Sometimes no matter how hard you try, your cup of tea just doesn’t turn out right. Does it taste too weak? Too bitter? Maybe it doesn’t taste right? What could possibly be wrong?
With so much advice out there, it’s easy to mistakenly believe you’re doing everything right (and maybe you really are). Fortunately, when it comes down to it, there are only four factors that have the greatest impact on how your cup turns out, and they’re really easy to remember.
We simply cannot emphasize this enough. The taste in your cup begins and ends with this simple ingredient, and what kind of water you decide to use will absolutely influence the taste of your tea. Water has a pH level, mineral content, and volatile compounds, each of which contributes to its taste.
Lead in water, for instance, can taste “sweet” in high levels, while sodium will taste saltier. Higher levels of zinc or iron will cause your water to taste more metallic, while copper has more of a bitter flavor. Bacterial and algae growth can lead your water to taste earthy, musty, or even fishy. And we’re all relatively familiar with the smell of chlorine.
This doesn’t mean that distilled water is best though, on the contrary, we are against the use of distilled or purified water. Actually, some mineral content in water is necessary for extracting the tasty phytochemicals in your tea. Though more studies can surely be conducted, early research suggests that the best water for your tea is mountain spring water—and as it turns out, mountain spring water has been the standard practice for preparing tea for centuries.
If you are not yet using a scale to weigh your tea leaves, you might be wasting money. Professional chefs have long understood how difficult it can be to create and follow recipes, many now opting to present their recipes in terms of weights rather than sizes. Not only does a cup of sugar weigh very different from a cup of almonds, but there can be as much deviation as 40 to 50g of sugar from one person’s cup to the next.
How we treat tea should be no different. In fact, try this out when you have the opportunity.
- Weigh one tablespoon of Long Jing Dragonwell green tea.
- Weigh one tablespoon of Butterfly Jasmine Tea.
- Weigh one tablespoon of Floral Tieguanyin Oolong.
What were your results? Did it surprise you? Not only does the weight vary from tea to tea, but some teas are incredibly difficult to handle with even the best tablespoons, such as Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea.
A good cup of tea uses approximately 4g of loose leaf tea to every 6oz. of water, and most mugs in the west vary between 8 to 16oz. in size! If your tea tastes too weak, you may very well be using too much water and not enough tea leaves!
You should experiment with these two parameters first.
Like water quality and weight, water temperature can be easily overlooked and neglected. We have seen so many people prepare their tea by placing a kettle or pot on the stovetop and waiting until the water boils. Other people even guess at the temperature. Unfortunately, temperature matters…a lot.
If it is too hot, you will extract too many of the wrong phytochemicals too quickly, leading to an astringent or bitter cup of tea; and if it is too cool, you will not extract enough or even the rights kinds of phytochemicals that optimize the taste of your tea.
To complicate matters, each type of tea is best brewed at different temperatures—and if we’re being honest, even the same types of tea can have different water temperature recommendations due to other factors, such as leaf size, harvest date, and crafting touches.
Did you know, for example, that our artisanal Lu An Gua Pian (Sunflower Seeds tea) and our Zhu Ye Qing (Green Bamboo Tips tea) are better at different temperatures even though they’re both green teas?
For this reason, it’s best to consult a steeping guide for each tea, a recommendation that is usually carefully made after an expert has had a chance to determine the optimal temperature for the tea. Of course, taste is somewhat subjective, and so you’re always invited to tweak the temperature yourself as well. The most important takeaway is simply this: take your temperature seriously!
Time and temperature are closely related variables in the sense that adjusting one can have consequences for the other. Some experimenters will prepare even their green teas at 95–100°C (200–212°F), but they’re able to make a good cup because they remember that time is related to temperature, adjusting their infusion time downward to just a meager 5–10 sec. steep to compensate for the higher temperature.
We mention this so that you can think of these two factors as closely related. In other words, if you are trying to diagnose why your tea doesn’t taste the way you would like, only adjust either time or temperature individually (not at the same time)—unless you know what you’re doing.
With our warning out of the way, your infusion time works pretty much how you might expect: longer infusion times will extract more phytochemicals and shorter infusion times will extract less. People get into trouble, however, when they assume that more time is equivalent to a more flavorful cup of tea. That is false.
As we mentioned before, only certain kinds of tasty compounds are extracted from your tea leaves at certain temperatures. Think of your temperature as unlocking the flavors from your tea. Some of these flavors are desirable, making your tea taste floral, fruity, or herbaceous, and other flavors are less desirable, adding a medicinal, bitter, or muscatel component.
Now, in small quantities, medicinal notes can enhance the final taste, but if your leaves are over-extracted, then too many of these compounds might be released into your tea, making for a mostly medicinal flavor, which is not desirable. Likewise, a vegetal flavor can be appealing for some of us, but if we let too much of that vegetal flavor into our tea so that it takes over, it can taste like you’re drinking a cup of freshly cut grass.
When it comes to time, you’ll want to adjust it only after you’ve settled on the right temperature, and to adjust accordingly, you’ll want to think in terms of the tasting notes you’re noticing in your cup. Do those particular notes taste too strong or not strong enough? Then be sure to adjust your infusion time down or up, respectively. If you still can’t get it just right, then reconsider your temperature.
While there’s certainly some scientific relations between these four factors in your cup of tea, it’s as much art as science when it comes to getting your particular cup right. Each bag of tea will take some playfulness and experimentation, and as long as you know what you’re doing, you’re bound to fine tune it to just the way you like.
Hopefully this guide helps you do just that.