Over the past winter I’ve become somewhat of a tea connoisseur, partly due to the fact that I live next to a nice tea shop that has over 50 different kinds of loose leaf tea for purchase. I’ve dived into the world of tea making and would like to share a basic method for making tea that will be vastly superior to any prepared tea you can buy in a cafe.
What Is Tea?
All non-herbal and non-fruit teas come from the exact same plant, Camellia sinensis. The large variation that exists between light and dark teas come from where the tea leaves were grown, when and how they were picked, and how they were processed using various mechanisms of wilting, panning, bruising, rolling, heating, baking, and drying. Considering the hundreds of different kinds of tea out there, the versatility of the tea plant to produce various tastes and aromas is astounding. Each tea requires a specific brewing method to bring out the best of its individual character.
Many teas are also location specific, not unlike how “champagne” can only be used to describe fermented wine from a certain region in France. Darjeeling tea can only be from India while a Ceylon tea is always from Sri Lanka.
The Superiority Of Loose Leaf Tea
Once tea leaves are finished processing and dried on a mat, workers scoop up the leaves to be packaged for sale in loose leaf collections. After the biggest leaves are scooped, the leftover bits remaining are then used for bagged teas, since they can’t be sold in loose leaf form. In other words, the tea that goes in bagged tea is broken pieces that are like what you’d find at the bottom of a potato chip bag.
Another problem with bagged teas is a lack of wide surface area from the tea bits, causing the brewing process to be fast and violent, extracting only the notes of the tea but not the body. This is why tea from bags can often be very thin, while loose leaf gives a denser liquid that can sometimes approach the consistency of milk.
To make a proper pot of tea, you will need some basic equipment, the most essential of which is not even a pot. You must get a scale and a timer. Because each tea comes at a different weight density, you will not make consistent pots if you use a volume-based measuring tool such as a spoon. A timer is also important, since a seemingly trivial error of one extra minute of brewing can have a drastic effect on the final result.
Make sure to grab a scale with reading that goes to the tenth of a gram. Here is the scale I use:
Smart Weigh DBL1KG ($13.99)
And here is my timer:
The reason you technically don’t need a pot is that you can pour hot water into any container with the tea leaves and then use a common kitchen strainer to transfer the liquid to another container. That usually involves extra work and cleaning, but it won’t impact the taste greatly.
When you’re ready to buy a pot, understand that the biggest flaw in pot design is with the infuser, the small container with tiny holes that goes inside the teapot. It holds the tea leaves during brewing and can be quickly removed without having to manually strain the liquid. The most common problems I’ve seen include a narrow infuser that offers stingy contact between the water and tea or an infuser with too few holes. We need a teapot that offers the most uninhibited amount of raw contact during brewing. After experimenting with several pots with shamefully inferior designs, I have found a Japanese company that does it right: Hario. Here’s the pot I use:
Look at how the infuser is almost as large as the pot itself, making it ideal to brew tea.
You’ll also need a kettle of some sort to heat water. Many delicate teas require water temperatures that are under boiling temperature (80 degrees Celsius), especially white and green teas, so a thermometer would help when bringing down the temperature in the case you’re using a basic stove-top kettle.
A better option is to buy an electric kettle that can heat water to a designated temperature, especially in the range from 80-100 C (they are called “variable temperature kettles”). The kettle I use, which is sold on the European market, allows me to dial in to the precise temperature of 80 or 90 degrees. Only black teas are suitable for a boiling temperature of 100 degrees.
Lastly, a teapot warmer is recommended. It has space for a tea light to keep your pot warm as you drink.
I use bottled water when brewing teas, because water from the tap has minerals that can greatly affect lighter teas, especially white teas. The less sugar you are using with your tea, the more important the quality of your water. Since white and green teas are not usually taken with sugar, you need to use bottled water or else the harshness of your tap will make it difficult for you to identify the true taste. If your water source is really bad, you may not be able to pick up on any taste at all, and you’ll naturally gravitate towards inferior teas that have “fruit” in them.
When I bring a girl over to my apartment for tea, they always gravitate towards the fruity teas because they have not yet developed the proper tea palate to appreciate traditional tea. I actually have two cheap fruit teas on hand at all times for this very purpose.
Default Brewing Technique
If I’m given a tea completely blind, without knowing specific instructions on how to brew it, I follow this formula:
- 0.75 grams of tea per 100 ml of water (one cup of water is 237 ml)
- 3 minutes brewing time
- 90 degrees water temperature
I make pots of tea using 500 ml of water (roughly two cups), so I measure out 3.75 grams of tea for each pot (5 x 0.75 g).
Whether the tea is white, green, or black, I will brew the first pot using this formula, and then make adjustments to suit my taste and the unique character of the tea. If the tea was too light, I increase the brewing time up to 5 minutes. If at 5 minutes it’s still too light, I increase the tea weight. If the tea is too bitter, I decrease the brewing time gradually to 2 minutes, and if that’s not enough, I start to decrease the weight. The formula I use is such that I can brew a second pot with the same leaves, and have it come out nearly as good as the first if I roughly double the brewing time.
When you are first starting off, especially with green tea, you won’t know how it “should” taste like, but I can give you the most important guideline you need to understand: it shouldn’t taste bitter. There should be no astringent aftertaste from your green and white teas, meaning you should have zero urge to reach for sugar. If there is even the slightest of bitter taste, you brewed too long. Only earthy or floral notes should be present.
The average man on the street who drinks green tea is actually drinking bitter junk. What’s amazing to me is that normal people actually leave the tea bag in as they drink, meaning they are brewing the tea for well over 10 minutes. This is insanity! I have been on dates with girls all over the world who do this, and recently I’ve been trying my best to educate them on proper tea drinking, but they are stubbornly resistant to changing their incorrect habits. Yes, the odds you will become a tea snob are great when you start brewing at home.
Dark teas are going to be more bitter by default, but it should still be rather drinkable without sugar. Only when I want something with a strong caffeine content will I go overboard with the brewing time and balance out the bitterness with a sugar cube.
Brewing A Pot With Pictures
Below is a pictorial walk-through of making a pot of Ceylon Earl Grey tea. I am doing a lighter variant with a brewing time of only 2 minutes from a tea weight of 0.5 grams per 100 ml of water (2.5 grams total).
1. Prepare your equipment
2. Heat water to necessary temperature
I dial in my kettle to 100 degrees.
3. Weigh the tea leaves in infuser
4. Place the infuser inside tea pot and pour in hot water
I like to start the pour slow to soak the leaves and then finish vigorously to create a nice swirl.
5. Use your timer to brew for a designated time
6. Remove the infuser and place teapot on teawarmer
You can leave the tea leaves in your infuser in case you want to brew a second pot. Note below how much larger the tea leaves are compared to what you would find in a tea bag.
7. Pour tea into teacup
Bring the liquid to your lips and allow it to enter your mouth. Taste and then swallow.
Here are some additional pictures from my collection:
Maintaining Tea Records
I have a note card for each tea that I brew so that I know what the best brewing formula is. I tape the paper to the tea container so it’s available when I need to reference it.
When you have over 15 teas in your collection, as I do, it becomes critical to document your brewing techniques. For some teas, the default brewing formula will work great, but other teas need extensive tinkering. Once you nail down the best formula, you are set for the season on that particular tea lot.
All tea snobbery aside, there is no “wrong” way to make tea as long as you enjoy it. What’s most important is developing a consistent method so you get a good pot every time you brew, instead of a more random result that you get from cafes that don’t even use a scale when measuring out loose leaf tea.
If you’re just starting out and don’t want to invest much in equipment, buy a basic strainer or tea basket and use measuring spoons to making an acceptable cup of tea that won’t win any worldwide tea competitions.
If you’re anything like me, you will start investing more resources into proper brewing in order to make golden cups of tea that are enjoyable to drink and good for your health when compared to sugary beverages.
Tea for me has become a sort of addiction in that if you put me anywhere near a tea shop, I lose all self-control and buy several teas even though I have a bountiful supply back at home. Every afternoon that I wake up is enjoyable as I examine my cabinet and decide on which tea I want to start the day with. It’s a cheap passion that gives me great sensual pleasure, and I hope that you also can learn how to enjoy the art of teamaking.