Many guides to traditional brewing methods recommend a 5-10 second rinse of the tea leaves before beginning the brewing process, but we typically omit this step from our instructions. Though there are a few contexts in which it is acceptable, we do consider it optional for most teas, and downright wasteful for others. More importantly, many of the reasons commonly cited for this practice are purely mythical. Today, we’ll separate the truth from the myth to clarify when to rinse, and when not to.
1. ‘Clean’ the Tea
Claims that tea must be rinsed to cleanse it of pesticides or other impurities is well-intentioned but typically false. Pesticides are generally water resistant or absorbed through the roots, since any water-soluble leaf coating would dissolve during rain or watering in the fields. Rinsing the finished leaves is no substitute for seeking out sustainably grown leaves.
Similarly, modern facilities crafting high quality tea use the same precautions of cleanliness used in other areas of food production, including hairnets, shoe covers, and controlled access. Buying whole leaf teas from reputable vendors can help in avoiding impurities that might be masked by broken leaf bits, as well.
2. Warm the Teaware
The most legitimate reason for rinsing the tea has very little to do with the tea at all. Using some hot water to briefly rinse the teaware will ensure it is free of any dust and will also help maintain the temperature of the brew during the process of steeping.
In our own gong fu practice, we perform this warming rinse before any tea has been added to the gaiwan or teapot. This way, we can bring the teaware to the proper temperature without sacrificing any flavor from the brewing process.
3. ‘Wake Up’ the Tea
Many people rinse tightly rolled or compressed teas with very hot water to jump-start the expansion process and speed up the first infusion. This does work to open up the leaves somewhat, especially for pu-erh cakes that can be extremely dense.
However, we prefer not to use this technique with lightly oxidized oolongs that are tightly rolled. While high quality teas of this style are able to withstand high temperatures without becoming bitter, we typically like to brew them at a lower temperature to draw forth creamy, fruity notes instead of vegetal characteristics. When brewing in this style, shocking the leaves with high temperatures at the beginning can destroy some of the most complex flavor characteristics. Instead, we simply do a slightly longer infusion for the first brew to allow the leaves plenty of time to unfurl to about ⅔ of the way open.
In the past, we have used a quick rinse of the leaves to open the aroma of a tea before tasting, but in recent years we have found that the steam rising from pre-warmed teaware is equally effective and significantly more gentle for this purpose.
4. Removing Caffeine
Finally, many sources have claimed that caffeine can be ‘washed away’ in an initial rinse, but this has been proven false. Though caffeine does degrade exponentially (thus leaving much less caffeine in subsequent infusions) a short rinse at the beginning of a brewing session won’t remove the majority of the caffeine, as is often claimed.
The primary reason not to rinse is to avoid losing flavor in this step, especially in the case of lightly oxidized or chopped leaves. For any tea with a lot of exposed surface area, even a few seconds in the water can extract significant flavor. We definitely recommend skipping an initial rinse for any green, white, or chopped black tea. In fact, tightly compressed teas are the only styles we consider good candidates for rinsing.
Do you rinse your tea before brewing? Tell us your reasons in the comments below!
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