The water with which one prepares fine tea is very, very important: tea is essentially water with a bit of color and often subtle flavors from the tea leaves. While it contains vitamins, minerals, tannin compounds and other ingredients helpful to the human diet, it is still primarily water. If you have water that is chlorinated or high in calcium or mineral content these characteristics can interfere with the true flavors of the tea. Fine teas should be made with high-quality filtered water – certainly water that is free of extraneous odors or flavors. Neutral bottled water is ideal. If you have a simple water filter at home, it should work fine. Another important factor concerning the water you use is that it should not be over-boiled. Over boiling water will reduce the amount of available oxygen which is essential for proper extraction of the aromatic and flavor elements in the leaves.
Infusion times vary from tea to tea and depend greatly on personal preference. However, water temperature is another important factor to consider. White or green teas brew best with water well below boiling (170-185 F). Oxidized teas (many Oolongs and black teas) require water that is just off a boil 210 F. Understanding that most folks aren’t about to take the water temperature before brewing, for white and green teas, let your water boil fully for 10 seconds and take it off the heat and cool it down for five minutes. For Oxidized and black teas, bring the water to a 10 second boil, and let it cool for a brief minute before pouring over the leaves.
Loose leaf tea is always preferable to bagged tea. It is difficult to be certain of the quality of a tea when it is enclosed in a small bag, but in most cases it is likely to contain broken bits as a matter of course from the manufacturer or as a result of poor handling in transport. Loose teas offer themselves to be inspected and appreciated for (in some cases) the quality of the leaves and the artistry that went into their production. Each type of tea will have a distinctly different look depending upon the parts of the leaf used, oxidization and twisting. It is worth it to sit back and watch the loose leaves unfurl in your pot to release all of their available aromas and flavors. Despite our strong preference for loose tea, it is still worth noting that there is little arguing with the convenience of a tea bag and we remain big fans when it is from a reputable producer and when loose tea is not practical.
Each tea will have a recommended steeping time but this will also vary depending upon the water temperature and quality and perhaps more importantly, personal preference. Steeping tea is a balance between getting enough extraction of flavor and aroma without bringing the natural astringency of the leaves to the forefront and masking the tea’s more subtle flavors. Generally, white tea will need to steep the longest (7 minutes or so). Green tea will take slightly less: around 5 minutes. Oolong and black teas will take anywhere from 2 minutes to a full 5 minutes depending upon amount of oxidation. We suggest steeping your tea for the suggested length of time and experimenting on your own until you find the time that gives you your desired flavor.
Buying and Storage
As with any perishable or semi-perishable product, buy your tea from a place that has a good turnover so that you can be sure that the tea you are buying is relatively fresh.
White teas and green teas are the most fragile and should be consumed when still reasonably fresh: within 2-4 months of purchase. The more oxidized the tea, the better it will keep. Oolongs can vary in this quality so they can keep generally between 4 and 8 months from purchase. Black teas are fully oxidized and will keep the longest – up to 12 months. In all cases, keep tea in a dry environment away from heat and light in an airtight container.
Unless you are planning on conducting your own Gong fu Cha (China) or Chaji (Japan) tea ceremony, there are a few simple pieces of equipment that will make your regular tea drinking more rewarding.
Tea pots play an important role in the history of tea as well offering a variety of decorative and practical features that complement your particular style of tea drinking. Perhaps the most ancient type of pot is the Chinese tea pots from the province of Yixing. These clay pots are semi-porous and develop a beautiful patina over time. They also absorb flavors readily and should only be used for a particular family of teas so that the flavors do not become muddled when brewing a different type of tea.
For general household use, we find that a simple tea pot made of porcelain is great for most teas. We also enjoy using a clear glass tea pot that allows us to watch some of the more dramatic tea leaves unfold. With any pot, make sure to give the leaves plenty of room to expand in the water. For this reason we don’t use a tea ball or similarly cramped infuser- we find that steeping the tea directly in the pot and using a fine strainer as we pour works best.
Finally, we prefer true tea cups rather than the more ubiquitous coffee mug. We like to use a porcelain tea cup with a white interior so that we can easily appreciate the color of the liquor. Beyond this, we’ll leave it up to you if you’d like to get the tea scale, thermometer and tea cozy…