Whether you're a longtime aficionado or a tea novice, sometimes your cup of tea just doesn't taste quite right. Before you give up on brewing a good cup, make sure you're not making these common mistakes.
1. You're steeping the leaves for too long.
Bitter molecules like caffeine and tannins are natural in the tea leaf. They are especially noticeable in mass produced teas, which grow quickly during the summer months. Large plantations shear the leaves from their stalks, macerating them into small pieces. In the cup, these chopped bits expose a lot of surface area to hot water, and release their flavor in mere moments.
To limit the extraction of bitterness in your brew, shorten your steep time to less than 2 minutes. If you're using whole leaves, this will also allow you to brew the same leaves several times.
2. Your water is too hot.
Water at a rolling boil will extract flavors, including bitterness, more quickly. Especially when brewing green or white teas, think of the leaves as a baby spinach or arugula. Overcooking will release hydrogen sulfides, making the tea taste grassy, vegetal, and dry.
We recommend bringing the water to a sippable temperature for any green or white tea. While darker teas can usually handle more heat without becoming vegetal, lowering the water temperature can still help reduce bitterness and astringency. It can also allow more flexibility in your steeping time, if you often forget about a brew in progress.
3. Your water tastes bad.
One of the reasons for tea's historical popularity is that the leaves can help mask the flavors of mediocre drinking water. But when drinking delicate green teas or sipping a cooled mug, unpleasant water flavors can become obvious.
Water that is 'hard' has a high concentration of minerals, which can overwhelm subtle teas with a sharp flavor. Water that is 'soft' lacks minerals, and will make almost any tea taste muddy and flat. Moving to a new area or going on a trip can make even your favorite teas taste funky.
The famous tea author Lu Yu was rumored to be able to taste whether his water came from the center of the river or the shallows. Many tea drinkers recommend using only filtered or fresh spring water. But different teas are best complemented by different water, so we recommend experimenting to find what works best for you and your favorite leaves.
4. You're brewing in metal or plastic.
Hot water can extract flavors from your brewing vessel as well as your tea leaves. Brewing in a metal teapot can result in a metallic tasting tea. Even worse, brewing in a plastic water bottle or strainer can leach toxic BPAs into the brew, as well as muddle the tea flavor with a plastic taste. Even if your metal or plastic is not substantially changing the flavor, these common materials can pick up scents from strong teas. Last week’s spiced chai may make a surprising comeback while sipping today’s more subtle green tea. For this reason, we always recommend non-porous brewing vessels made of glass or ceramic for the purest tea flavor.
Cast iron pots, while beautiful, are not ideal for brewing most tea leaves. As part of tea culture in Asia, these heavy metal pots were only for heating water. Once heated over a fire, they would retain heat long enough to pour several short infusions of the tea leaves. They were (and still are) also celebrated by connoisseurs for the ability to infuse more mineral content into the boiling water.
But the excellent heat retention means they often stew steeping tea leaves, and the mineral additions are only welcome if the water is soft. Overall, they’re not ideal for extracting the natural flavor of the leaves.
5. You’re brewing low quality leaves.
If you’ve tried adjusting the previous variables and your brew is still disappointing, it may just be that your leaves are lacking. Given tea’s ubiquitous popularity, it is easier to find bad teas than good ones. If your tea leaves came from the shelves of your local grocery store, their potential is probably limited.
Mass produced teas are created with quantity in mind, rather than quality. Tea plants grow quickly in hot climates and seasons, but develop more bitterness and less complexity of flavor. To speed up harvesting and processing, leaves are usually chopped, or even powdered. Powdered leaves are particularly suspect, as they can camouflage powdered additives like artificial flavorings or coloring.
On the other hand, high quality, whole tea leaves will usually taste good no matter how they’re brewed. To us, the best tea is one we could forget steeping and still want to drink after it’s cooled down, hours later.
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