“Tea being an infusion and not a decoction like coffee, it should be brewed not stewed, the chief object being to extract as much of the theine or refreshing principle as possible and as little of the tannin or astringent property as can be at the same time without either boiling or overdrawing it.”
Written by Joseph M. Walsh in 1896, Tea Blending as a Fine Art, provides a number interesting gems which stand out and make us appreciate the history, culture, and even the science behind the beverage. In this case, Walsh is making note that it’s important to revisit the basics now and then to ensure that consumers of tea are preparing it correctly in order to get the most enjoyment. Specifically, brewing or steeping tea is done relatively quickly, with the intention of extracting the various plant compounds which directly impart taste.
Theine (the Refreshing Principle) and Tannin
The theine or refreshing principle referred to by Walsh in 1896 was none other than caffeine and while it was eventually recognized as the same substance as any other caffeine, the extraction of caffeine remains a major objective for many of us who can’t pass a morning without at least one cup. However, tea, like grapes, contain tannin which in significant concentrations will yield a bitter taste. All true tea from the camellia sinensis plant contain both caffeine and tannin though the variety of plant, its growing conditions, and the contents of the soil (or terrior) have an impact on the amount. Additionally, the processing of the tea from a white through to an oolong and black significantly impacts the amount of tannin found in the leaves.
Extracting The Goodness from Tea Leaves
Apparently, back in the late 1800’s there were enough people steeping tea incorrectly that Walsh felt it was critical to teach consumers how it was done. First, he notes that “the consumer should purchase only the best tea, it requiring much less of the finer grades to make good tea than of the common kinds, and will prove the most economical in the end.” Walsh goes on to describe misconceptions that the strength of a cup of tea was measured by dark color, leading to practices like adding tea to cold water and bringing to a boil, or stewing tea in boiling water for a prolonged period of time. Both of these provide a dark liquor but also an extremely bitter infusion.
When steeping tea the goal is to use good quality water, at the right temperature, for just the right amount of time to get the best tasting cup of tea possible while minimizing the bitter qualities of tannin. For loose leaf tea this means three important things; using good quality water, keeping the tea in contact with the water for the right amount of time, and using the right temperature water for steeping. Good quality water ideally means soft water, freshly boiled. The water should certainly not be distilled nor should it have been previously boiled water that has been re-boiled.
Separating the leaves from the water is also critically important. There are any number of ways to do this of course, using a reusable infuser or strainer or single use paper tea bag. For those more adventurous, a gaiwan, yixing teapot, or kyusu are great ways to steep tea in a more traditional way.
Finally, the right temperature is also very important. While boiling water works well for black tea and many oolongs, its isn’t the best for all types of tea. Using boiling water on green or white teas in particular will extract far too much tannin making your tea very bitter. With many teas, green, white, and yellow in particular, steeping with cooler water often brings out far more favor.
Steeping Time and Temperature
Below you will find very general steeping times and temperatures when using a single serve tea bag or infuser. These are general guidelines however since, as we noted earlier, the amount of various flavor compounds and tannin can vary significantly from tea to tea based on plant variety, growing conditions, and processing.
- White Tea – 170° – 185° for 1-3 minutes
- Green Tea – 170° – 185° for 3-5 minutes
- Yellow Tea – 160° – 170° for 4-5 minutes
- Oolong Tea – 185° – 212° for 3-5 minutes
- Black Tea – 190° – 212° for 3-5 minutes
If you don’t happen to have a thermometer readily available, fear not. Poured into a room temperature mug, boiling water will almost immediately drop the the high 190°’s. If you want to get water for green and white teas just wait 2-5 minutes before adding the infuser. For yellow tea, wait a bit longer, about 5-7 minutes before adding tea. Conversely, since boiling water will almost immediately cool, its best to pre-heat your mug for black and many oolongs by adding boiling water, discarding, and adding fresh water with the infuser already in the cup.