Like Afrika Bambaataa was “Looking For The Perfect Beat,” I have been on the hunt for the perfect cup of tea; and I think I’ve found it. I am going to teach you how to achieve this liquid nirvana. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve had some bad tea experiences. Maybe it was too bitter (most common complaint), “smells like stinky socks” (thanks Barcelona), or tastes like dirty water (good one Jon). I’ve been drinking tea for years and have slowly refined my technique. I perfected it just this week and let me tell you, the details makes all the difference in the world.
Before we start, I have to address an important topic: tea bags. There are many reasons why you should only prepare and drink loose tea. Tea needs to be able to breath and stretch out. It benefits from having expansion room. Look at how much space there is in your typical tea bag. Not much. Recently, I have been seeing a trend of “gourmet” tea bags. The Republic of Tea uses unbleached bags in their tins. They are environmentally friendly, natural, and supposedly will make your tea better since there’s no chance of chemicals leeching into the brew. I think this is nice and I am a big fan of all natural, but people have been drinking tea in bleached bags for years and there’s never been a problem. Also, I think they could have addressed the space issue instead. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf sell teas that come in this fine mesh that looks like a pyramid. While this offers 2-3 times more room than, say a Lipton bag, it still is pretty much worthless. It’s still not nearly enough.
Tea freshness is also important and tea bags are harder to keep fresh. With loose tea, they are normally labeled and dated and you can control every aspect of the brewing. Tea bags are cut, blended, and filtered so only the finest tea particles are used. This makes sense since it has to be able to brew quickly and with intensity. It’s easy to understand why loose tea is the best choice.
Let’s introduce the key players!
Tea Infuser – You can really use anything you want here; the keyword is: expansion. You want to let the leaves really bloom and expand. Ideally, you want the infuser to be nearly the size of your cup, barely fitting inside it. You also want it to be easy to clean (those leaves can really get lodges in little holes) and you want it to strain properly. Often times, it will be nearly impossible to filter out all the bits of tea, but the finer the mesh, the better. I just received a Finum cup filter. It’s made in Germany and has a superfine mesh. It just helped make an amazing cup of Arya Estate Darjeeling SFTGFOP1 and from the looks of it, cleaning won’t be an issue.
Timer – You can use anything here including your microwave timer function or even software on your PC. It just needs to be able to countdown from at least 7 minutes and should be able to notify you with a sound when it’s ready. My timer is easily set, readable from my sitting position, and acts as a stand for my thermometer.
Thermometer – You need a thermometer unless you have an uncanny mutant ability to measure the temperature of scalding water with your tongue! Since no tea is brewed over boiling (that brings up a whole other discussion) and under ~140F, a standard probe thermometer that has range of 0-212F is perfect. Mine is a bimetallic strip probe thermometer with a 1″ dial. It has a range of 100-212F and is non-adjustable. The dial is marked with temperature rule of thumbs for brewing tea. This is sort of a bonus, but I don’t pay much attention to it because it’s not precise enough.
Electric Kettle – A regular kettle would require a stove so that limits you to using it in your home and they are extremely slow. An electric kettle can give you a roaring boiling in just a few minutes. Nicer models, such as the one pictured, have variable temperature selectors. You’ll see why this is important later.
Tea Spoon – Exactly what it sounds like. Originally used for measuring (by volume), now I just use it as a tool to scoop out tea. It serves a dual purpose and is just handy to have around. Alternatively, you can use a scoop, tongs, fork, etc. Just something to get the tea out of the container.
Scale – You need a scale that can measure out increments of 2.25 grams. This means that it can have, at worst, 0.05g of accuracy. Mine is 0.01g accurate and costs a bit more. The reason I care is with 0.05g accuracy, you don’t know if a 2.25g measurement means 2.25 or 2.21. Your scale should also be tared so your weighing, and hopefully brewing, vessel can be used. Taring basically means removing the weigh of the vessel so you take it out of the equation.
Teas – You need some loose leaf tea. It’s very important that your tea be stored in airtight containers and away from light. Some people suggest keeping your large stash inside a big container and then moving say a week’s worth into a smaller container. That way, each time you are opening the container up, you are only exposing (and deteriorating) a small amount of tea. The green containers you see have double lids. The ones you see with clear tops have the plastic treated with a UV coating to protect it from the harmful rays. Each container is labeled with most of the following: name, type, source, date, amount, temperature, and brewing time.
Water – Since tea is 99% water, it’s important to use good water. I use filtered water which I tested and found it to be nearly contaminant free.
Cup (not shown) – I like using ceramic because it retains heat pretty well. Make sure it’s 6-8 oz since this is the standard size for a cup of tea. Also, make sure the top opening is not too large or your infuser will rest on the bottom rather than be suspended from the rim. I just picked up a pair of Bodum Pavina double walled glass cups and they are really nice. You can see what you are drinking and you don’t have to worry about the heat.
Now that we have our players, let’s start making tea. The first thing you want to do is fill that kettle up with some water. My water cooler has three temperatures. I want the water to start off at room temperature. I don’t want it cold because that would have to go through too rapid a change. I don’t want it to be hot either because it’d cool down while I walked back to the office and then it’d get heated back up again. That’s no way to treat water. So room temperature water it is.
Now we want to pick out the tea we are going to drink. A black would be too easy and since I was having this after lunch, I went for a green. Preparing a green is much more complex and will really show you the “worst case scenario.” Also, you have to pick the tea first because it’ll determine how you heat the water. Reading the clearly printed label, I can see that it’s a Lung Ching Dragonwell and it needs to be brewed at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a very non-standard temperature. The rule of thumb for teas is:
- 212F (boiling) – Blacks and most Oolongs
- 180F – Green, white, Jasmine, and lighter Oolongs
- 140F – Very fine Gyokuro
Now that we know the target temperature, we’ll use the handy dial on the kettle to heat the water up slightly above that amount. You can always cool down the water, but you can’t heat it back up. I ran tests and found that the dial on my kettle really only has a very narrow temperature range. It starts off at about 165-180, then everything after is 212. So I’ll set it at about the 30% mark and turn it on.During this time, we need to measure out the tea. The label says 1 teaspoon which is, of course, standard for 6-8 oz of water. This is a measure of volume and this is where we run into trouble. Volume is not a good measurement because teas are unique. Have you ever seen the contest where you have to count jelly beans in a jar? Did you notice all the empty space that is around the beans? The same happens with tea. Some teas are rolled into little balls called pearls and a spoonful of those is inaccurate in two ways. First, you are not truly getting a tablespoon because of the empty space surrounding the pearls. Second, the pearls are compact rolled up leaves so you end up using more than you really are supposed to.
What’s the solution? Weight! Weight does not care about size or shape so you get much more consistent results. Also, there is historical basis in using weight. From the Spring 2007 issue of the Upton Tea Quarterly:
Some have asked why we use 2.25 grams as the standard for weight. It all begins with what is considered the standard yield of a pound of tea, 200 (6-ounce) cups. This equates to 2.27 grams of tea per cup. Rather than be a strict rule, it is simply a place to start …
The art of tea tasting is steeped in tradition. British tasters still use a sixpenny coin on a balance scale to weigh tea samples for cupping. An old sixpence weighs 2.86 grams. In India, tasters use an old 4-anna coin, which weighs approximately 2.8 grams.
The first thing I do is turn on the scale and let it stabilize. That means putting it on a firm surface and not disturbing it while it does a 10 second countdown. Then, I place the infuser on the measuring plate and press the tare button. Now I have it zeroed out and I can start weighing the tea. I use my teaspoon to scoop out small amounts until I hit my target (usually 2.25g but sometimes up to double). I always go over so I’ll pour some back into the container and try again. The fancy white teas and pearls are especially tricky because they don’t scoop out very well.
Now that we have 2.25 grams measured out, the water should be ready. I always fill up my cup and let it swoosh around for a bit. This serves two purposes: first it warms up the cup and second, and more importantly, it cleans it in preparation for the tea. Even if your cup is clean, it may have gathered dust and particles while sitting on your desk. At this point, you have an important decision to make: to rinse or not?
Teas such as Oolongs benefit from a rinsing of the leaves before actual brewing. This cleans the leaves of dust and contaminants and opens up the leaves for proper brewing. As a side “benefit,” most the caffeine comes from the first 20 seconds of brewing so if you want decaffeinated tea, just steep the leaves for 20 seconds, dump out the water, and brew as you normally would. For this particular tea, I am not rinsing but if it was an Oolong, I would take the infuser basket and the kettle over to the sink. Then I’d pour a 5 second stream of water over the leaves, letting the infuser immediately drain.
Now, pour the hot water into your cup, leaving some room for the basket. Drop in thermometer, making sure at least the bottom two inches are submerged if you have a probe thermometer or else it won’t give an accurate reading. My water started out at 180F and after a few minutes it dropped to 160F. While I was waiting, I set my timer for 2:30 minutes which was right between 2-3 mins. When the water was ready, I dropped in the infuser basket and hit the start button.
You may think you are done now, but there’s one more detail you should be aware of. Do brew it covered or not? As you’ve guessed, brewing covered means it’s hotter, with the steam having nowhere to escape. Since this is a green tea, I am leaving the cover off so it can brew cooler. When the timer goes off, remove the infuser, allowing it to completely drain. Hopefully your infuser comes with a lid that doubles as a drip catch. If it does, then place your infuser on it and get ready to drink your tea. But wait, it still probably too hot to drink, so take a few cautious sips to make sure.