In the world of fragrance, the difference between being lightly veiled in scent and being a walking thundercloud of headache-inducing vapors is often a fine one. Whereas a citrusy eau du cologne might be sprayed on with reckless abandon, to no ill effect, a single drop of a rich gourmand perfume might suffice in scenting you generously for the entire day. Wearing fragrance is simply not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and the same goes for brewing tea, which requires a bit of know how to be done correctly. Fortunately, the skip over from perfume to tea is a short one, as knowing how to brew your tea properly is a lot like knowing how to wear a fragrance appropriately—once you have mastered the technique, it becomes second nature.
Of first importance in learning how to brew tea is to realize that there are very few hard and fast rules that you must follow to enjoy your tea to its fullest. Most of the tips I describe below are merely guidelines. It is perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged that you experiment with quantities, temperatures, and steeping times to discover a personal style for brewing tea that makes your teatime the most delicious and enjoyable experience possible. No matter how much you customize your tea experience, though, there are three essential elements to all tea preparation—water, tea, and teaware.
Water is the “main ingredient” in any cup of tea, so it is advisable to use the highest quality water whenever possible. Bottled water or filtered tap water are best. Distilled water or water filtered with reverse osmosis, on the other hand, are not good choices, as flavorful minerals are removed from these. Always use freshly drawn water each time you brew tea; water that has boiled several times in the kettle will be de-oxygenated and, as a result, taste flat.
Of course, using the best quality loose-leaf tea you can find will also help to produce the best cup possible. As with perfume, though, price is not always a reflection of quality. High quality teas can be found from reputable companies for only a few dollars per ounce. Even expensive, quality teas will often cost less per cup to brew yourself at home than the price of a cup of tea at a coffee shop or café.
When shopping for tea, search for tea leaves that possess a generous natural aroma. At tea shops, don’t hesitate to ask how fresh the tea is or to ask to see and smell the tea available for sale. In many cases, it may even be acceptable to ask clerks to prepare samples of a tea to taste before you buy. Especially if you are new to tea, I recommend letting your instincts guide your search. Using your senses as your guide will usually steer you in the direction of delicious tea that you will love to drink. I will cover the topic of tea quality in more detail in subsequent installments.
“Proper” teaware is the most nonessential element to brewing tea correctly and enjoyably. Many cultures have their own unique style of tea preparation, complete with specific utensils and sometimes complex, traditional procedures to match. However, I have found that the best way to enjoy tea is to use what you have on hand, and worry about buying specialized teaware later. In western cultures, it is common practice to brew tea in a porcelain or ceramic teapot, but even the most utilitarian teapots can be a bit cumbersome.
Though far less traditional, I love using a French press (sometimes called a coffee press) to brew my tea. Its design allows the tea leaves to expand fully and release an optimum amount of flavor before being filtered out once the plunger is pushed down and the infusion is poured out. Gaiwans are traditional lidded cups used to brew tea in Chinese Gongfu-style tea ceremonies, but using a gaiwan for everyday tea preparation requires no ceremony at all. In fact, it is an extremely convenient and easy way to prepare tea if you typically only drink a small, single serving, and only requires a little bit of practice to master the coordination of decanting the infusion from the leaves using the lid.
You can even brew delicious tea using nothing more than a measuring cup to brew in and a small mesh strainer to catch any wayward leaves while pouring. Experience has taught me that this method works just as well; this was the way I brewed my tea when I first started out!
In addition to having some sort of vessel to brew your tea in, it is also a good idea to have a small thermometer on hand, as many teas taste their best when brewed at temperatures within a given range. A thermometer will allow you to easily measure the water temperature, and determine if it is too hot or too cold for brewing the particular type of tea you wish to brew. Ideally, most teas should be brewed at a ratio of 3 grams of dry leaf per every 8 ounces (240mL) of water used.
While you could certainly measure out this amount of tea on a small scale, this level of precision is not necessary to brew a good cup of tea. In most cases, a rounded teaspoon of dry leaf per cup of water will be close enough. A rounded teaspoon of a tea with a large leaf size, such as white teas or wiry-leaved oolongs, will not weigh as much as an identical looking amount of a small leaved tea, though, so make sure to use a greater amount of tea leaf (closer to a tablespoon) when brewing a white tea or long leaf oolong. As you come to brew more and more types of tea, you will develop an intuitive sense of how much tea to use, and won’t need to put a great deal of thought into the process. It truly does become second nature.
In my next installment, I’ll take you through the entire process of brewing the perfect cup of tea. In the meantime, I’d love to answer any questions and hear about your favorite tips for brewing your favorite teas.
Photography by Andy Gerber (top image by Bois de Jasmin).