Widely recognized as a leading authority on loose leaf Chinese tea, Ned Heagerty, co-owner and CEO of Silk Road Teas shows how to brew and assemble the perfect cup of tea.
How to Brew Tea: The Short Version
It's easier than you think since there is no right or wrong way to make tea. Experiment and, most importantly, let your palate be your guide. If it's your first time brewing loose tea, here are some simple instructions to follow to ensure that your first cup is one you thoroughly enjoy.
- Water: Start with good tasting water - lightly filtered or spring water will do. Follow the temperature guide below and be sure not to pour boiling water on green or white tea as this will "cook" the leaves and to a degree lessen their flavor. One note, if you like the taste of your tap water, you will probably find it satisfactory for making tea.
- Leaves: For a cup of tea or a teapot (8 to 12 ounces), one tablespoon (3-5 grams) of tea should be enough. For a teapot 16-24 ounces, a rounded tablespoon of leaf will probably work. You may need to experiment some here to find the right quantity and taste. Note, if the tea is becoming astringent, even with a short steep, you probably are using too much leaf.
- Steep Time: Generally, we steep our green, white and black teas for 2-3 minutes. Oolongs will typically use shorter steeps as they are strong in taste. Pu-erh teas will steep for longer periods. So, the steep time may vary for each variety. Start with shorter steep times (2 minutes) and see if you like the taste. Experiment and increase the steep time as needed.
- Taste: Most of our leaves are meant to be steeped two or three times. Simply add hot water to the pot and increase the steep time with each infusion. Between steeps, drain the water from the leaves.
|White, Spring Green, Japanese Green||160-185° F (71-77° C)|
|Green||170-185° F (77-83° C)|
|Oolong||185-205° F (82-94° C)|
|Black||190-205° F (88-94° C)|
|Pu-erh||205-212° F (94-100° C)|
|White, Green||1 TBS per 12-16 oz.|
|Oolong||1 TSP per 12-16 oz.|
|Black||1 TSP/TBS per 12-16 oz.|
|Pu-erh||1-1.5 TBS per 12-16 oz.|
|White, Green , Black||2-3 minutes|
|Oolong||1 ½ - 3 minutes|
How to Brew Tea: The Long Version
Water for tea is best when it has a clear, crisp taste and is soft, free of chlorine and low in alkalinity. In other words, your water should be fresh and pure. Good water is available in any number of ways. Bottled, noncarbonated spring water, of course, can be purchased. Or, you can make your own tea water by using a Brita or other filter as they are inexpensive and reduce the chlorine and mineral content.
Generally, teas brew best in moderate to soft water. Some experimentation will tell you how well a particular tea is doing in the water you typically drink. Tap water is rarely the best to use because of the filtration systems and substances such as chlorine that are added to make the water safe to drink. However, if you like the taste of your tap water, you will probably find it satisfactory for making tea.
Water temperature is a crucial element in the tea brewing process. Although you should always experiment to find the right temperature to get the taste you most enjoy, there are a few general rules that can be applied. For black and oolong teas, which are more highly oxidized and, in the case of oolongs, have a larger or "denser" leaf, the water temperature will be higher. In fact, for oolong teas it is generally held that water right at boiling temperature is best. For brewing white and most green teas as well as teas that show a lighter leaf color, the water should be cooler, certainly below boiling. Of course, there are exceptions. Japanese teas are dark in color but are best brewed in lower temperature water. Chinese yellow teas, while they are generally a beautiful light-green color, can take a higher temperature unlike their green tea cousins.
In order to understand what constitutes "higher" and "lower" in water temperatures, it helps to familiarize yourself with the traditional Chinese method of describing boiling water. There are essentially five identifiable stages in the boiling of water that relate to brewing good-tasting tea:
- Shrimp Eyes: The first, tiny bubbles that appear.
- Crab Eyes: Slightly larger bubbles.
- Fish Eyes: The temperature of the water will be in the range from 160° to 180° F. Good size bubbles will form; this is the temperature where delicate green, white and some of the yellow teas will brew well. Some oolong lovers (of the Dan Cong style) prefer to brew their leaf for longer steep periods in this temperature range.
- String of Pearls: In this stage, the water is at a temperature between 180° F and 195° F and bubbles are beginning to break the surface and cling to the sides of the pan. Everyday green teas, many higher grade teas and some black teas do very well at this temperature.
- Dragon Eyes: The last stage is a rolling boil. Here the temperature is between 195° and 210° F and large bubbles are breaking the surface. Very few green teas will yield positive results at this temperature, but black teas, oolongs and Pu-erhs can be steeped with this water. One note, if you choose to brew at this temperature, you will bring the taste of the tea out quickly. The leaves will release much of their flavor early in the steep and as a result provide a full taste while probably knocking off or blunting some of its more subtle notes.
Once the water has come to a boil, there is a way to determine whether or not the water is in the temperature range you desire. Lift the saucepan to eye level and observe the steam as it rises. If the steam column is rising straight up from the water, it is still very close to a boil. Once the steam starts to drift, the temperature should be low enough for most white, green and black teas.
Here is a table summary of teas and water temperatures for reference.
|Tea Type||Water Temperature|
|White tea, Spring green teas, Japanese green tea||160-170° F (71-77° C)|
|Green tea||170-185° F (77-83° C)|
|Oolong tea||185-205° F (82-94° C)|
|Black tea||190-205° F (88-94° C)|
|Pu-erh tea||205-212° F (94-100° C)|
With higher quality varietals such as those offered by Silk Road Teas, the amount of tea used will probably be less as the leaves are far richer in taste and aroma than the small, broken leaves typically found in a lesser quality tea. For example, for 12-16 ounces of water, you may need only 1-1½ rounded teaspoons, or 2-3 teaspoons for a larger 6-8 cup tea pot.
There are, however, differences between the tea varieties. Green and full-leaf white teas may require a greater amount of leaf; say 2 tablespoons for a 12-16 ounce teapot. Oolongs, on the other hand, will use far less (one to one and half teaspoons) as their large leaves are tightly wound and will open to a robust taste and offer multiple steeps.
Again, some experimentation will give you a better idea of how you like your tea to taste and the amount of leaf you need to gain this taste consistently. Try out different quantities and see what appeals to you. And when you find the appropriate amount of tea for your palate, there are rewards! As you drink, you will experience perhaps a well-defined note (sweet, malty, floral, fruity), or a pleasing and distinct taste as the liquor crosses your tongue; there may be a very nice finish that is clean and lingering. When things like this begin to happen, you are using the leaf well.
This is perhaps the most subjective part of a discussion of how to make a good cup of tea. A steep time is defined by two things: the quality of the leaf and how strong or mild a taste you prefer. Artisanal, full-leaf, unadulterated teas offer a depth and quality of taste that usually require a shorter steep time when compared to bagged or blended tea.
Generally, we steep our green, white and black teas for 2-3 minutes. The steep time can vary for each variety and we encourage you to experiment to find the taste profile and strength you enjoy. At the same time, keep in mind that a competition grade Dragon Well may be ready with a steep time of one minute as it is a high-grade tea with plenty of taste. Steeping it longer may "cloud" the liquor and perhaps cover a fine high note characteristic of the early-spring pluck. Thus, for the highest grade teas, generally shorter is better. For oolongs we recommend a brief rinse with hot water, followed by a steep time of 1½-2 minutes. For the high-grade oolong varietals and when steeping the leaves of any oolong for a second and third time with the leaves fully opened, we pour them off at 1-1½ minutes.
Pu-erhs are far more flexible. The general rule of thumb for ripe Pu-erh is that the tea will only get stronger and never get bitter. You can brew them to an espresso-like color and experience the strong body, rich aroma and sense of strength in the liquor. Conversely, for green or raw Pu-erh, the steep times generally but not always shorten, as the tea will offer sweet, malty notes with a short steep.
The steep time you ultimately use for your tea will inevitably be the result of your personal preferences. Playing with various steep times will lead you to your preferred taste profile. Just be careful not to assume the taste you experience in any given steep is all that the tea has to offer. If you find some element not to your liking, try steeping it differently. With just a little experimentation, you can learn to enjoy the very best of every tea.