A friend of mine called recently about the green tea she was steeping. It was a loose leaf tea that I had recommended but it didn’t meet the expectations I had set, she said. So I set off to see for myself why it hadn’t been delivered.
How did you make it? I asked. The water came out of an espresso machine, piping hot. It was also hard water that tasted mineral-y. The heat scalded the delicate green tea. And after being steeped for 3 minutes, it had become bitter.
No matter how much or how little you know about tea and tea varietals, there are two factors that always help derive the optimum flavor from tea: water quality and temperature.
A fellow tea friend, Peter Keen, says that if you look after the water, the tea will look after itself. It’s also why connoisseurs will go in search of spring water to make that perfect cup of tea. But what can we do within what’s available to us?
Let’s assume our water choices are limited to the filtered water we use in our homes. If it’s good enough to drink, it’s good enough to make tea.
Most teas come with recommended temperatures and steeping times, which offer a useful guide. Some thumb rules: Do not use boiling water because it scalds the tea. Black teas may be able to withstand the temperatures but there are so many kinds that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. A spring-flush Darjeeling, for instance, doesn’t do well with boiling water.
Green teas need such short steeps that very hot water ruins them, as was my friend’s experience. We tried the same tea but with filtered water heated in a vessel this time. As it neared boiling, we turned off the gas and let it cool for about 4 minutes. We didn’t check the temperature but it was hot enough to drink without scalding. Thirty seconds produced a delicately flavoured, lightly coloured liquor. A longer second steep of 1 minute revealed more vegetal flavours and colour and the joy of seeing the leaves unfurl. We also found that at 2 minutes, this tea entered the realm of bitterness.
The Chinese way of drinking green tea is naturally designed to mitigate this experience. The gaiwan is a small cup with a saucer and a lid. You add your green tea to the cup and keep refilling it with hot water. Steeping times are in seconds, so the water is never too hot. You drink it using the lid as a filter to keep the leaves from going into your mouth.
White teas do well with longer steeps but high temperatures can also ruin the delicate buds and unprocessed leaves. I find that letting the water sit for about 4 minutes after it reaches boiling works reasonably well. But it’s on the second and third steps that the tea opens up in a way I can fully appreciate.
But if you need a hot beverage to come just off the boil, then chai’s the way to go. That’s one where the water can boil and bubble and you can throw in your tea and milk and spices.
I prefer a pot to make tea as it heats the water evenly. The kettle is the second choice because it’s quicker and there’s some control over it. I wouldn’t recommend the microwave.