Tea Primer Part 4 : How to Brew a Perfect Cup of Tea

In my last article of Tea Primer, I discussed the three essential parts to brewing any cup of tea: water, tea, and teaware. Now you have all three ready, but where to start? It’s really very simple, and only requires a bit of practice to master. Just as your preference for particular fragrance notes and styles would be evident after a look at your fragrance wardrobe, each person’s way of preparing tea is unique, shaped by their preferences and proclivities. Luckily, once you are familiar with the techniques detailed here, you will have a basic understanding of how to prepare any tea using any method of preparation that you like, as the basic underlying principles are always the same. To make it easier to follow, I’ve separated the elements of brewing a cup of tea into four easy steps.  Let’s get started!

tea-primer4

Part 1 : Black and Oolong Teas

Part 2 : Green, White and Herbal Teas

Part 3 : Tea Brewing Basics

Part 5 : A Guide to Buying Quality Tea

1. Know your tea

Before you start heating up your water, it is important to decide what kind of tea you are going to drink, as this will determine how hot the water needs to be. In my experience, this step can often be the hardest of them all, because, as with perfume, choosing what tea you are in the mood for is sometimes difficult. Below is a chart of time and temperature information for brewing various types of tea. Teas differ from company to company, however, so it is also a good idea to refer to the company website and packaging for exact instructions for the tea you wish to prepare. And, as always, feel free to experiment! The information on this chart is only a guideline for brewing tea. Your instinctive sense of scent and taste is always the best guide.

Type of Tea

Water Temperature

Brewing Time

White Tea

70-75°C/160-170°F

1-3 min

Green Tea

80-85°C/175-185°F

1-3 min

Japanese & Delicate Green Teas

75°C/170°F

1-3 min

Oolong Tea

90-95°C/195-205°F

2-5 min

Black Tea

100°C/212°F

2-5 min

Rooibos & Herbal Teas

100°C/212°F

5 min

tea-primer1

2. Heat your water

Next, you will need to heat your water, keeping in mind the temperature needed for the tea you are making. In addition to heating enough water to make the serving size you are trying to make, also make sure to add a small amount of extra water (less than ¼ cup), which will be used to warm your brewing vessel. Whether you are heating your water in a kettle, in the microwave, or even just on the stove in a saucepan, the biggest issue that arises in heating water is usually in ensuring that the water reaches the correct temperature, especially for teas like white, green, and oolong, that require water that is below boiling and at a particular temperature. I heat my water in a kettle, so it would be very cumbersome to open up the top and stick a thermometer in to check the temperature of the water periodically.

Instead, I’ve found a more convenient and precise method. No matter what kind of tea I’m making, I boil the water completely first. If I’m making rooibos or black tea, I use the water right after it’s been boiled. If I’m making another type of tea, I pour my water into a large measuring cup or small heatproof pitcher and drop in my thermometer. Then, I very slowly pour in a stream of cold water, stirring constantly, and watch my thermometer until the temperature drops to where I need it for my tea. It is often easiest to do this in increments, checking the thermometer frequently, so as not to accidentally make the water too cool with the additions.

Alternatively, you could also just wait for the water to naturally cool down to the temperature you need it at. This is the most inconvenient step in brewing tea, but is very necessary, as water that is too hot for the tea you are making will “stew” the leaf making the tea taste bitter and flat, while water that is too cool will not extract the full amount of flavor from the leaves.

tea-primer2

3. Warm your teaware and brew

After your water has been heated properly, pour a few tablespoons of hot water into your tea-brewing vessel and swirl around inside until the outside of the vessel feels warm. This serves the purpose of warming the vessel. If you do not do this, the temperature of the water you use to brew your tea in will drop too quickly and negate the whole purpose of making sure your water is at the correct temperature in the first place. Spill out that water into the sink and measure out your tea into the tea vessel (ideally, 3 g, usually about a rounded teaspoonful).

Next, pour in as much hot water as you need, and cover the vessel. Then set a timer or look at your watch until the tea has brewed as long as you would like. The first time you make a given tea, it is a good idea to figure out what the ideal brewing time for it is by tasting the tea at 30-second intervals as it brews, stopping once it seems to taste best.

Sometimes, on that first cup, letting the tea brew for too long will help you to determine when the tea is at its best, and when it is over-brewed.  For some teas, like Darjeeling black teas, brewing for just thirty seconds too long can mean the difference between a perfectly brewed cup and an overly bitter tasting one. Other teas, like white teas, tend to be less sensitive to brewing times. Of course, once you have determined the perfect brewing time for a new tea, it is a good idea to write it down somewhere for future reference. Experience is the best guide here.

tea-primer5

4. Decant your tea and enjoy

Now, it’s time to decant the tea from the brewing vessel into your cup of choice and enjoy! Savor the aromas and flavors you find in your tea. Like perfumes, which often call to mind specific emotions, images, and experiences, I find that teas have the same sort of transporting effect. Brewing the perfect cup of tea requires a bit of know how, but the extra effort is worth it. You will be rewarded with delicious tea, which is enticement enough to take some time for tea each and every day.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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47 Comments

  • Anne: Hello,
    I was just enjoying a cup of black tea when your review came in!

    Oh I love your tea set!!!! Where is it from?
    Thank you,
    Anne January 15, 2013 at 9:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Anne, I took the photos to illustrate Andy’s article. You mean the small cups, right? The pot is from Hema, but the cups are from a Japanese tea set. The original pot broke long ago, but I still have the cups. I love Japanese ceramics. January 15, 2013 at 9:40am Reply

      • Anne: Yes, I meant the cup! They are so lovely!!! January 15, 2013 at 10:52am Reply

      • Rachel: They seem to have different patterns too. How pretty! I will look for something similar when I’m back in San Francisco. We have a big Japanese community and some great stores for teaware and ceramics. January 15, 2013 at 12:12pm Reply

  • Jiya: I am an Indian and drinking tea is like our staple drink in the morning and in the evening. But I never knew that there is a time range to brew it. Thanks for the post!! I loved it.
    Jiya January 15, 2013 at 9:24am Reply

    • Andy: Yes, brewing your tea at the appropriate temperature and time interval really does make a difference in brewing the best tasting cup, in my experience. But it’s all very flexible! It is best to experiment and find the method that produces the best result according to your taste :) January 15, 2013 at 3:23pm Reply

  • Jillie: Thanks for demystifying (is that spelling right??!!) the process! And for the pretty pictures.

    Interestingly, here in the UK there have been several pronouncements recently saying that we would get far more health benefits from our ordinary, every day cuppa if it was allowed to steep for at least four minutes. January 15, 2013 at 10:07am Reply

    • Andy: My pleasure, Jillie! The pictures are Victoria’s, and I agree, hers are always so nice!

      That is interesting, and I think at some point I read literature from a study with similar conclusions. I guess it makes sense, because it would seem that the longer one brews the leaves, the more time for antioxidants and other beneficial components to be extracted out into the water. January 15, 2013 at 3:37pm Reply

  • Andrea: Please tell me about the small dish. Does it have jam in it? Is it for the tea?

    I think I saw Helen Miren put jam in her tea in THE LAST STATION. January 15, 2013 at 10:37am Reply

    • Bela: It must be jam.

      My father, who was Russian, always drank tea thus: he would put a lump of sugar in his mouth, keep it there and drink ‘through’ it, as it were. Traditionally, Russians use jam in the same way.

      For my part, I’ve lived in the UK for 33 years so I don’t take any sugar with my tea, just a dash of milk. I can’t stand sweet tea. I do use sugar in ’tisanes’, though. January 15, 2013 at 12:22pm Reply

      • Victoria: That’s exactly it. The Russian way of drinking tea with jam is to eat some jam and then to take a sip of tea. People tend to assume that they are mixed together, but it’s not at all the case. The same applies to sugar. The way your father drank his tea is a traditional way, the mentions of which nowadays can found only in the classical Russian literature. Most people simply stir a spoonful of sugar into their tea.

        I prefer my tea completely unsweetened, and if I have jam with it, it’s usually to put it on bread or yogurt. But Andy’s rose tea recipe with a subtle touch of apricot jam is heavenly. Apricot jam adds a layer of perfume, rather than an obvious sweetness. January 15, 2013 at 5:44pm Reply

        • Jillie: Hi, V, and as usual you have hit on something I have been experiencing! If my sense of taste is not too good, I have discovered that eating something sweet, like toast with jam, helps me taste my tea better. I would never put sugar in my tea as it would ruin it for me, but having a bite of something sweet before a few sips seems to heighten the flavour of the tea. And weirdly I have fallen in love with apricot jam over the last few months – as you say, it is fragrant with a hint of sweetness and is not actually “jammy”! January 16, 2013 at 1:11am Reply

          • Victoria: I like tart jams the most–apricot, bitter orange, sour cherry. I usually make jam myself, so I use a 500g of sugar to 1kg of fruit ratio.

            You know, there was an interesting study done in the war time England about taste and olfaction. Researchers observed that kids after chewing the mint gum for a while would roll it in some sugar. They claimed that it tasted minty again. In reality what sugar did was to give a different cue to the olfactory receptors–the mint molecules would still be in the receptors and become obvious again. January 16, 2013 at 5:00am Reply

            • Jillie: Thank you! That explains so much – like I always feel that it is only the first few mouthfuls of food or wine that taste so good, as thereafter it all diminishes. Giving the tastebuds a little shock makes things new again. January 16, 2013 at 9:27am Reply

        • Wordbird: FYI relating to the original comment, Helen Mirren is British, from a Russian family. January 16, 2013 at 9:22am Reply

          • Austenfan: Russian dad, British mum to be precise. Her paternal grandfather got “stuck” in the UK before the revolution in Russia. January 16, 2013 at 5:52pm Reply

    • Andy: I believe that is indeed jam, but I am not sure, as the pictures are Victoria’s. And, like Bela, I too am familiar with the Russian custom of using jam as a sweetener for tea. I am not usually a fan of sweetened tea, but jam provides a subtle fruity sweetness that I can tolerate. It’s not something I like for every day, but every once in a while it’s a nice variation! January 15, 2013 at 3:44pm Reply

      • Daisy: I was thinking it was jam too! I was just reading another article about about drinking tea with jam . . . January 15, 2013 at 4:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Andy shared a recipe for rose flavored tea with apricot jam (I wrote about it here: http://boisdejasmin.com/2012/05/everything-is-coming-up-roses-rose-tea.html), so when I took photos for his article, I was actually making one pot of rose flavored tea for myself and a pot of oolong for my husband. January 15, 2013 at 5:36pm Reply

      • Claire: I learn something new everytime I visit your blog, Victoria. And Andy, the tea series has been excellent! What a wonderful discovery this is: to drink tea with jam. I’ve never heard of such tradition and I will try the apricot jam with rose tea, the combination sounds divine. January 15, 2013 at 10:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much, Claire! Andy’s tea suggestions changed the way I brew and enjoy my tea. Having a cup of his rose flavored tea right now, by the way. :) January 16, 2013 at 4:55am Reply

        • Andy: I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the series, Claire! The apricot jam adds a bit of subtle, fruity sweetness, which reminds me, in combination with the rosewater, of some scented roses I’ve come across that smell a bit like ripe apricots. Once I tried it for the first time, I knew it was something I’d be making again and again! January 16, 2013 at 1:49pm Reply

  • Barbara: Thank you very much, Andy! Thanks to your recommendations I bought the Art of Tea Biodynamic Darjeeling. Both my husband and my daughter loved it too. January 15, 2013 at 11:32am Reply

    • Andy: I just had that same tea this morning! What a coincidence! I’m glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed it! January 15, 2013 at 3:46pm Reply

      • Andrea: I have become quite a fan of Steven Smith teas and am lucky to be able walk to his wonderful tea atelier here in Portland to buy my tea. I drink tea according to the season. FEZ is perfect for summer and his CHAI is wonderful on a cold damp day.

        http://www.smithtea.com January 15, 2013 at 6:18pm Reply

        • Andy: Andrea, I just got a chance to look at the Steven Smith website, and I love the brand’s aesthetic. Fez sounds like something I’d love to drink iced, out on a lounge chair on the hottest days of summer! How refreshing! January 16, 2013 at 2:58pm Reply

  • rosiegreen: A great article to clarify tea brewing for those of us who love to drink tea. January 15, 2013 at 11:40am Reply

    • Andy: Thanks, rosiegreen! Writing these posts has been helpful for me too—it has helped me to be more aware of certain elements of tea and tea brewing that often escape me. January 15, 2013 at 3:54pm Reply

  • Rachel: “For some teas, like Darjeeling black teas, brewing for just thirty seconds too long can mean the difference between a perfectly brewed cup and an overly bitter tasting one.”

    I wish I read this article before I ruined a package of very nice Darjeeling my friend brought from India. :( I’ve learned more about tea brewing since then, but this guide of yours is terrific. Thanks for taking time to put it together. January 15, 2013 at 11:53am Reply

    • Andy: Sorry to hear about the Darjeeling! I had a similar experience ruining some green teas many years ago before I ever realized that I needed to use cooler water in order to not get a bitter tasting cup of tea. But experience is the best teacher, I suppose! And I’m very glad to hear you’ve been enjoying this series! January 15, 2013 at 4:00pm Reply

  • Claudia: Is it OK for the tea leaves to get into the cup? Should one use a tea strainer or a little metal ball that I’ve seen? My great grandmother would “read” the tea leaves in her cup! Thanks for a wonderful and educating series on tea, Victoria~ January 15, 2013 at 12:17pm Reply

    • Andrea: I had completely forgotten that my grandmother and my aunts would read tea leaves too and it was taken quite seriously. January 15, 2013 at 2:21pm Reply

    • Joanna: I like the idea of leaving tea leaves in the cup, in theory, especially for tea-reading purposes. But that would mean one strong, bitter cup of tea. Not for me! :-) January 15, 2013 at 2:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: Claudia, it’s Andy’s work! Like you, I’m enjoying his articles very much. January 15, 2013 at 2:54pm Reply

    • Andy: Unless you’d like to read the tea leaves, as you’ve mentioned (which, by the way, sounds like a lot of fun!), I would recommend straining the leaves out just as you’ve said, with a tea strainer. It’s not so much that it will ruin the tea if you have some leaves in the cup, but is more of a personal preference, as I know I would find it slightly difficult to drink if a lot of leaves were floating in the tea. And I’m so happy to hear you’ve been enjoying the tea-related articles! January 15, 2013 at 4:07pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Love this series. I am now enjoying a wonderful cup of Lapsang Souchong.
    I ruined many a pot of green tea years ago. I know better now.
    It’s funny that Indian teas and Ceylon teas tend to get bitter if overbrewed whereas with most Chinese teas ( black ones) this doesn’t often happen. I have a good timer now for my Darjeeling and Assam.
    Palais des Thés always puts brewing time and temperature on the packaging which is very handy. January 15, 2013 at 4:38pm Reply

    • Andy: I just received an order from Le Palais des Thés today, and am happy to finally be giving their line a proper taste. Already I’m very impressed with the quality of the packaging (I also like that they put the brewing time and temperature on the packaging). One of the teas I ordered was their Thé du Tigre, which is a Taiwanese version of a Lapsang Souchong. I had a cup and found the quality superb.

      And that is a very good observation about black teas that I too have observed. I wonder if it could have something to do with the variety of the tea plants cultivated in India and Ceylon as opposed to in China (for example, the Camelia sinensis var. assamica that you had brought to my attention). January 15, 2013 at 9:34pm Reply

      • Victoria: I would love to hear about your favorites, Andy! That’s my favorite tea shop, hands down. Their collection is large, so I’m still exploring.

        Do you know that they now have a store in NYC’s Columbus Circle? If you are ever in the city, it’s worth visiting. January 16, 2013 at 4:53am Reply

        • Andy: I am very excited to find my favorites in the line. I tried Thé des Concubines for the first time this morning, and I was so happy to actually be able to taste the tea, with the flavoring serving as merely an accent. Most other flavored teas are flavored way too strongly for my tastes. Off to try one of your favorites, Thé du Hammam, now!

          And I did know about their locations in New York—they actiually just opened another store today in Soho! I will have to visit one of the locations the next time I’m in New York. January 16, 2013 at 1:34pm Reply

          • Victoria: I had no idea about the Soho location, so yes, I look forward to your report from the field, so to speak. :) And I also look forward to your impressions on the teas. I might make some Thé du Hammam tonight. January 16, 2013 at 3:03pm Reply

            • Andy: As a person who is not typically a fan of flavored teas, I was blown away by Thé du Hammam. I put myself in a mindset to try and picture myself in the soothing atmosphere of a Turkish Hammam while drinking, and the experience was very transporting! Now I definitely want to make sure to visit a shop in NYC! January 16, 2013 at 6:14pm Reply

      • Austenfan: I have never tried that particular Lapsang. I have their Grand Lapsang Souchong also highly recommended.
        I like Palais des Thés, I do keep a very soft spot for Mariage Frères as well though.
        PdT also had a great tea from Nepal: Mist Valley Tippy. It was a “limited edition” however and no longer available.
        Have you tried their Perles de Jasmin? Wonderfully beautiful Jasmin tea. Really perfume in a cup. January 16, 2013 at 5:57pm Reply

        • Andy: No, in fact I’m a little bashful to admit that I’m just now becoming well acquainted with Palais des Thés. The only others I had ever tried had been in the form of two or three teabags I had gotten from a hotel room in Quebec City, and I really don’t remember them at all now. I am very happy to now be discovering their line, though! And that Perles de Jasmin sounds phenomenal, I just looked it up on their site! January 16, 2013 at 6:22pm Reply

        • Victoria: I wouldn’t hesitate to call Perles de Jasmin extraordinary. It’s really one of the best jasmine teas I’ve tried. Your perfume in a cup comment is so spot on. Every time I drink this tea, I wish I had a perfume that smelled exactly like it. January 16, 2013 at 6:27pm Reply

  • Isabelle: Thank you a lot, Andy, for this great series ! With the years I became aware of the difference paying attention to the brewing time made. However, I found it bothersome to try to measure the “ideal” temperature (I don’t have this kind of thermometre anyway). Just waiting for water to cool down slightly seemed too much effort, most of the time. But after reading your article, I tried to wait a few minutes after boiling the water (for a green tea) and it really made a huge difference !
    I might invest in a thermometer after all. :-) January 16, 2013 at 1:34am Reply

    • Andy: I agree, it can be a pain to adjust the water temperature for specific teas, but the results are worth it! And if you decide to get a food thermometer, any kind will do, no need for anything fancy or expensive. I’m glad you’ve liked the series so far! January 16, 2013 at 2:28pm Reply

  • Joan: Thanks for this! It’s hard to get the brew consistently right: I often brew too strong. January 20, 2013 at 5:18pm Reply

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