Goal: Perfect Cup
No matter how expensive the tea you buy, if you brew it wrong, it's awful.
This is a lesson many beginners learn the hard way. Many people who claim they "don't like the taste" were actually repelled by an incorrectly brewed cup of tea. This can create a terrible misconception that can last a lifetime... and can also be easily avoided with better brewing techniques.
Many restaurants, cafés and households that serve tea try to cut corners by simply throwing all teas into the same temperature water and serving visitors without any direction. This makes about as much sense as opening a premium wine bar and serving white wines at room temperature, or opening a prime steakhouse and serving all steaks well done.
Steeping good tea does not take a PhD, but it is also not as simple as chucking it into boiling water and letting it stew. There are easy ways, however, to steep the perfect cup.
The trick to steeping tea correctly comes in five parts: water, weight, temperature, time and equipment.
WaterPerfect water isn't necessary, but if your water "tastes funny", so will your tea. If your water tastes great (or does not taste at all depending on your perspective), you should be in pretty good shape. Great water will have around 150 parts per million (PPM) of balanced mineral content. For perspective, extremely hard water in several major U.S. cities is around 900+ PPM. To correct this issue, a conscientious tea shop will usually use a rather expensive reverse osmosis filtration system and a calcium carbonate cartridge to introduce the proper amount of mineral content to the water. At home, you can use a simple carbon filter water pitcher to remove the extra mineral, as well as any contaminants like chlorine.
Water that is too hard (too many minerals) will extract extra astringency from your tea and give you a harsh brew. Water that is too soft will not extract enough of the polyphenols that deliver astringency, health benefits AND taste and you'll have a weak, muddy cup. Fresh water is also best. When water boils, oxygen is released. The Chinese call water that has been boiled "dead water". You can't get the best cup of tea from water that has been repeatedly re-boiled.
WeightUsing too much tea will make your tea bitter and your wallet empty. Too little tea will bring a weak cup and a sense of longing. The volume that is considered the "golden ratio" of leaves to water is one teaspoon of most tea leaves (approx. 3 grams) per 8 ounce cup of water. Please note this is for a traditional 8 ounce cup. Most mugs are around 10 to 12 ounces. Here's where it gets a little complicated. A large, open leaf tea like a White tea or some Oolongs may require two or more teaspoons to equal 3 grams. Broken or tightly rolled teas like Gunpowder may pack significantly more into a single teaspoon. At the end of the day, perfection is less important than keeping an eye on the leaf size and adjusting based on your taste preferences.
TemperatureSome like it hot. The ideal temperature depends on the tea. Use boiling water (212F) when preparing Black, dark Oolong and Herbal teas. These teas are tough, they can take the burn, and even require it in order to break down the leaf and release the flavor. However, it's important to use cooler water when steeping more delicate teas, such as Green, green Oolong and White teas. Water that is too hot will cause a delicate tea to taste overly bitter or astringent. Water that is too cool will cause a tea to taste flavorless and weak. If you don't have a thermometer or a kettle that lets you gauge temperature, you'll typically find that boiling water that is allowed to sit for 5 minutes will have dropped to roughly 180F.
TimeThey say that "time heals all wounds." However, it also makes most teas turn bitter. The rule of thumb is 3-5 minutes for most black teas (depending on your preference for strength) - any longer, and they'll become overly astringent and puckery. Dark Oolong and White teas, on the other hand, are much more forgiving. These teas will taste best when steeped for 3-5 minutes but will still be drinkable if steeped a little longer. For light Oolong and green teas, a little TLC must be employed, steeping for only 2 minutes - 3 minutes, if you're looking for a strong cup.
EquipmentThe proper equipment is also very important in the steeping process. When hot water is added, tea leaves can unfurl up to 5 times their dry size. So to make a great tea you need to give your leaves some leg room. If using an infuser basket, use as broad and deep of a basket as possible for the pot or cup you're brewing in (some barely extend a quarter of the way below the surface of the water). Commercial tea bags are not recommended, due to inadequate expansion room and low quality tea.
Which brings us to our final point. It almost goes without saying that, to make the perfect cup of tea, there is one more prerequisite: good tea. Buy the best that is within your budget. It will make a noticeable difference.
The perfect cup is out there... just brew it.