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How to Brew the Perfect Cup of Tea

A clear teapot with the lid off and steaming in a dark room

How to Brew the Perfect Cup of Tea

Tea has been a popular beverage for centuries, with a rich history that spans cultures and continents. Whether you prefer hot, iced, or cold tea, there are several factors that can impact the quality of your brew Here, we'll cover everything about how to brew tea, including a brief history of tea, basic tea terminology, how to brew based on tea type, and how to store and preserve your tea.

A Brief History of Tea

The origins of tea can be traced back to China, where it was first consumed as a medicinal beverage over 4,000 years ago. According to legend, tea was discovered by the Chinese emperor Shen Nong, who was sitting beneath a tree when a leaf fell into his cup of hot water. The leaf infused the water with a pleasant aroma and taste, and the first cup of tea was born. It wasn't until the 16th century that tea was introduced to Europe by Portuguese traders, and it soon became a popular beverage across the continent. In the 18th century, tea was introduced to America and quickly became a staple in many households.

Today, tea is grown and consumed around the world, with different regions producing unique varieties and flavors. From black tea to green tea, oolong to white tea, there's a tea for every palate and occasion.

What is Tea? What is Not Tea?

Tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which is native to Asia. The leaves are harvested, dried, and processed to create the various types of tea. However, not all hot beverages made with herbs or plants are tea. For example, herbal teas like chamomile, mint, or rooibos are not technically tea because they don't come from the Camellia sinensis plant.

Flush refers to the production period in which tea leaves can be plucked. Variation in flush can occur depending on the tea being produced as well as climate conditions that impact a season’s harvest. The first flush, or first blooming of the plant typically yields the highest quality and price because of the skilled labor required. The part of the plant that gets plucked determines the grade of the tea for classification purposes. Tea categorized as either whole leaf or special grade, consisting of the largest and most mature leaves handpicked during the first flush, is considered the finest quality tea. Conversely, dust refers to the smallest tea leaf particles and is deemed the lowest grade. 

Basic Tea Terminology

Before we dive into brewing techniques, it's important to understand some basic tea terminology. Here are a few terms you should know:

  • Steep: The process of steeping tea involves adding hot water to the tea leaves and letting them sit for a certain amount of time to infuse the water with flavor.
  • Infuser: A tool used to hold tea leaves while steeping. 
  • Tannin: A naturally occurring chemical in tea that gives it its characteristic bitterness or acidity.
  • Oxidation: The process of exposing tea leaves to oxygen, which can affect their flavor and aroma.
  • Fixation: The initial heating process tea leaves undergo, which can occur through steam or through a heated pan, which is more of a rotating drum. Fixation will affect the shaping of the tea leaves 

The Same Tea Brewed Three Ways: Cold, Hot, and Iced

The temperature of the water you use to brew tea can have a big impact on its flavor. Here's how to brew the same tea using three different methods:

Hot Tea:

  • Bring water to the correct temperature.
  • Add tea leaves to a tea infuser or make-your own teabag and place it in your cup.
  • Pour the hot water over the tea leaves and let it steep for 2-5 minutes, depending on the type of tea.
  • Remove the infuser and enjoy your hot tea!

Iced Tea:

  • Bring water to the correct temperature.
  • Add tea leaves to a tea infuser and place it in a large pitcher.
  • Pour the hot water over the tea leaves and let it steep for 2-5 minutes, depending on the type of tea.
  • Remove the infuser and let the tea cool to room temperature.
  • Once cooled, add ice to the pitcher and enjoy your iced tea!

Cold Brew:

  • Add tea leaves to a tea infuser and place it in a large pitcher.
  • Fill the pitcher with cold water and let it steep in the fridge for 8-12 hours, depending on the type of tea.
  • Remove the infuser and enjoy your cold brew tea!

Brewing Based on Tea Type 

Various types of tea in small white dishes from an overhead angle

From the bold, robust flavor of black tea to the delicate, subtle notes of white tea, each type of tea requires a specific brewing method to bring out its unique characteristics. All tea requires some sort of processing, and the extent of processing plays a role in the different types of tea. 

  1. White tea: White tea is the least processed of all teas and is made from the young leaves and buds of the tea plant. The leaves are typically withered and dried in the sun or a warm room before being lightly rolled and dried again. This minimal processing results in a light, subtle flavor and aroma, with notes of fresh grass or hay. White tea is typically brewed with water that is around 175-190°F and steeped for 3-4 minutes.
  2. Green tea: Green tea is created through a process that avoids oxidizing the leaves. Instead, they are picked, withered, and steamed or pan-fried immediately. This procedure results in a gentle taste and aroma with subtle notes of herbal, grassy, or nutty flavors. What flavor results depends on whether steam fixing, or pan-fried fixation techniques were used. For example, Japanese green tea producers tend to prefer steam fixation techniques while Chinese producers prefer pan-fried fixation. Green tea typically has a lower caffeine content than black tea and is brewed with water that is around 160-180°F and steeped for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Oolong tea: Oolong tea is a partially oxidized tea that falls somewhere between green and black tea. Oolong tea is typically made by withering the leaves in the sun or a warm room, then tossing or shaking them to bruise the edges of the leaves. The leaves are then partially oxidized before being dried and rolled into tight, compact balls or bundles. This process gives oolong tea a complex flavor and aroma, with notes of honey, floral, or fruity flavors.  Tea colors ranging from a pale yellow to a dark red can result. Oolong tea is typically brewed with water that is around 180-200°F and steeped for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Black tea: The art of producing black tea involves a three-step process of withering, rolling, and crushing the tea leaves to extract its juices before oxidation is allowed to occur. Along with a higher caffeine content then other kinds of tea, black tea flavor profiles tend to feature notes of malt, caramel, or coca. Black tea is normally brewed with water heated to 212°F and steeped for 3-5 minutes for maximum flavor. 
  5. Dark tea: Dark tea, sometimes referred to as Pu'er, is a fermented tea that undergoes an aging process to develop its signature deep, earthy taste and aroma. Over time, the tea is fermented and aged, which results in complex notes of soil, leather, or wood. The uniqueness of the fermentation process is the result of complex chemical reactions that can alter taste, texture, and overall nuance of the tea’s flavor. This type of tea is temperamental with respect to humidity – if it’s too high, then spoilage and mold can ruin the leaves while too low of a humidity can dry out the leaves in causing flavor to be lost. Finding the right balance in humidity is what allows microorganisms to break down compounds in the tea that determine its flavor and aroma. Some dark teas are fermented for only a few months, while others are fermented for several years. The longer the fermentation process, the more complex and nuanced the flavor and aroma of the tea will be. As the tea ages, it develops a complex and subtle flavor profile, with notes of earth, wood, and leather. The tea also becomes smoother and more mellow with age, as the harsher tannins and bitter compounds break down over time. To brew Dark tea, steep with boiling water for 2-4 minutes for a rich, full-bodied taste.

When brewing tea, it's important to use the right amount of tea leaves. Generally, you'll want to use 1 teaspoon of tea leaves per 8 ounces of water, but this can vary depending on the type of tea and your personal preference. You can adjust the amount of tea leaves and brew time to suit your taste.

Storing and Preserving Tea

Storing and preserving tea properly is important to maintain its freshness and flavor. Here are some best practices backed by experts

  1. Store in an airtight container: Oxygen, moisture, and other environmental factors can affect the flavor and quality of tea. It is important to store tea in an airtight container, such as a tin or jar with a tight-fitting lid, to prevent exposure to air.
  2. Keep away from light and heat: Tea should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight, heat, and strong odors. Exposure to light and heat can cause the tea to lose its flavor and aroma.
  3. Use a dark-colored container: If you don't have a tin or jar, you can also use a dark-colored container to help protect the tea from light.
  4. Don't store in the refrigerator or freezer: While it may seem like storing tea in the refrigerator or freezer would help preserve it, these environments can actually cause the tea to absorb moisture and odors, which can affect the flavor. The exception to this being Matcha as long as it is in an airtight container.
  5. Use tea within 6-12 months: Tea is best consumed within 6-12 months of purchase to ensure the best flavor and freshness. After this time, the tea may begin to lose its flavor and aroma.
  6. Keep different types of tea separate: If you store different types of tea in the same container, they may begin to blend flavors over time. To avoid this, keep different types of tea in separate containers.

Information supported by the Tea Association of the USA.



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