Tea Primer Part 3 : Tea Brewing Basics

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.

Part 1 : Black and Oolong Teas

Part 2 : Green, White and Herbal Teas

Part 4 : How to Brew a Perfect Cup of Tea

Part 5 : A Guide to Buying Quality Tea

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

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.

Tea

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.

Teaware

“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).

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44 Comments

  • Barbara: I love the idea of using a French press to brew tea. It never occurred to me before, but I can’t wait to try it once I get home. Thanks for another great post, Andy! December 13, 2012 at 8:44am Reply

    • Andy: I too had never thought of brewing in a French press until I saw one for sale on a tea company’s website. Now, I use mine all the time for brewing tea, unless I’m serving tea to others. Then I like to serve from a teapot, as it’s a bit less utilitarian. Looks and tradition aside, though, the French press is really very practical. Glad you enjoyed reading! December 13, 2012 at 5:52pm Reply

  • Bela: I’m in the UK so, when I have the time to make tea properly, I use an old French stoneware teapot (that used to belong to my mother) and a bone china cup or mug, one level teaspoon of tea leaves plus ‘one for the pot’ (that’s traditional) and water that has just boiled. And a metal strainer. Easy peasy. Delicious tea. :-)

    I use a French press for ’tisanes’ like lime (linden) or verbena because the leaves are large and annooying. I wouldn’t use one for delicate, small leaves like tea. December 13, 2012 at 9:28am Reply

    • Rachel: Last year my mother gave me a beautiful French tea set, and it made me want to learn more about tea. I used to drink almost nothing but coffee. December 13, 2012 at 9:33am Reply

      • Bela: I used to drink coffee too, but I overdid it one day and I felt to ill that I stopped, just like that. Since then I’ve developed IBS so too much caffeine is not good for me. I allow myself one cup of ‘real’ tea a day. The rest of the time I drink redbush tea, which is caffeine-free. My teapot is very old and not refined at all: it’s brown, glazed only on the outside, but it has a very pleasing shape and tea tastes nice made with it. My favourite mug is in fact a chocolate one, that is it’s taller and thinner than a normal mug, but it’s delicate bone china so it’s lovely to handle.

        My favourite tea is Darjeeling, and, when I’m really thirsty, Lapsang Souchong. My least favourite is Earl Grey: much too perfumey. December 13, 2012 at 10:27am Reply

        • Victoria: I bought a very simple teapot here in Belgium, from Hema, and I must say that it’s my favorite. It is the one I photographed above. I like it because of its generous size and snow white color. So, I know what you mean about finding a favorite and remaining loyal to it. My morning tea ritual feels so much more pleasant thanks to these simple things.

          I need to try more of Lapsang Souchong teas. I usually use it to marinate meat or dried plums, to give them a smoky flavor. In Ukraine, plums are dried over smoking twigs, so this flavor is something I love. My grandmother makes a delicious sour cream cake studded with these smoky plums. It might seem like a strange combination, but it works so well, and the taste is surprisingly delicate (but with a twist). December 13, 2012 at 5:35pm Reply

    • Andy: I love that you use your mother’s teapot each time you brew tea. I’m sure your tea experience each time must be so much more meaningful, using an heirloom piece as a part of your personal tea ceremony. December 13, 2012 at 5:59pm Reply

  • Rachel: I’m printing out all of these posts to keep them on hand. The instructions on brewing tea can seem either daunting or confusing especially to a tea newbie like myself.. Thank you for explaining it so clearly. December 13, 2012 at 9:36am Reply

    • Andy: What a great idea, Rachel! I know how confusing tea can be, because when I was new to tea drinking, it was hard to find good, straightforward information. At first, it may seem a bit daunting, but tea is very forgiving; if you don’t brew a perfect cup at first, a fresh start is just a matter of dumping (or drinking!) the tea and boiling up some more water. I’m glad that you are finding these posts helpful. :) December 13, 2012 at 6:13pm Reply

  • Lia: Great article! I enjoy reading this. I drink tea occasionally & I do have several favorites like Earl Grey & Black Ceylon. I too often infused my tea with fresh jasmines, whenever I have them around in my garden. December 13, 2012 at 9:38am Reply

    • Andy: Your mention of brewing your tea with fresh jasmine makes me pine for summer! I have a sambac jasmine bush that I put outside in the summer (right now it’s sitting on the windowsill, looking sad and flowerless), and I love adding the fresh blossoms to water and iced or hot teas. It is amazing how a few small blossoms can scent an entire pitcher of water if left in for a few hours! December 13, 2012 at 6:18pm Reply

  • jess: I also love the French press tip. What a great idea! Do you use it with all types of teas or does it work better with some but not others? December 13, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

    • Andy: I have used my French press with all types of tea, and found that it is suitable for all. One important tip that I’ll have to include in the next post is to make sure you don’t push the plunger down all the way when you are ready to decant your tea, as pressing on the tea leaves will extract bitter components from the tea that you don’t want in your cup! But otherwise, using the French press is mostly foolproof. December 13, 2012 at 6:22pm Reply

  • Kathy: Highly recommend Norwood Pratt’s books on tea, they taught me much. I don’t use a press because I want to avoid any bitter tannins that one can get if tea is brewed too long. We’ve been enjoying our favorite Mariage Frere’s Marco Polo and their Noel tea they carry only this time of year. December 13, 2012 at 1:16pm Reply

    • Andy: I also have read one of Pratt’s books and found it very interesting and informative. Very comprehensive too! With the press, you are right, it is easy to end up with bitter tea if you steep it for too long or if you press the plunger all the way down and squeeze the tea leaves. And your tea choices sound excellent! The Noel must be really nice this time of year. December 13, 2012 at 6:26pm Reply

  • Andrea: We use a press, a teapot with insert and also some without insert. We also brew directly in the cup.
    I all depends on the kind of tea you brew, the velocity you plan empty the pot and if it is the kind of tea leaf that wants/allows multiple brewing, as some chinese and japanese teas do.
    I personally don’t like tea from tea pots kept heated on a stove (except for the samovar method, but that is another game entirely), but the pot should not cool down too quickly either.
    The only thing I’d like to add to Andy’s great post is that tea generally tastes better if your steeping vessel is covered.
    As Andy said, like wine, the different teas will want different cups to unfold their aroma, stay in sync with the season and the occasion and over all make a basically mundane activity festive and special. December 13, 2012 at 2:15pm Reply

    • Andy: It sounds like you put a lot of consideration into brewing your tea, and I can’t agree more with everything you’ve said. Thanks for your tips, Andrea! I agree that choice of brewing vessel really can depend upon the type of tea you are preparing. It might just be my imagination, but I always feel like an oolong tastes better from a gaiwan, for example. I also agree that it is fun to use different teaware, it really enhances the experience of enjoying tea for me too! December 13, 2012 at 6:32pm Reply

      • Pamela: I use a gaiwan for green teas and oolong and resteep them sometimes three or four times. My favorite oolong is Blue People which I get from Aroma Tea Shop on Clement in San Francisco. Worth a visit for the wide variety of fresh teas which they buy directly from the growers on trips to the farms and they have free tastings, too.
        I use other methods for other teas, and use bagged teas, too. December 21, 2012 at 7:32pm Reply

  • Rose D: I have experienced mainly with steeping times. Usually, I like my tea very strong; however, there are a few exceptions. Jasmine-flavoured blends can turn too perfumey if brewed for too long; but using the right time they are soft and delicately floral. On the other hand, less precision is required with roses tea. If it steeps for too long, normally it only becomes honey-like. December 13, 2012 at 4:32pm Reply

    • Andy: It is so important to experiment with steeping times as you have described. A lot of guides might tell you how long you “should” brew a given tea for, but it is not always clear that these are merely guidelines, as everyone’s tastes differ. I too like to deviate from brewing guidelines to suit my personal tastes better! December 13, 2012 at 6:35pm Reply

  • Austenfan: I love making pots of tea and not cups. As my tastes in tea vary I own several pots, china, glass, and some cast-iron ones as well.
    Wonderful post again on my favourite beverage. December 13, 2012 at 5:29pm Reply

  • Andy: On an evening when I can sit down and relax, I love to make a pot of tea, it is such a nice way to unwind. Unfortunately, on a daily basis, I find that I usually don’t have the time to savor more than a cup, so I’ve devised my own sort of tea ceremony for the day to day, and save the relaxed, elaborate ceremony for the weekends! December 13, 2012 at 6:38pm Reply

  • Claire: Hello Andy, I’m eagerly waiting your tea post as always. I’d like to know your take on preparing an oolong in a way that is close to gong fu, but not quite elaborate. I don’t have the contraptions, all I have is a two-cup size tea pot. Is it possible to brew a proper oolong with it? Perhaps you will cover this in the next installment.

    As for my favorite way to brew tea, this particular one is for iced tea: steep 2 teabags-full of loose leaves in cold water overnight (about 4 tablespoons total in 1 Litre of water). Yes, cold water, overnight, and in the fridge. The resulting tea is gently perfumed with the tea aroma and but very bright and refreshing at the same time. This type of brewing is great for flavored black teas. I found this tip from The French Art of Tea book from Mariage Freres. I never prepared iced tea the “old” way again.

    Claire December 14, 2012 at 12:25am Reply

    • Andy: Yes, you can brew a perfectly delicious cup of oolong in a teapot. If you want to mimic Gong Fu style brewing without the complex ceremony or equipment, your teapot will work just fine. Usually, you can just double or triple the amount of oolong you would normally brew with for a given single serving yield. Then, steep the tea in increasing time intervals as you go; about 45 seconds for the first infusion, then a 1 minute infusion, then a 2 minute infusion, then three to four minutes, and so on and so on, until the leaves’ flavor is exhausted. This method is not exact, but should give you an idea for what Gong Fu is like. You can usually get anywhere from five to ten infusions using this method, though I find that I often tire of the tea before I reach this point. After the first time, you will know how to adjust the brewing times for each successive infusion just exactly to your liking.

      And thank you for the iced tea tip! I’ll have to try that preparation method. December 14, 2012 at 2:17am Reply

  • annemariec: Andy, something I often wonder about is whether – and how – to clean the tannin out of a well-used teapot. I assume after a while it is good to give a teapot a scrub? With what?

    Of course you are never going to be able to clean the inside of the spout.

    Any thoughts? December 14, 2012 at 1:31am Reply

    • Andy: Great question! And yes, it is possible to clean out that brown stain. I don’t know if you live here in the U.S., but I’ve found that a gritty powdered cleanser like those from Bar Keeper’s Friend or Bon Ami brand does the trick. I haven’t found an issue with these cleansers scratching the porcelain, but if you are concerned about this, you can also use a paste of baking soda and water (plus a bit more elbow grease!), which is gentler and probably a better choice for cleaning finer china. Just spread the paste all over the area you want to clean, and using a scrub brush or sponge, scrub away! The stains should come off like a dream! December 14, 2012 at 2:03am Reply

      • annemariec: I’m in Australia, but I know Bon Ami. Or at least, the product I’m thinking of has kind of detergent element to it I think. So I’d need to rinse the teapot out pretty thoroughly I suppose? December 14, 2012 at 2:23am Reply

      • annemariec: Thanks, by the way! Such a simple question, but I have not had a tea expert in my life whom I can ask! December 14, 2012 at 2:24am Reply

    • Veronica: Plain old sodium bicarbonate will do the job.
      or even finely milled salt. Just rince it thoroughly afterwards December 14, 2012 at 6:20am Reply

    • BlinkyTheFish: It sounds nuts, but I use denture cleaner tablets to clean tannin stains from teapots and metal strainers – it really works!! December 14, 2012 at 6:41am Reply

      • Claire: I’ve heard about this trick! So you just soak the tablet in the tea pot? Thanks for reminding. December 14, 2012 at 11:21am Reply

  • Annikky: Andy, it is so reassuring to hear that you use French press. I have done it for years, but felt like a true tea-lover should use something more refined. But if even you are doing it, I will stop worrying right now:) December 14, 2012 at 5:56am Reply

    • Andy: Really, the teaware you use is not important as long as it works at brewing tea the way you like it. Plus, it is so practical to use a French press, I couldn’t see any reason why not to! December 17, 2012 at 6:41am Reply

  • Veronica: I just realized… Have you ever wrote an article about how to properly apply perfume in order to be “lightly veiled in scent” as opposed to “being a walking thundercloud of headache-inducing vapors”

    or have you? December 14, 2012 at 6:02am Reply

  • Veronica: As for tea – I’m a chinese ceremony fan

    Although I often simplify things at home
    – I tend to use only clay hardware or fine chinese porcelain
    – I never wash them with any chemicals
    Some people advise to have a special clay teapot for each and every kind of tea you drink (one for te guan in, one fro eye of a phoenix etc..) so that tastes of different teas don’t clash… After years of use those teapots even tend to cost more! (Unfortunately I don’t know the term for “обпитый чайник” – but in Russian that is the term)
    I use filtered water at 90 degrees C for oolong and 80 for green and white teas
    And my favorites are Darjeeling, Tieguanyin and Pheonix Eye Jasmine teas. December 14, 2012 at 6:15am Reply

    • Veronica: btw, if you want to wash your porcelaine cups or teapots – theres nothing better than sodium bicarbonate! no “Fairy” please December 14, 2012 at 6:18am Reply

    • Pamela: Veronica, have you tried any really good Pu’erhs? (Also see comment elsewhere replying to you) December 15, 2012 at 9:13am Reply

    • Andy: Thank you for the tips! I’d like to explore Chinese tea ceremony more, but at this point all I have is a gaiwan! Hopefully I am hoping to get some more Chinese teaware soon. December 20, 2012 at 6:58am Reply

  • fleurdelys: I used to be a coffee drinker, but it bothered my stomach and made me to jittery. Since I’ve made the switch to tea, I just use tea bags. However, I’m eager to learn the proper way to brew with tea leaves, so I look forward to your next post. December 14, 2012 at 12:19pm Reply

    • Andy: Yes, even if you choose bags over loose leaf for the convenience, it is still good to know how to brew loose leaf tea. I can’t wait to share my next post either! December 20, 2012 at 6:56am Reply

  • Pamela: Veronica: I love to use the clay (Yixing) pots as well. I’ve found that using the pot and similar teacups actually smooths the tea a little. I have only one pot and my best tea goes in there, although I would like to collect a few more. December 15, 2012 at 9:10am Reply

    • Andy: I don’t have a yixing pot, but I’d really like to get one! Your description of it smoothing out the flavor of the tea sounds really interesting. December 20, 2012 at 6:54am Reply

  • Ariadne: Hi Andy, in Chinatown, NY, I purchased a porcelain mug fitted with a cover and which holds a porcelain sieve inside that is positioned to sit just below the lip. I pop my tea in the sieve, pour boiling water over to fill, cover, and wait a few minutes. Personal, quick, and deeelish!
    I highly recommend Helen Gustafson’s book ‘The Agony of the Leaves, The Ecstasy of My Life With Tea.’ December 15, 2012 at 10:05am Reply

    • Andy: I think I read that those porcelain mugs are called Zhongs, though I might me mistaken. In any case, it definitely sounds like a handy tool to have around for making tea! And thank you for the book recommendation, I’m always interested in books about tea. December 20, 2012 at 6:50am Reply

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