For those new to tea, the brewing process can be intimidating, especially if your first exposure to loose leaf brewing involved a showy sampling in traditional gong fu cha style. The specialized teaware, high tech gadgets, and precise methods of tea connoisseurs can all serve a purpose in the enjoyment and appreciation of tea, but brewing the perfect cup doesn’t have to be complicated. With the three adaptable steps in this article, you will be able to brew great tea in any context, with whatever equipment you have on hand.
Step 1: Pick a good tea.
The quality of your tea leaves is the most fundamental factor in a good cup of tea, but this step can also be the most difficult part of the process. Most tea that is readily available in grocery stores or elsewhere on the mass market is of a low grade, with leaves that are grown quickly, chopped or crushed to a fine powder, and often flavored with artificial additives. Speedy growth prevents the tea plant from developing complex flavor compounds, small leaf pieces allow for fast extraction of bitter tannins, and additives or flavorings do little to mask the inherent flaws of these low quality teas.
In addition, even whole leaf options can be highly variable in quality based on terroir, harvest season, and crafting methods. When buying in person, reputable vendors typically offer tastings to demonstrate quality, but unfortunately, online shopping reduces the opportunity for sampling. The best strategy is to select teas from a trustworthy merchant who carries a curated selection and maintains high standards. Vendors of high quality teas should be willing and able to share details about the variety, provenance, harvest date, and crafting methods of all their teas. With that in mind, flavor quality can be subjective; the rarest or most expensive tea is not always the one you’ll like the most, so make sure to pick a tea that suits your palate.
Step 2: Add hot water.
Place the leaves in a vessel that will hold hot water. This could be a teapot or a gaiwan, but it could also be as simple as a mug, a bowl, or a paper to-go cup. Heat the water in a separate vessel. Whether that is an electric kettle or another mug in the microwave, keep the water separate from the leaves until it is heated to the desired temperature.
Very few teas taste best when brewed with water that is fully boiling. It can be difficult to gauge the right temperature before the water reaches a boil, but it is easy to let it sit after boiling until it cools a bit. To speed up the cooling process, try pouring the boiling water into an empty mug or pitcher.
If you find that your tea is often bitter, lowering your water temperature is a good first step toward making a better cup. Conversely, if you find your tea to be weak in flavor, using hotter water will draw out flavor compounds more quickly. If you find that the brew goes from weak to bitter with little or no wiggle room in between, the quality of your tea is probably to blame.
Step 3: Separate the leaves from the brewed tea.
This step is often overlooked, but can be key to the flavor quality of your finished cup. If you’ve ever forgotten a mug of tea as it steeps, you know that an over-brewed tea is rarely tasty. Whether you’re brewing a bagged tea or loose leaves, flavor compounds are released before bitter tannins, so separating the leaves from the water will create strong flavor while avoiding bitterness. Again, this step can be adapted to whatever equipment you have handy: pour all the liquid from your teapot into a drinking cup, remove the infuser basket holding your tea leaves, or use a plate as a lid to strain loose leaves (like pasta) as you pour from one mug into another.
If this step seems difficult, it can be bypassed by paying more attention to the first two. Generally, higher quality tea leaves contain more complex flavor compounds and less bitter tannins, and a lower water temperature can slow the extraction process overall to allow you to drink the tea before it becomes bitter. Many Chinese tea drinkers simply allow their whole tea leaves to settle to the bottom of their mug before sipping off the top, adding more water to dilute the brew when it becomes too strong.
For us, one of the best features of high quality tea is its endless versatility. No matter where we are, what equipment we have on hand, or what type of tea we want to drink, we know that these we can make a satisfying cup with these simple steps.
What is your favorite method for making the perfect cup of tea? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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