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Tea tips: 15 easy steps to brew better tea

I didn’t think I’d ever write one of these popular “X ways to …” lists, but here it is: Ya-Ya’s 15 tea tips!

While all tips are relatively easy to implement, I’ve broken the list up into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels of tea appreciation. This should help to indicate the potential target group and level of improvement. Beginner’s tips will lead to the the biggest improvements, while the improvements from the advanced tips might be noticeable only to people who’ve developed a certain level of sensitivity for their teas.

BEGINNER

1. Use the right temperature for your tea
Most people brew their teas using boiling water. While boiling water is o.k. for most black teas and pu-erh, it’s just too hot for most green and white teas as well as many oolongs. Green teas steeped with boiling water generally turn bitter and very astringent, which is probably the reason for the bad impression many people have of green tea. You can find rough guidelines for different tea types at our brewing guide page.

2. Use high quality loose leaf tea
Tea used in tea bags is (with very few exceptions) inferior tea. High quality tea usually commands a price that can’t be marketed for tea bags. High quality tea is usually sold through specialized shops like our Ya-Ya House of Excellent Teas and not commonly found on supermarket shelves.

3. Give your tea enough room to expand during steeping
Tea leaves need space during the infusion because they expand. Particularly oolongs increase in volume when the leaves unfurl. Don’t use a “tea egg” or similarly restricting contraptions. Ideally, put the leaves loose in a separate pot/jug for infusion and pour the tea through a strainer into your serving teapot.

4. Use the right amount of tea leaves
Alright, this is not an easy one! Too established is the myth that’s repeated on every box of loose tea you buy in the supermarket: One teaspoon per cup & one for the pot!
 [ IMAGE Comparison of tea leaves IMAGE ] The right amount of tea leaves is usually about 2g per 200ml of water. Since there are big differences in size and density of the leaves, volumetric recommendations (i.e. teaspoons) are of little value if applied generically. To visualize the problem, have a look at the picture to the right (click to open bigger version): both heaps of tea leaves on the picture consist of 6g of leaf, the appropriate amount for a regular pot of tea. The pile on the left fits on about 2.5 teaspoons while we need about 6 teaspoons for the Bai Mu Dan!
Since most people don’t have a highly sensitive scale at home, we have done the work for you and always print the appropriate amount of tea leaf per serving size for each tea on its package.

5. Preheat your steeping vessel / tea pot
As we’ve seen under point 1 above, steeping temperature is very important. But if you pour water at the right temperature in a cold pot, the water temperature drops drastically. To maintain the temperature for the infusion, preheat the steeping vessel with a bit of hot water from the kettle before inserting the leaves.

6. Don’t over-steep your tea
The third important variable – after leaf amount and water temperature – is the correct steeping time. The time needed for extracting the best flavour differs greatly between teas and depends on your brewing method. Also, for whole leaf teas allow a longer steeping time than for broken leaf grades (most of supermarket teas belong to this group). Please see our brewing guide for a general overview of the most common teas.

7. Find the teas / flavours YOU like
This might sound silly, but I think it is worth mentioning since many people rely purely on factors like price, opinions of a friend, etc.
Price, for example, is often (but not necessarily) an indicator of quality, but by no means of flavour. You might prefer a full-bodied, simpler tea over a highly complex tea or vice-versa.
Only YOU know your preferences, so the ultimate judge of your tea should be your palate, not somebody else’s recommendation.

INTERMEDIATE

8. Consider water quality
Not all water brews good tea! Here in New Zealand, many people are lucky enough to have great, non-chlorinated tap water. But this is not the case everywhere. Chlorine is one of tea’s worst enemies, so if you can’t use tap water, buy a good bottled mineral water. Tea flavour usually is better with a certain mineral content of the water, so distilled water often makes the tea taste flat.
Since tea consists almost entirely of water, this step promises really profound improvements for your tea if you don’t have good tap water!

9. Store your tea leaves properly
Tea leaves are strongly hygroscopic (they attract moisture) and absorb smells easily. The flavour also deteriorates through exposure to light. That means that they need to be stored in a non-transparent, airtight container – ideally a tea tin or closely sealing jar (without glass window). One exception to this is pu-erh, which needs some air flow to continue its bacterial activity.
If you store the tea properly, it will stay fresh much longer.

10. Use multiple infusions
Most teas can be infused more than once. Generally speaking, you can infuse every tea two or more times, but most black teas lose too much of their flavour in the first infusion. Oolongs and pu-erhs would be wasted if only infused once. The development of flavour and aroma through different infusions is what really makes these teas interesting.
If you plan to go through multiple infusions, start with a slightly shorter first infusion and then increase steeping time and water temperature for subsequent infusions.

11. Experiment with the steeping parameters
Earlier, I’ve told you to adhere to certain guidelines regarding the 3 most important steeping parameters temperature (tip 1), leaf amount (4) and steeping time (6). As an intermediate tea drinker, you should be ready to venture further. After all, you probably have drunk quite a few different teas already and know what you like and what you dislike in a tea. Now you should find out the right preparation that brings out the best in a certain tea for you!
Everybody has different preferences, so the only way to find the exact way to make your perfect cuppa is to experiment. Use the steeping parameters we (or any other good retailer) give you as a starting point and go on your personal journey into tea.

ADVANCED

12. Brew your tea gong fu style
For a detailed description of Gong Fu Tea, please read my article on the Chinese Tea Ceremony. Although I would recommend this method even for beginners, it requires a certain amount of accessories that a beginner wouldn’t own. It requires a little more time and effort than “regular” tea preparation, but the rewards are worth your while (especially if you like oolongs and pu-erhs). Basically, gong fu cha involves many short steepings with the same tea leaves in a small brewing vessel. These short infusions reveal the true soul of a tea, since you taste it at every stage of its flavour development.

13. Use different teapots for different teas
OK, this is a real advanced tip and will apply only to those that seriously devote some of their spare time to tea appreciation.
The idea of using different teaware for different teas has both practical and aesthetic reasons. As for the practical side, most advanced tea drinkers who enjoy drinking Chinese teas eventually start using Yixing tea pots. Teaware produced from Yixing clays usually isn’t glazed and in fact, part of the reason to use it is its ability to absorb the aroma of the tea prepared in it. This means that over time, your teapot develops its own character or flavour. While this is a desirable property, it doesn’t work too well if you brew a range of very different teas in the same pot. You will end up with a strange potpourri of tea flavours. So if you are serious about a specific kind of tea (i.e. a light oolong or a ripe shou pu-erh), devote one teapot specifically to this type of tea. You’ll be rewarded with a teapot that will produce a tea that tastes better from steeping to steeping.

14. Enjoy every aspect of your tea
Most people drink tea for its flavour alone. But a good tea has more pleasure to offer and its quality is often not determined exclusively through its flavour. Take time to appreciate a tea’s colour and aroma and slow down to feel its effect on you body. The Chinese enjoy tea as an experience involving all your senses: it starts with the inspection of the dry leaves, goes through the appreciation of aroma, colour and clarity of the infusion and culminates in the actual drinking. Knowledge about your tea also adds to its appreciation: to know the legends about its origins, the processing steps of the leaves or simply to know something about the area of its production.

15. Create a ritual around your tea
This is a step that occurs almost naturally at some stage for most people, but it is worth mentioning here since it can greatly affect the pleasure you derive from tea. Tea has a natural tendency to slow you down, so enjoying tea in a relaxed atmosphere is much more pleasant than drinking a tea on-the-go. Your personal tea ritual can be as simple or intricate as you want it to be, there are no guidelines. It can involve fancy teaware or just your favourite mug. The main thing is to create an atmosphere that’s comfortable and relaxing, the rest will come by itself.
You’ll be amazed about how great the effect on you tea experience can be!

Do you have anything to add? Then please leave us a comment since we would love you to share your personal tea tips with us and our other readers.

[techtags: tea preparation, tea, tea tips, yixing, gong fu]

9 Responses to Tea tips: 15 easy steps to brew better tea »»


Comments

  1. Comment by Tea Escapade | 2008/05/22 at 13:27:42

    What a great post! I will certainly use some of these tips in my own brewing experience.

  2. Jo
    Comment by Jo | 2008/05/22 at 19:49:12

    Hi Nikki,
    thanks for stopping by again. I hope there was something new for an enthusiastic tea drinker like you.
    Learning in tea never stops and personal brewing styles tend to constantly evolve. I personally regard point 11 (experimentation) as the most important tip, but it requires some previous experience – like you have, for example – to gauge your progress.

  3. Comment by Michael | 2008/05/23 at 09:24:22

    Just a note about Gong Fu. One important bit is to use disproportionately more leaves. So the 2gm to 200ml doesn’t apply. I’d use about 3gm to 100ml (or whatever the easypot* size is).

    I’m quite keen on gong fu-ing now. I’ve found that I get tremendous value out of the leaves and can, with some teas, use one set of leaves all day while at work. For me, this is particularly pleasant with darjeelings. Can it still be called gong fu when you’re using a darjeeling!?

    The overhead of steeping the leaves like this is remarkably small if you have the right gear. You need a jug to pour boiling water into and an easypot. You can cool the water by pouring the water between the jug and the easypot. Then use the easypot to steep the leaves. The hot water can sit for a while in the jug – on hand for extra steepings.

    Hey Jo why don’t you put a photo and write up about the Easypot on your website? OK, the shameless plug is over now.

    * Easypot, get it now where-ever all great tea is sold**

    ** Great tea in Christchurch is only sold at Ya-Ya.

  4. Comment by hmbnancy | 2008/05/23 at 10:41:32

    Great site for enjoying the tea experience. Thank you, from a beginner.

  5. Jo
    Comment by Jo | 2008/05/23 at 10:41:37

    Michael,
    your comments are very much to the point. For gong fu tea, I usually go with my intuitions about leaf amount, rather than a scale (it takes a bit of experience, though).
    With large leaf teas, I usually fill my gaiwan/yixing pot 1/2 to 3/4 with leaf. With tightly rolled oolongs, 1/4 to 1/3 is enough (the leaves will completely fill the pot when unfurled at the end of the session).
    As to brewing Darjeeling gong fu: although it is traditionally not done this way, I have also found it to produce very good results with some fine Darjeelings. The change of flavours is quite remarkable and as you mentioned: a little bit of tea can go a looong way.

    And I guess, I SHOULD write something about Office gong fu tea with the practical Easypot. Thanks for the idea :)

  6. Jo
    Comment by Jo | 2008/05/23 at 10:45:31

    hmbnancy,
    thanks for stopping by. I am trying to share my enthusiasm for tea with like-minded people like you and hope to be able to pass on some of my knowledge.

  7. Comment by Bamboo Forest | 2008/06/04 at 18:28:43

    This is a great overview of tea. Well done! You really hit on the making of tea — oh so well. You got me in the mood for tea — but it’s too late now!

  8. Jo
    Comment by Jo | 2008/06/04 at 20:04:31

    Hey Bamboo Forest,
    you’ll have to wait til the sun rises again, I guess.
    I usually stay away from late night tea consumption, but it’s 8 p.m. now and I’m still drinking my pu-erh (I guess, it should be o.k. since I’m on something like my 8th infusion now).


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