)
The temperature with which you make your tea can make or break your overall tea experience. Consistently overboiling water for a tea that calls for a lower temperature can destroy its flavour and eventually affect your enthusiasm for some teas!
Of course using fresh, spring or filtered water is the only way to make the best cup of tea. With so few elements required to make tea, it's important that the conduit of the tea is pure. The flavours develop and strengthen in filtered water much more effectively compared to tap or distilled water. This is one of the key ways to avoid a boring or bitter final brew.
Tea Temperature Quick Guide
- Black Tea: 90-100°C
- Oolong Tea: 85°C
- Green Tea: 65-85°C
- White Tea: 70°C
- Pu-erh Tea: 95°C
- Herbal Tea: 90-100°C
Black tea is probably the easiest tea to make. A lot of us are used to a flick of the kettle and pouring water into a cup once it’s boiled. Simple. Generally speaking, most black teas should be brewed with boiling water around 90-100 degrees celsius. Some more delicate black teas, such as Keemum and Darjeeling teas benefit from a slightly lower temperature at around 80 degrees.
If you’re already a fan of oolong tea, you may already have the required tools to make this lovely semi-oxidised tea. Using a gaiwan will produce a lively and traditional oolong tea. However, a cup will do just as nicely. Either way, the temperature to steep your oolong tea remains the same. Water should be boiled to around 85 degrees celsius to ensure a perfect oolong tea every time. The only way to be absolutely sure of the correct brewing temperature is to use a thermometer or a temperature-controlled kettle. However, allowing a full boil of the kettle and then letting the water stand for a minute should be fine as well to make your oolong tea.
Green tea is notoriously delicate and prone to being over brewed. If you steep your green tea in water that’s too hot, or indeed for too long, the tea will become bitter and not very enjoyable. Aim for between 65-85 degrees celsius for a perfect cup of green tea every time. This range takes into account the different types of green tea available on the market. Green jasmine tea will be slightly different from matcha or sencha tea. Always follow the given instructions to nail a lovely and piquant green tea.
White tea is also very delicate and should be steeped at no more than 70 degrees celsius. This ensures the preservation of the gentle pale ivory leaves and soft flavour of white tea. White tea is highly cherished with a light to medium bodied flavour profile. If you’re going to splash out on a decadent white tea such as Baihao Yinzhen (silver needle tea), it makes sense to go to the extra effort to brew it correctly. Once you’ve perfected the temperature, white tea is a lovely and gentle tea that’s very special indeed.
This fermented Chinese tea calls for an extra prep step before steeping. This unique tea is fermented, and requires rinsing once or twice before you begin your brewing process. Submerging the tea leaves in a pot of water for 20 seconds should do it. Discard the water and you’ll notice the pu-erh tea leaves have opened up slightly and are ready for steeping. Freshly boiled water, or just under, produces a strong and deep flavour in pu-erh tea. 95 degrees celsius is the ideal temperature for steeping pu-erh tea. Whatsmore, pu-erh tea leaves can yield two or three cups of tea per serve. So you can brew and enjoy more than one cup from the same leaves.
Herbal Teas & Tisanes
Herbal teas compass a large variety of teas that use flowers, tea leaves, herbs and buds from all kinds of plants. Familiar herbal teas are hibiscus, rosehip and chamomile. Peppermint tea, raspberry leaf tea and rooibos tea are also very popular herbal teas. Because there’s such a range of ingredients that go into different herbal teas, each will have a unique steeping temperature. Most herbal teas can handle freshly boiled water, but it always pays to read the instructions to be sure.
Most iced teas are in fact made using freshly boiled water, not cold water. The correct way in many cases is to steep the tea as you’d normally make a hot tea. Then, allow the tea to cool completely to room temperature. This allows 10 or 20 mins for the temperature to drop and for the tea to continue to infuse and develop. After this point, tea can be stored in a jug in the fridge or served over ice in tall glasses.
Perfect Your Steeping Time
Now that you’ve got your temperature down pat, it’s time to look at steeping times. And of course, each tea will demand a different time to brew to maximise both the flavour and health benefits. In general, the true teas, including white, green, oolong, black and pu-erh tea require a steeping time between 2 and 5 minutes. This is because the longer these teas steep, the higher the risk they’ll go bitter and astringent, and lose their fresh qualities.
In contrast, herbal teas and tisanes usually benefit from a much longer steep time to release more flavour, aroma and therapeutic effects. Many herbal teas get better with time, such as peppermint or chamomile tea. The concentrations of different plant polyphenols increase with every minute of extra steeping time. 10 or sometimes 20 minutes is often appropriate for many herbal teas. Of course, just like temperature, check the brewing instructions on each tea to get it right.
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