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A Bit About Brewing

If you're looking for the perfect recipe for brewing tea, stop searching. There is no perfect, exact way to brew tea! Like anything we eat or drink, quality ingredients and preparation is key to both enjoyment and health benefits. Whether you're grilling up tender, juicy steaks on the back deck, cooking up a traditional holiday meal, or brewing coffee, tea, or even beer, it all boils down to a delicate balance between art, science, and personal taste. On this page, we'll explore various elements to brewing and how they affect the taste and quality of your tea. Feel free to experiment since that's how we find our own personal sweet spot when it comes to delectable!



First, let's take a look at the tea...

There are so many different teas available on the market and often the uninitiated find it confusing to understand the differences. For an excellent primer of teas, see this awesome introduction to tea by our friends at Rishi.

Teas are divided into color categories that really are based on their oxidation level. However, ALL tea comes from one plant, Camellia Sinensis. Then, within each level or color category, you'll find variations due to the variety of this one plant, and when & which leaves, buds, or blossoms are picked.

At the risk of getting sidetracked and heading into the weeds, let's start with Green Tea because there's a wide range of brewing differences for this genre. There are really two basic varieties used for Green teas of Japanese origin; Sencha and Tencha.

Sencha is grown in full sun and produces a variety of finish teas:

Tencha is grown in full sun until the first day of Spring. Then it's covered to shade it from the sun. This forces the tea to get all its nutrients from the ground and it darkens the leaves to produce a very rich, earthy tea. This is the king of green teas. From it we get:



So, back to the brewing!



Brewing takes into account the oxidation level, or color category, the amount of leaves used, water quantity, water temperature, and brewing or steeping time, and last but not least, teapots. In addition, the quality of both the tea and the water is of the utmost importance!

For greens, water temperature is much lower and often steeping times are also less. This is due to a variety of reason we'll discuss latter. For now, let's consider this chart as a starting point.



Tea

Leaf Quantity

Water Quantity

Water Temperature

Steep Time

Sencha

5g

340ml (12 oz.)

80-85°C (175-185°F)

1.5 – 3 minutes

Kuki-sencha

4.5g

340ml (12 oz.)

85°C (185°F)

3 minutes

Genmaicha

3g

340ml (12 oz.)

82°C (180°F)

3 minutes

Houjicha

4g

340ml (12 oz.)

85°C (185°F)

4 minutes

Iri-Bancha

10g

455ml (16 oz)

100°C (212°F)

10 minutes

Gyokuro

10g

60ml (2 oz.)

60°C (140°F)

30-90 seconds



Most of the green teas can be steeped a second time and some can be steeps 3, 4, or even 5 times. Gyokuro is a good example, as it is steeped with a large amount of leaves and small amount of water. Since the extraction is limited to only a short time, there's still plenty left for multiple steeps.

Any tea can be steeped longer to make a stronger brew but care should be taken not to produce a bitter beverage. In general, steep only long enough for the leaves to unroll and become just fully saturated with water. The second steep can often be much less time since the leaves are already at their peak for brewing.



In general, the more oxidized the tea, the hotter the water temperature for brewing. See the chart for comparison.

Tea

Leaf Quantity

Water Quantity

Water Temperature

Steep Time

Green

3-10g

60-340ml (2-12 oz)

60-85°C (140-185°F)

30 seconds – 4 minutes

White

2.5-6g

340ml (12 oz.)

82-85°C (180-185°F)

3 – 5 minutes

Oolong

4-6g

340ml (12 oz.)

85-95°C (185-200°F)

4 – 6 minutes

Black

3-6g

340ml (12 oz.)

100°C (212°F)

4 – 5 minutes

Pu-erh

Varies

340ml (12 oz.)

82-100°C (180-212°F)

4 – 5 minutes



So-called herbal teas are not actually tea, but an herbal infusion. They are brewed just like tea and thus are considered by many to be part of the same beverage category even though they are not.



Let's talk about water...

Most people never give water a thought. It just comes out of the kitchen faucet and we've been drinking it since we were born. So, what's to know about water? Water comes from many sources and often times is treated with chemicals, softened, filtered, etc, before reaching our faucet. But that water is usually not as clean and pure as one might think! Most municipal water is quite nasty and heavily tainted with chlorine, fluorine, and a vast array of other toxins that we won't even go into. If you can “taste” or smell your water, it's not pure. Considering many teas have a very subtle aroma and taste, any impurities in the water can overpower and ruin a delicate tea.

Some of the considerations for water include the acidity (pH), hardness, and even gas content. Of course we want biologically safe water, but gasses such as chlorine, fluorine, and the very nasty hydrogen-sulfide (common is some southern state and in well water) are most unwelcome! While chlorine can be easily removed with a charcoal filter, fluorine can only be removed by distillation or Reverse Osmosis. Charcoal does nothing for fluorine. All of these gases are toxic and should be avoided. Interestingly, the only totally effective treatment for hydrogen-sulfide is chlorine. You'll rarely find this nasty gas in municipal water since it's almost always chlorinated, but it can be common in unchlorinated well water.

Aside from the taste and odors of unfiltered water, the pH and hardness can have a dramatic affect on tea. Hard water will not extract the flavors as efficiently as softer water. If your water is harder than a few grains, a water softener can help. However, softeners introduce sodium into the water which must then be removed before drinking.

So, what can be done about less-than-desirable water? There are two method of filtering that are considered to be truly sufficient in producing choice water. One is distillation, the other is Reverse Osmosis, or RO for short. RO is the preferred method as it's quicker, takes much less space and less costly than distillation. For more info on RO, see the wiki page. For a decent system that we have personal experience with, try FilterDirect. If you're really just looking for water to brew in smaller quantities, there are lots of commercially available bottled brands of RO water, including Dasani, Aquafina, and even the plain variety of Safeway Refreshe.

The importance of pH can be researched at your leisure, but suffice it to say a lower pH, in the range of 3-5.3 is desirable for steeping teas, especially green teas. Generally speaking, RO filter systems will do a wonderful job of lowering your tap water pH about a point, depending on the source chemistry. This should put it right where you want it for tea brewing.



About temperature and why boiling water is NOT right for all teas!

The importance of temperature cannot be overstated. There are two primary components is tea that are responsible for whether your cup is bitter or sweet: Theanine and Tannin. The sweetness of green teas comes from Theanine. Conversely, the bitterness is derived from Tannins. The goal in brewing green teas is to extract as much Theanine as possible without overpowering amounts of Tannins.

Fortunately Theanine extraction is not affected by temperature, but it is affected by time. On the other hand, Tannins are also extracted over time but come out much faster in hotter water. For some teas, such as Gyokuro and Matcha, lower temperatures can mean the difference between a great cup of tea and a cup you won't finish.

For oxidized teas, Theanine is a diminishing component but still there all the same. This is why only green teas will give that sweeter taste and are so highly sought after. This is also why, as the oxidation level increases, the brewing temperature can increase. The more robust flavors of Oolongs and Blacks require the higher temperatures to unroll and bring out the character of these teas, while the more delicate White teas are best brewed at slightly lower temperatures.

Experiment a bit and you'll quickly become familiar with the differences and you'll find your happy compromise.



Impatiently waiting...

Brewing time, as touched on above, also affects the extraction of the crucial compounds in your tea. Theanine takes time. You can't hurry it with hotter water. There's no turbo method of bringing out this wonder sweetness. Only patience will suffice. On the other hand, with hotter brewed teas, Tannins are also extracted over time and the hotter water brings it out faster. So finding your personal balance is a matter of experimentation but the charts above should give you a great starting point.

Another variable is the amount of leaves. More will, of course, mean a stronger brew for the time and temp but it's often better to just brew a bit longer at a slightly lower temperature. Have fun and play with it.



What about the Teapot? Or should I just use bags?

Let's first consider that tea leaves must be able to unroll, unwind, and spread out in order to get your brew just right. This means most teabags do a terrible injustice to your nice tea! So, why are so many teas in those little bags? The answer is really quite simple. Convenience! Just keep in mind that the vast majority of teas that come in those little bags and low-end mass marketed grocery store grade teas. They aren't produced or sold for the purpose of pleasing real tea lovers. So get the bags out of you head. This goes for those little tea balls too. They're often worse than bags! Really.

The best teas are always loose leaf and the best methods of brewing always involve letting your tea have plenty of room. Just never, ever brew your tea in a boiling kettle on the stove, or any other heating appliance. Heat your water first and then pour it over your tea. If you break this rule, never let anyone find out!

So, on to the pots, mugs, or whatever... There are so many different teapots out there. Some use spout screens, some use baskets, and some use nothing at all!

Spout Screen – When searching for a pot with a spout screen, look for one that has a replaceable screen or that can be very easily reached for cleaning. If it's just a series of holes in the ceramic, it might prove difficult to clean and clog easily. A drawback to these is the tea sits in the pot and if not poured and consumed right away will get bitter and cold. Therefore, these are most appropriate when the pot is small or when serving more than one person.

Basket Pots – These are really handy when you want to remove your leaves at just the right time. The baskets will typically have a handle but not always. They're replaceable and if wide and deep enough, they allow the leaves the room they need. Perfect for one or more people.

Top Screened Pots – These pots are similar to a beaker and pour from the top. They are open inside with a screen at the top, similar to a french press but the screen does not move. They strain the tea as it's poured. They are great in smaller, single serving size like the Spout Screen pots or when serving more than one person.

Un-screened or Basket-less Pots – These must be poured out through a strainer basket held over the cup. They are the simplest pots and easiest to clean. Almost anything will suffice for a pot in this category, even a large mug or cook-pot can be used. Just remember to never heat or boil your water with the tea in it. Always pour your heated water over your leaves. However, as with any rule, there's always an exception. When preparing some Chai's such as Masala Chai, the tea really is boiled right in the pot with water and milk.

Another method some people like is to use a basket inside a mug. Pour your water directly over the leaf filled mug basket. When your steep time is up, move the basket to an empty cup to save it for the next steep.



What about Oxygen?

There's a lot of talk in some circles about the part oxygen plays in brewing tea. The bottom line is, that scientifically, even if oxygen is added to the water is large quantities, its escape from that water is all but guaranteed as the water is heated. Read more about that here.



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