Brewing tea, a guide for beginners and experienced tea brewers alike. You can learn at every level of the tea brewing experience by approaching each session with a beginners mind.
And that’s hard to do. It’s easier to fall back on what you’ve already learned. But to continuously learn requires maintaining a beginner’s mind.
I’m still learning and I’ve been brewing tea my entire life. I’m not saying exactly how many years that is, but it’s safe to say it’s many!
It may be heartening for you to know that tea masters in some Asian cultures study for years to perfect the art of brewing tea. And there’s a reason they study brewing tea for a lifetime.
The Benefits of a Beginner’s Mind
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, expressed this philosophy in a Forbes interview when asked about his unusual leadership skills.
“We’re willing to learn new skills… There’s a lot of tuition to become an expert in something new but then while doing that, maintain a beginner’s mind so that we actually end up with a differentiated offering instead of a me-too offering.”
This sounds a lot like the ancient Chinese Zen saying that asserts in order to learn you must “first empty your cup.” The story is attributed to a conversation between a student and Zen master.
The lesson begins with the master pouring tea into the student’s cup. But instead of stopping when the cup was full, he continued to pour as the tea spilled over the top of the teacup and all over the table.
The student shouted “Stop! The cup is full!”
“Exactly,” said the Zen master. “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions. You ask for teaching, but your cup is full. Before I can teach you, first you must empty your cup.”
If you truly seek understanding, then first, empty your cup.“
Poor preparation techniques and preconceived notions are the most common causes of tea brewing disappointments.
Tips for Brewing Tea:
- The amount of tea used is dependent on the style of brewing you select.
- Warm the teapot and cups first. Pour hot water in, swirl around and pour it off. This aids in keeping the finished brew hot.
- Use freshly drawn filtered water.
- Do not use re-heated water.
- Pour hot water over the tea leaves to stir them up.
Water temperature, the volume of tea leaves and steeping time are all part of the art of brewing tea. This is because different compounds are extracted at different rates depending on water temperature and steeping time.
Gongfu (Eastern) Brewing vs English (Western) Brewing
Basically, gongfu style brewing uses a high tea leaf to water ratio with very short infusion times. Green and scented teas are not usually used in gongfu style brewing. This method is typically used for brewing black and oolong teas.
The teaware used for the gongfu style of brewing are small vessels such as this beautiful Gaiwan or this small teapot. The idea is to produce very short multiple infusions extracting different flavors from the leaf with each subsequent infusion. If you prefer glass, the small teapot pictured above is from Palais des Thes.
Western style brewing, or English style as some call it, uses much less leaf and more water with longer brewing times. This extracts as much flavor as possible all at once. The brewing guide below is for the Western style of brewing tea. All teas lend themselves well to this style of brewing.
In it’s simplest form, brewing tea can be broken down into five main components: method, water, temperature, time and type of tea.
Method for brewing tea
Brewing tea is simply the extraction of the natural flavors and nutrients inherent in the tea leaves through various steeping methods. This creates an infusion.
The words “various steeping methods” are where everyone gets tripped up. The truth is, even standard brewing methods can vary with each specific tea and with each person.
Part of the joy of tea is learning about different cultures and ways of brewing tea. Should I brew English style in a teapot or mug? Perhaps I want to make a concentrate and brew with a samovar, or brew a powdered tea with a Japanese bamboo whisk or maybe brew Chinese gongfu style?
The choice is yours. There’s no right or wrong. But there are some general guidelines you can follow to help you brew a better cup of tea.
Water for Brewing Tea
Good water is as important for brewing tea as the tea itself. The ideal water for brewing tea is spring water. Tea is delicate and can be affected by water with too high a mineral count or too high a chlorine content.
Most municipal waters fall into this category. The best way around this is to use a good water filter. I used this simple Brita filter for years. A Pur filter also works well to eliminate chlorine and reduce the mineral content just fine.
On the other hand, soft or distilled water has little to no mineral content, which can leave the brewed tea tasting flat. Some minerals are good.
If you use well water, be aware of the pH level. Some well waters have a very high pH count and ideally, you want a neutral pH as close to 7.0 as possible.
I learned this one the hard way. My first co-packer for brewing MaryAnna’s Tea was in upstate New York. They only had well water and we couldn’t adjust the pH for proper bottling and had to buy hundreds of gallons of spring water to complete the production run!
Minerals are measured as Total Dissolved Solids or TDS. The ideal TDS is 100 – 300 parts per million or PPM. When purchasing spring water look for a pH of 7.0 and TDS of 300 PPM. TDS is sometimes measured in milligrams per litre. If that’s the measurement used, below 300 mg/l is excellent.
Temperature and Brewing Times
Green teas do better with shorter brewing times and lower water temperatures. Most green teas and greener oolong teas taste best when brewed at temperatures 30° – 40° F below boiling point.
Water temperature that is just below boiling is ideal for black tea and oolong tea. Because green tea is more delicate, it requires a more delicate temperature.
Selecting the right water temperature for the specific tea type will bring out the desired characteristic flavors.
If you want to be very precise, there are some excellent kettles with built-in thermometers for brewing tea. I like the Bonavita or the Cuisinart model because they both have a variable temperature and elegant design.
A simple trick is to boil the water and let it sit for five minutes. In that amount of time, the approximate temperature will drop to the desired 180° F.
Type of tea determines the volume
The size of the leaf helps to determine the brewing time and the amount of tea used.
- Smaller cut leaves have more surface area and will infuse faster, requiring a shorter steeping time and smaller amounts of tea per cup.
- A larger leaf size requires a larger volume of leaf and longer steeping times.
- Measure volume in weight instead of teaspoons for best results: 2 – 2.5 grams for a 6-ounce cup is ideal. Because a very large full leaf tea at 2 grams of weight may be much larger than 1 teaspoon in volume.
The art of brewing tea takes all of this into account and helps you determine the precise time, volume and temperature at which your tea provides your favorite aromas and flavors.
Don’t stress about this! Experiment and have fun with it. Start with this guide but in the end brewing tea is all about the way you like it.
For example, my daily morning tea is Black Dragon Pearl. I usually buy this tea from one of my favorite tea shops listed here. The instructions say to use 2-3 pearls per 8-ounce cup and steep for 3 – 5 minutes. I use twice that and steep for 5 minutes.
How to Drink Green Tea Every Day provides you with more information about brewing green tea.
BREWING TIME AND TEMPERATURE – 6-oz.
TYPE OF TEA AMOUNT OF TEA TEMPERATURE INFUSION TIME
White tea 2 – 3 tsp 176° – 185° F 3 minutes
Green tea 1 – 2 tsp 158° – 176° F 1- 3 minutes
Oolong tea 2 – 3 tsp 185° – 203° F 2 – 3 minutes
Black tea 1 – 2 tsp 203° F 2 – 5 minutes
Pu-erh 1 – 2 tsp 212° F 3 minutes
Herbal 1 – 2 tsp 212° F 3 – 5 minutes
Note: Water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes, so adjust your temperatures accordingly.
When to Add Flavorings to Tea
Adding any flavorings or enhancements to brewed tea is optional. Just be mindful of the taste profile of the tea.
Honey, sugar or mint can be added to black or some green teas. Lemon, lime or other fruit flavors can be added to black teas and some green teas. Milk should only be added to strong brewed black tea.
Other teas, such as oolongs, smoked teas or floral scented teas don’t need any enhancements after brewing.
When to Break the Rules
I use a strong brew when mixing tea-inspired drinks or when cooking with tea. I will also tell you another secret. When you make iced tea, you need a strong brew.
When the tea is cold as in iced tea or a tea cocktail, the flavor does not come through as much. So you must have a stronger than usual brew. The same goes for cooking with tea.
You want to taste the tea and it must be evident in the food or drink. Each tea has its own flavor and fragrance. Let it come through.
The tea you select should be harmonious with the ingredients used in cooking or mixing cocktails and iced teas. The tea should maintain its identity while enhancing the recipe.
The trick to making a strong brew is not by brewing longer unless you have a tea type that can handle that. The secret is to use more tea leaves.
Thanks for Reading
What is your favorite way to brew tea? Can you share your tips?
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