Steeping the perfect cup

lishan oolong in gaiwan.JPG

Tea is just leaves and hot water in a cup, but oh, the places it goes from there! Here’s a bit about how to get the most out of your tea.

Storing your tea
Tea is delicate and wants to be treated gently. It maintains its peak freshness and flavor when stored in a dry, airtight container. Exposure to light will break down the essential oils faster. For best flavor, most teas should be consumed within one to two years of when they were made.

We just hosted Hillel Bromberg from Tea Oasis for a beyond wonderful loose leaf tea tasting. He was cordial, inviting, lively, positive, and provided an educational and relaxing program. Very highly recommended.
— letter sent from Kasia Piasecka at Falmouth Library to the Massachusetts librarian’s listserv

Always start with fresh, cold water. No need to obsess over tap vs. bottled. If your water tastes good enough to drink, it's good enough to make tea.

For many of the most popular black teas, start with about a teaspoon per cup. But tea leaves come in many shapes and sizes, so for best effect, use a pocket-sized scale and measure by weight, not volume. Tea vendors will suggest an appropriate amount for each of their products. Start with that as your guideline, then adjust according to your taste.

Steeping time
Teas can steep for as little as 3 seconds (really!) and as much as five minutes or more. Many teas can be resteeped 3, 4, 5, even a dozen times. And each cup is not just more of the same. Each steeping brings out different nuances and characteristics as the leaves open up, hydrate, and release more of their essence into the water. Here too, start with the vendor's suggestion and adjust to your taste.

Steeping temperature
Steeping at the right temperature brings out tea's full flavors. White, yellow, and green teas prefer cooler water than black teas, and oolongs are somewhere in the middle. A rough rule of thumb is that you can boil your water, then wait about two minutes or so for the water to cool to around 180°-190°F. Variable temperature kettles are an inexpensive and worthwhile investment.

The Chinese traditionally distinguish five stages of how water can come to boil for tea.  

Shrimp eyes: Tiny bubbles the size of a pinhead that resemble shrimp eyes begin to rise to the surface and pop.  A slow and gentle vapor of steam will show.  At 155°-175°F, this temperature is ideal for delicate green teas.

Crab eyes: Water that gets hotter will then produce larger growing bubbles about the size of crab eyes.  Vertical streams of steam rise up during this stage.  At around 175°F this temperature is perfect for brewing white, delicate green, and greener oolong teas.

Fish eyes: Bubbles resembling fish eyes (about the size of an average pearl) rise to the top of the kettle as the water heats up.  More steam is present, moving in thicker columns than in the Crab Eyes stage, and the kettle will make louder noises.  At 175°-180°F this temperature is ideal for green or white teas.  If your green tea tastes bitter, the water is too hot.

Rope of pearls: At 195°-205°F, a steady stream of large pearl size bubbles stream to the water’s surface.   This temperature is ideal for black, some oolong, and pu-erh teas pu-erh teas.

Raging torrent: Water that sounds like a raging torrent with swirling and rolling bubbles is called ‘ruined water.’  At 212°F this is considered to be de-oxgyenated and flat or what is traditionally called ‘old man water.’ Note though that a full boil is recommended for tisanes to bring out the herb’s full flavor.

Putting it all together
Here is a chart that gives you some rules of thumb for steeping different types of tea. Remember, preparing tea is not a hard and fast set of rules. It is an adventure in taste. Start with these guidelines, then experiment to find your own sweet spot for your favorite teas.

type of tea water temperature steeping time # of infusions from the same leaves
white 150° to 160° F (65° to 70° C) 1-2 minutes 2-3
Yellow 158° to 167° F (70° to 75° C) 1-2 minutes 2-3
Green 167° to 176° F (75° to 80° C) 1-2 minutes 3-5
Oolong 176°to 185° F (80° to 85° C) 2-3 minutes 4-6
Black 212° F (100° C) 2-5 minutes 1-3
Pu-ehr 203° to 212° F (95° to 100° C) 3 seconds-4 minutes numerous
Tisanes (herbal teas) 212° F (100° C) 3-6 minutes 1-2