My tea journey started with only consuming big-brand bagged tea that looked like dust and produced a dark bitter brew. My brewing process for these pre-bagged teas was simple, First, I would pour hot water over the bag, and bob the bag up and down a few times before leaving it steep for however long felt right. After which, I would lift the bag out of my cup, rest it on a spoon, wrap the bag's string around it, and squeeze until every last drop of water was forced from it. After testing the swill with a sip, my tastebuds would beg for some milk and honey to offset the overly bitter, mouth-drying cup.
This is what I thought tea was for many years until I visited my first tea shop and was served the most beautifully sweet delicate cup of tea that required no additions. It was like a new world opened up and everything I thought I knew about tea was wrong.
Once you discover the true taste of tea, it's hard to go back. I'm going to share with you 5 tips to make the perfect cup of tea at home. Although these tips work best with loose-leaf tea, they will also improve the taste of pre-bagged tea.
“Life is like a cup of tea. It’s all in how you make it.” – Unknown
Tip #1 - Give Your Tea Space
If a perfect cup of tea is your goal, start buying loose-leaf tea. Loose-leaf is of higher quality which will affect the final flavor of your brew. The key to steeping loose-leaf tea is space.
Tea leaves come in many shapes and sizes and will expand once soaked in water. Giving the leaves enough space to fully open up allows the water to extract flavor from all sides. If your infuser is too small, the leaves stay bunched together restricting the water's access and leaving your cup lacking flavor.
So when shopping for a tea infuser, buy one that will allow space for the tea leaves to move - make sure it still fits in your cup or teapot. Basket infusers and large ball infusers are great options or invest in a nice teapot. You may try a few different options before you find the one that suits your needs best, and knowing how much tea you use per cup will help you choose the correct size.
Tip #2 - Weigh Your Tea Leaves
In general, 2-3 grams of tea per 8oz of water is the sweet spot. Using a kitchen gram scale is the best way to make sure you are using the right amount of tea; however, if you don't have access to a gram scale, 1 to 1 heaping teaspoon of tea per 8oz of water will do the trick. Using a teaspoon may require some trial and error when finding the perfect amount due to the size differences of many tea leaves.
More densely rolled or finely chopped tea leaves will fit in a teaspoon than large whole tea leaves making the teaspoon trick less accurate. This is why weight is the best way to ensure the correct amount is being used; 2 grams of a small leaf tea is the same as 2 grams of large leaf tea. If weighing your tea every time seems like too much work, here's a little trick to help. Weigh out 2-3 grams and transfer it to a teaspoon or multiple teaspoons; now you have a clear image of how many scoops or partial scoops are needed and you can recreate the amount for each new brew.
Don't be afraid to adjust the amount of tea used to suit your taste. If you like a weaker cup, try less tea and for a bolder cup, try more. If you like to use milk and sugar, I would suggest using more tea to ensure your brew is strong enough to hold up to the additions.
Tip #3 - Water Temperature Matters
Water temperature is a key factor in the extraction of flavor. Knowing what temperature to brew your preferred type of tea will improve the taste tremendously. Too hot will result in a bitter cup of tea, and too cool will result in a weak flavor. In general, follow this guide:
Black Tea: 212° - for higher elevations bring your water to boil
Green Tea: 175° - 180°
Oolong Tea: 195°
White Tea: 175° - 180°
Herbal Tea: 212° - for higher elevations bring your water to boil
Pu-erh Tea: 212° - for higher elevations bring your water to boil
A temperature-controlled kettle works best but can be pricey. Here's how to do it without the fancy kettle: boil water, pour the water into a cup, and use a kitchen thermometer to check the water's temperature. Once the ideal temp is reached, drop your tea in and steep. If you find yourself without a thermometer, boil water and wait 30 to 60 seconds before adding your tea. This is the least accurate method, but it can still produce a nice cup of tea.
Tip #4 - Steep Times Are Key
Scoffing at steep times is the most common mistake I see. Tea is a delicate substance and over-steeping even for a minute will cause the tea to be bitter and leave you with a dry mouth. Hardier teas such as black tea can withstand more variations in steep times than more delicate teas. Green teas are picky and can turn bitter quickly. Luckily, almost all of us carry a handy timer in our pockets everywhere we go. Here is a handy guide for steep times:
Black Tea: 3 - 5 minutes
Green Tea: 1 - 2 minutes
Oolong Tea: 2 - 3 minutes
White Tea: 2 - 3 minutes
Herbal Tea: 5 - 10 minutes
Pu-erh Tea: 5 minutes
In reality, the perfect cup of tea is unique to your tastes; so test multiple steep times within each range until you find which time works for your preferences. I like to start with a 2-minute steep on any tea I am unfamiliar with and adjust the steep time from there. If it tastes too weak, I'll drop the tea leaves back in for 30 to 60 seconds longer and taste again. If your tea takes on an astringent bitterness with a mouth-drying quality, you have steeped it too long. Experimenting just means you get to drink more tea!
Tip #5 - Don't Squeeze
My final tip is one that I struggled with at first. There is something so satisfying about squeezing all the water from the leaves and teabag, but this will ruin an otherwise great cup of tea. Tannic acid remains in the leaves after steeping, and by pressing or squeezing your tea leaves you are releasing these acids into your cup resulting in a bitter or, on occasion, a sour cup of tea. Resist that urge to squeeze those leaves, and your tastebuds will thank you. Instead, let the water drain naturally from the infuser or bag to keep the unwanted acids out of your cup.
Drink Tea & Begin Your Journey!
The perfect cup of tea is within your reach and can be easily achieved at home. If you haven't already, ditch the pre-bagged tea and switch to loose-leaf. Find an infuser or teapot with enough space for your tea to expand, weigh your leaves, check your water temperature, and set your timer. You are now minutes away from a delicious cuppa! Have fun on your tea journey. With these tips and a little experimenting, you are sure to find your perfect cup of tea!