You may know that the temperature of the water used to steep your tea can have a direct and measurable impact on the flavor of your final cup, but do you really need a thermometer or specialized electric kettle to end up with a good brew? We certainly don’t think so. Here are 4 ways to find the the right water temperature without any extra equipment.
1. Think about the tea type.
The most important consideration when determining water temperature is the type of tea that is being brewed. As a general rule, lighter styles like green and white teas are best brewed at a relatively low temperature, while darker categories like black tea can be infused with hotter water without sacrificing flavor quality. Essentially, this is because darker teas require more heat to open up and release flavor. Give this a moment of thought before putting the water on, and decide what range to aim for.
While this rule of relative temperature is important to keep in mind, it is not an immutable law. Many teas, especially those of high quality, can be brewed at a wide range of temperatures with satisfying results. Consider adjusting your steeping time to avoid over-brewing while experimenting.
2. Look at the bubbles.
The most commonly cited trick for telling water temperatures is to observe the progression of bubbles in the boiling water. Traditional wisdom compares the bubbles produced at low temperatures for green and white teas to smaller “crab eyes”, while oolongs require medium-sized “fish eyes” and the large bubbles of a full boil are called “dragon eyes”. This scale of temperatures makes it easy to perceive the differences in temperature, but works best when the water is boiled visibly in an open pot with a wide mouth. In an enclosed kettle, for instance, it is impossible to see the bubbles at all, so this framework may not be useful for everyone.
3. Listen to the sound of the boil.
Another sign of water temperature in a closed kettle is the noise of the boiling water. As the water begins to heat up and becomes agitated with small bubbles, the noise will increase, but as bubbles begin to break the surface at around 190°F, the water will quiet before reaching a full boil. For the lightest tea styles, it’s best to use water that is just beginning to whine, while oolongs should be brewed at the moment that the water goes quiet (or just before), and black teas can be brewed at a full rolling boil, where many stovetop kettles whistle.
4. Let it cool.
This final technique is the ultimate failsafe. While some tea wisdom holds that water should always be prevented from fully boiling, one of the easiest ways to achieve moderate temperatures is to let the water cool after coming to a boil. Since the water cools more slowly, it is less difficult to gauge the perfect moment, and the only expertise required is a bit of patience. To speed up the cooling process, it helps to pour hot water into a cool vessel like a serving pitcher, where the water will lose heat to the surrounding material and cool further more quickly because of the smaller volume. For a real crash-cool (best used when brewing in a thermos or “grandpa style” in a large mug) add a bit of cold water before pouring boiling water in to allow for a long, leisurely steep.
Though these methods may not give exact temperature readings, developing an instinct for the right water temperature can improve not only the flavor in a cup of tea, but also the experience of brewing. It frees us from brewing guides and adds to the improvisational and artistic nature of brewing, while also allowing us to easily adapt our brew for the best flavor and test the mettle of new teas.
Do you measure exactly, or improvise with techniques like these? Tell us how you gauge water temperature in the comments below!
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