Today, we’re going to look at a step that might be more even neglected than the water pouring, and that is agitation.
If you have ever observed any of the fancy, automatic tea makers that have made their way to the market, you may have noticed that they sometimes shake the basket or strainer of tea leaves. This is a form of agitation. It is true that many of these devices have their fair share of problems — such as a basket that is too small, temperature that is inaccurate, plastic parts, or excessive price points — but this particular feature is actually not a gimmick. There is a good reason the designers incorporated it.
Agitating tea leaves is a little trick that helps encourage the release and distribution of the tea chemicals into the water. Those same tea chemicals are responsible for both the flavor and health benefits of the tea you drink. You can certainly increase the extraction of these chemicals by letting the leaves sit in the water for a longer period of time or by increasing the temperature, but this is where things get a little tricky.
Chemically speaking, a lot is going on in your cup of tea. The water is cooling — but not uniformly — and at these slight differences in temperatures, all sorts of different compounds are being released from your tea leaves into the water (like caffeine, l-theanine, ECGC, and other polyphenols). As these make their way into the water, you’ll notice the color of the liquor in your cup begin to change, some of it settling nearer the bottom and some remaining suspended nearer the middle.
Over time, the color of the tea in your cup will grow darker and look the same everywhere. Ideally, however, you don’t want your tea to reach this point. While you will have extracted more chemicals into the water, it also won’t taste very good. The reason why is that some of those chemicals, like caffeine and tannin, can have a bitter flavor.
So what do you want to do?
Move your tea leaves around ever so thoughtfully while you’re steeping them. If you’re using an infuser, you may want to lift the basket out of your mug twice or thrice before finishing your steeping. With a teapot or gaiwan, you can take a wooden spoon and gently stir them. If you’re more comfortable handling your teaware, you can even give the tea leaves a little swirl while holding your teaware with a couple of circular motions.
By incorporating this step into your tea ritual, you help ensure that you’re getting the most from your tea leaves without getting too much. This technique accomplishes this by exposing more of the leaf to the water while keeping the water’s overall temperature even more finely controlled. After all, the goal is to maximize the flavor, finding that sweet spot on the tasting spectrum between the weak cup of tea and the bitter one.
This kind of agitation probably isn’t going to result in a radical difference in flavor, but it will enhance your cup just enough nudging you one step closer to making that perfect cup of tea. Sometimes little adjustments in technique like this can make the difference between a good cup of tea and a great one, and that little bit can go a long way in impressing even the most critical of guests. Besides, considering how easy it is to incorporate this into the steeping process, there is really no reason not to do it.