Temperature - Come on in! The water’s fine...or is it?
I used to dislike green tea. It was a real hit or miss experience for me. As I learned more and more I discovered multiple reasons for this. One was this heat thing. Green tea is generally not meant to be steeped at the same temperature as black tea. Here is why, green tea is much less processed than black tea. Like white tea, green tea is more delicate in flavor (and will also go bad/stale faster than black tea, by the way). When water that is too hot is used it scalds the tea and makes it taste like a bitter beast. I’ve also experienced and been advised that the higher the quality of the green tea generally the lower the temperature for steeping.
Conversely, if the water isn’t hot enough particularly for a black tea, the steep may not extract enough flavor to please you and you basically have muddy water (no insult to the awesome blues man Muddy Waters. Can never have enough of him).
If you look up tea steeping temperatures you’re going to see a lot of disagreement and different temps. I’ve been given suggestions varying from 160 - 185 for white and green teas and 180 - 205 for oolong and 200-212 for black teas. You will need to play within these ranges to find what suits you and the tea you are making.
Ok, so how do you know the temperature of the water? You can use a thermometer or a temperature specific kettle. Some kettles can even be programmed for the exact temperature of choice while others, like mine, have a number of temperature options.
Alternatively you can use the Chinese temperature method which looks at the size of the water bubbles as indication of temperature - bigger bubbles = higher temperature.
There is also the Korean method of boiling the water and pouring it into another vessel to cool to the desired temperature before using.
Time - Don’t forget your hourglass
Everyone has a different palate so this, as with many of these tips, is based on taste preference. The longer most tea steeps the more tannins are released causing more bitterness. You may need to experiment to find the timing sweet spot for you. Also consider cold brewing which releases very little tannin but doesn’t shortcut flavor.
If tea is not steeped long enough the leaves may not give over enough flavor. This depends again on many things:
- Tea category - black, oolong, green, white, puerh...and now purple
- How broken the leaves are - The fuller the leaf the more slowly they release flavor. A more broken leaf has more surface area for the water to work on and releases flavor more quickly.
- Brewing style - Gongfu tea style uses more leaves with less water for multiple short steeping times compared to western style brewing for example.
- Processing - Growing region and harvest time impact flavor and preferred steep length.
- Personal preference - You may like some types of tea steeped stronger than others. I tend to like a more intense black tea but a really light steep for most green teas.
- Palate - The ability to discern different subtle levels of flavor will depend on how developed your palate is too. Sometimes you may not be able to taste a difference that someone else thinks is huge and that’s ok. Like what you like and be prepared for the possibility that will change over time.
Heat - The Warm Up Act
Remember those science classes as a kid? Heat transfer and heat conduction. Metal is a great conductor. Porcelain, China, some types of glass, though they don’t conduct like metal, do experience heat transfer. When the liquid poured into a vessel made of these materials is hotter than the vessel, the heat of the liquid will transfer to the vessel until its temperature matches the water. So, if you pour hot water over tea leaves in a cold vessel some of the heat of the water is transferred to the vessel before even having a chance to extract the flavor from the tea.
Result: crappy weak tea and many tears.
This is why it is so baffling when you order tea at a restaurant and they bring you hot water in a cup, with a metal spoon in it and the teabag on the side. There is no hope in that scenario. To make it worse I’d bet they never heated the cup before putting the less-than-boiled water in it anyway. Meanwhile your friend gets a well-made latte with creative foam art on the top, and you’re like “what did I do to deserve this?” Dramatic, yes, but it sucks to pay $3-$5 for something poorly made doesn’t it?
Quantity - Too much Too little Too late
This is another personal taste thing. I love a good strong black tea that can stand up to milk and sugar. So the average amount of tea in a US teabag rarely does it for me. Kinda tastes like lightly flavored water. Blech. I also like moderate bitterness, nothing too crazy. So I up the tea quantity and lower the steep time. This way I get fuller flavor and less bitterness.
The size of your teacup comes into play here. Most teabags/servings are meant for 8 ounce cups. This is America. Who drinks 8 ounces or less of anything? (Okay, bourbon drinkers, I hear you, but alcohol is the rare exception. And if any of you wine drinkers say you drink less than 8 ounces I am disinclined to believe you:) I use 16 - 20 ounce cups, so I up the tea quantity accordingly.
Water - Take me to the River, but don’t steep my tea in it
Tap water has a large number of particulates. Distilled has none. The sweet spot is in-between. This was proven to me through a tasting at the World Tea Expo back before I had even started this blog. David Beeman of Global Customized Water steeped the same type of tea with Las Vegas tap water, distilled water and GCW’s reverse osmosis process water with a specific mineral content. Every other aspect of each pot was the same: same amount of tea, same temperature, same vessel, same steep time.
The taste difference was amazing. The tap water made the tea taste like it had been dragged through a garbage bag compared to the other two. The distilled had a fainter aroma and only a slight pop of flavor and then it was gone like mist on the wind. The filtered water with the mineral complex had the greatest aroma, and most impactful, satisfying and lasting flavor.
I asked Dave what the rest of us, people who can’t easily obtain reverse osmosis water with a specific mineral blend, can do to improve their tea experience. He mentioned filtration of course. Even a carbon filtered pitcher is better than nothing. Also, GCW sells these A&B bottles of minerals that can be added to distilled water to approximate the GCW water, if you want to go the extra mile. Then there is Spring water. When I use spring water for tea the result is a step up from a basic filter.
The point is, depending on where you live, tap water has so much going on the tea has to compete with it. This is especially noticeable with the more delicate white and green teas. If you are going to shell out for high quality tea it is worth it to use high quality water.
There it is. There are more factors and I may do another post on this topic, but these are the basics. Have you experienced any of these? Let us know about your tea ‘aha’ moments.
Feel free to share this post with your fellow tea drinkers.
Friends don’t let friends drink crappy tea.
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