We’ve talked a lot on this blog about how to make the perfect cup of coffee. From picking the right coffee grinder, finding an espresso machine to fit your budget, and even exploring the french press, we’ve looked at the ins and outs of brewing a better bean. But if a tea cup is more your style than a coffee mug, or even (especially!) if you’ve never met a cup of tea you liked, this post is for you. Making a good cup of tea is much, much simpler than brewing an equally tasty cup of coffee, but the sad fact is, it isn’t done very often. Even nice restaurants often use low quality ingredients, and don’t take the time to brew their tea properly. So even if you don’t think you like tea, it might be worth another try.
Like coffee, when it comes to tea making, the raw materials matter. The very single most important ingredient in a successful steep is fresh, clean, pure water. Whether you have a favorite bottled brand, an home Water Filter, or just a Brita Pitcher, you’ve got to make sure you have a supply of good-tasting water before you start to brew. If your water tastes funky, so will your tea!
The second most important part is the tea itself. Just like coffee beans, tea leaves are volatile, so keep them stored in an air-tight Tea Jar to preserve their flavor. Tea comes in a wide variety of flavors and forms and, again, like coffee, the closer you can get to the original form (a whole bean for coffee, a whole leaf for tea), the better your final drink is going to taste. Sure, you can stick a tea bag in a coffee mug full of water and pop it in the microwave – but what a lot of people realize is that that’s the tea-quivalent of a really bad cup of instant coffee (and is what a lot of restaurants serve!).
You see, a bag of Lipton Tea, for example, is filled with essentially the tea leaf dust that’s left at the bottom of a barrel of whole leaves. Numi and Tazo teas are higher quality, but if you have to go with a bagged tea, try to find one with whole leaves – they’re usually sold in pyramid-shaped nylon mesh tea bags to let the leaves spread out. The more intact the leaf, the better the flavor will be – and if you’ve only ever tried Lipton tea, you’re missing a whole amazing spectrum of flavors and aromas that better quality and different varieties of tea can offer.
Once you’ve got your tea, bagged or loose, you want to heat your water. This is another one of those things that’s deceptively easy – and in this case is ultimately a little more sensitive than coffee. With coffee grounds, you want to use the hottest water to extract the most flavor, but tea leaves are more delicate, and many need a lower, more specific temperature to brew properly. I like to use a programmable electric kettle to get the temperature just right. This Kalorik Digital model that can be set to a specific temperature, and one like this Cuisinart Kettle has settings for each type of tea. You can get the same result with a pot and a Thermometer or watchful eye, but having a kettle makes the process much easier.
Measure out one generous teaspoon of tea leaves (or one tea bag) into a Teapot for every 6oz cup. If you’re making a large pot, add one extra Tea Scoop or bag to get a good, strong flavor. Then, pour the water from your kettle over the leaves and cover the pot, letting the tea steep. How long depends a little bit on taste, but as a rule of thumb:
Black or Rooibos Tea: 4-6 minutes @ 212 degrees (boiling)
Green Tea: 2-4 minutes @ 150-160 degrees
White Tea: 4-6 minutes @ 180 degrees
Oolong Tea: 5-8 minutes @ 190 degrees
Herbal Tea: 5 minutes or to taste @ 212 degrees
If you’re eyeballing it, water starts to make small bubbles at around 160 degrees, strings of bubbles around 180, and comes to a full boil at 212.
But temperature and time aren’t the only things that impact the flavor of your tea – the freer the leaves are to expand and float around in the water, the richer and more full-bodied the flavor will be – which is another reason that loose leaf tea tastes better than the bag stuff – and why I never use an Infuser Ball (though they’re still better than bags!). There are tea pots like this Infuser Pot that make cleanup a little easier, but I find that brewing your tea with free-floating leaves gives the best flavor, even if it means you have to put in a little extra effort to strain the leaves out.
Finally, once your tea has finished brewing, you don’t want to leave it sitting in the leaves. When they oversteep, tea leaves release substances called tannins that give your tea a sharp, bitter taste. So once your 2-8 minute soak is up, either remove the tea bags, remove your infuser, or strain out the leaves and transfer the tea into a teapot with a cozy or a Thermos that you’ve pre-warmed with hot water, or pour straight into your favorite Teacup and serve plain or with milk, sugar, honey, or a twist of lemon.
Like coffee, you can’t brew tea in cold water, so if you want it iced, simply strain the hot tea into a chilled Decanter or Pitcher, let it cool to room temperature on your counter, and then stash it in your fridge until you’re ready to serve it. If you worry about the tea being watered down, either add an extra bag or scoop of leaves to the tea as you’re brewing it, or make an extra cup and freeze it into cubes, and use them in place of regular ice when it comes time to serve.
Brewing tea right takes a little extra time and effort, but is a lot less technology and time intensive than brewing equivalently good coffee. And once you start discovering the wide variety of delicate, unique flavors that different varieties of tea have to offer, you’ll never want to stop exploring! Are you a big tea drinker? Looking to upgrade from bags to loose leaf? Or are you just tired of having bitter tasting tea?