Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, after water. Americans consumed more than 80 billion servings of tea (3.6 billion gallons) in 2015, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A.
However, despite this growth in popularity, most people are brewing it all wrong. It’s more than just “take tea, add hot water”—obtaining the full flavor potential of your tea is actually quite nuanced and complex. When a cup of tea is prepared, it can be one of the most flavorful beverages out there. These are the top misconceptions around brewing tea and what it takes to craft the perfect cup.
Common Brewing Methods
Easy is good, but good isn’t easy
The tea bag. It’s ubiquitous, especially in the Western world. The greatest benefit of the teabag is convenience: You place the bag in a cup of hot water—no measuring, no mess. However, this convenience comes at the expense of quality. The leaves are low-grade and “chopped,” and the packaging is not natural. Most tea bags are made of bleached paper and most “silk” tea bags are made of nylon, plastic, and polylactide, imparting chemicals into your morning cup of Earl Grey. With lower-quality leaves and chemical-laden tea bags, depth and quality of flavor are easily lost.
Tea infusers. A step up in quality, loose leaf tea infusers allow you to brew without filtering the leaves through artificial materials. This method allows for whole-leaf tea to expand — up to a point. These types of infusers still impede the free flow of water around the leaves, so the leaves are not exposed to the water consistently. The result is an inconsistent brew with an unbalanced flavor profile that often is weak and astringent.
What Makes the “Perfect” Cup?
Better as a whole. Crafting the perfect cup of tea is a dynamic union between two ingredients: water and tea leaves, and a blend of art and science. There are more than 200 major chemical compounds within each tea leaf that are responsible for delivering aroma and flavor, as well as bitterness and astringency. When tea is kept in its whole-leaf form, tea brewers have the opportunity to develop desirable compounds while suppressing ones they deem undesirable. However, when tea leaves are cut into small pieces, the flavor options and control tea drinkers have is dramatically reduced. This is why whole leaf tea is the first and most important element in making the perfect cup of tea.
When searching for loose, whole-leaf tea, make sure the tea isn't scented, flavored or contains any added spices. Additives cover up the true taste and fragrance of tea, and chances are they are being used to mask low-quality leaves. Fine quality tea leaves might cost a bit more, but they also yield more servings of tea over multiple infusions. Therefore, the added upfront cost pays for itself a few cups down the road.
Clean water is good water. Equally important in the tea-making process is water. In the U.S., public water contains added fluoride and chloride to kill bacteria and strengthen teeth. Unfortunately, these chemicals also destroy the delicate flavors and aroma of tea, thus it’s best to use natural spring or filtered water.
Beyond these two ingredients, there are a number of key tools for your “tea kit” that will enable you to unlock the full potential of your tea, namely:
Scale: Get one. The tea industry perpetuates the misconception that measuring tea leaves in teaspoons is ideal, but 1 teaspoon of a balled oolong and 1 teaspoon of sencha are drastically different. The most accurate way to measure tea is by weight, so invest in a quality scale that measures down to one-tenth of a gram. I recommend starting with 5 grams of your favorite tea and adjusting the amount once you’ve established your baseline.
Tea vessel. This should ideally be made of glazed ceramic or glass, so as to not impart any flavors into the tea. It should also be large enough to provide space for the leaves and water to move freely to work their osmosis magic. If you own an electric kettle, ensure that it has temperature control settings for 70°, 80°, 90°, and 100°C or 158°, 176°, 194°, and 212°F.
Experiment, then experiment again. Beyond the right tools, tea making is about the process. For six months, I spent 60 to 90 minutes every day experimenting with tea making and took notes on everything I did to craft the perfect cup. Although you may not want to devote that kind of time to your daily cup, the point is that there is no substitute for taking your time and diving into the process. Remember that the instructions on the tea package are really broad generalizations so it's ok not to follow them. Take notes about what you like and what you don’t like to be able to finetune your process. Here are some ideas that I’ve used in my experimentation the help with what you may be experiencing:
If you’re experiencing bitterness, adjust infusion time and temperature of the water. Over-steeped tea will taste bitter, so try shortening the length of time you leave the tea in the water in 30-second increments until you find the flavor you’re looking for. If the steeping time isn’t the problem, it may be that the water you’re using is too hot. Tea leaves are delicate, so putting them in water that’s too high a temperature can essentially burn them, resulting in a bitter taste. Lowering your water temperature by 10°Celsius may solve the bitterness problem.
If you’re experiencing acidity, reduce the number of leaves or cool your water. Too many leaves will produce an over-abundance of the properties that lead to astringency. Start by reducing the amount of tea in your infusions by 1/10 of a gram at a time until you’ve found your desired level of astringency. If altering the ratio of water to tea leaves doesn’t do the trick, your problem may be that the water is simply too hot. As with bitterness, start by lowering your water temperature 10°C.
If you’re experiencing a lack of flavor, add more tea leaves or reassess your water temperature. More leaves obviously lead to more flavor, but you also need to ensure the water is hot enough to actually extract those flavors. Try increasing the amount of tea leaves in increments of 1/10 of a gram until you achieve the flavor you want. If that doesn’t work, try raising your water temperature by 10°C or more.
Despite its prevalence, tea is a delicacy, and deserves to be treated as such. There are seemingly countless variations of leaves, flavors, and aromas that capture the flavor of the growing region, its history, and its culture. From Japanese green tea ceremonies to the British tradition of afternoon tea, these tiny leaves provide a unique lens into different corners of our world.
Tea’s true value rests in affording people the opportunity to connect with the earth and with each other. In my experience, the quest to brew the perfect cup of tea has added depth, meaning, and pleasure to the ritual of tea, and I hope it does the same for you.
Allen Han is the CEO and founder of Teforia, a digital infuser that makes the perfect cup of tea each time.