The Perfect Cup of Tea

cup of tea

Tea has been the liquid of life for centuries. It is the second-most consumed beverage after water. It is the beverage of choice for many people around the world who enjoy it daily. In the United States we tend to drink tea more commonly at breakfast time. As the national beverage of the United Kingdom, it is specially enjoyed as part of the custom of afternoon tea. Tea is deeply ingrained in world history, from its beginnings thousands of years ago in the courts of Chinese emperors to its rapid rise in popularity through Europe and the Western world. Battles have been fought over tea, such as the infamous Boston Tea Party. Tea has seen it through the beginning and end of colonialism. Its influence on society and culture has been great.

Tea has the power to bring people together. It is enjoyed by both upper class and working class, the intellectual and everyman. It can be consumed for religious or health reasons. But in the East it is enjoyed for its transcendental qualities more so than its health benefits. Whereas in many Western countries it is enjoyed simply for pleasure. Whatever your reason for drinking tea, it's a beverage that must earn the drinker's respect. With so much care taken into producing leaves, the picking, drying, sorting, and packaging, it deserves a certain amount of attention and care to create the perfect cup of tea. The one constant throughout the history of tea has been the pleasurable act of making and drinking a hot, steaming cup. To that end, let me show you how to make the perfect cup of tea.

Types of Tea

All teas, except herbal teas, come from the tea bush (Camellia sinensis). Tea-growing regions include China, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Sri Lanka, among many other Asian countries. The bright green, leathery, serrated leaves are picked from the bush by hand. Some are processed differently than others to create many different types of tea. Those leaves that are allowed to oxidize for certain periods of time become black teas. Those that are unoxidized but simply dried create green teas. White tea is made from wilted leaves. Oolong is made from partially oxidized leaves. And puerh is made from leaves aged for very long periods of time. Each type of tea has a distinctive flavor and is brewed in a certain manner to make sure the particularities come through in the final cup.

The Leaves

The most important part of a good cup of tea is the quality of the leaves. Good tea can be brewed from brand name tea bags, but loose leaves are superior and have better value per cup. Most loose teas are made up of either full leaves or crushed leaves. Both are fine for brewing. The tea leaves should look consistent in size and shape, if not then it may be a cheap blend. When shopping for teas, look for tea merchants selling in their own stores or online. A good tea merchant should have a high turnaround and should be able to guarantee the freshness of the teas. Teas sold in bulk and weighed to order or packed in tins will be fresher than brand name teas sold in supermarkets. Those mass-market teas are sometimes harvested up to a year or more in advance before being processed, blended, and ground for tea bags, sometimes making the quality questionable. A pound of loose tea yields about 200 servings. If resteeped, brewed in multiple infusions, it can go up to 600 servings, making loose teas a much better value than branded tea bags. Tea should be stored in an airtight container away from sunlight and in a dry, cool environment, lasting up to one year.

Brewing Method

Good water is essential for great tea since it makes up 99% of a cup of tea. Tap water is fine if it's neither hard nor too soft, but filtered water or spring water is the best. There are three methods recommended for boiling water for tea. First, water can be heated to the correct temperature for brewing a specific variety of tea. Or the water can be brought to a full boil and allowed to cool or cold water can be added to it. No matter which method is chosen, the water should always start out fresh and cold. For every heaping teaspoon or 2 grams of tea there should be 6 to 8 ounces of water, which is the amount that fills an average tea cup. When brewing it's best to cover the pot or cup to keep in the steam and allow the leaves to unfurl more fully than if uncovered.

Infusing

There are many different ways to brew tea, but the best way has the leaves in full contact with the water. Tea balls have been the most popular way to brew loose teas, however, this method does not allow the leaves to properly circulate in the water, leading to an unbalanced cup. Infuser baskets or tea filters are far better. A fine-mesh stainless steel basket works wonderfully in tea pots and tea cups. Once the tea has brewed, the basket can easily be lifted out along with the spent leaves. If brewed directly in the tea pot, teas can be strained into another tea pot for serving or directly into tea cups. Some teapots, typically British tea pots, have built in strainers in the spout, but even then a fine-mesh sieve might be necessary to remove all particles. Most teas can be steeped multiple times. In China, tea custom has it that the first brewing is discarded and only the subsequent brewings are drunk. White, green, and oolong teas can be brewed up to five times, while black teas should only be brewed no more than two times.

Temperature and Time

For each variety of tea to reach its full potential, it's important to brew at a certain temperature and length of time. Teas that are brewed too long or at too high a temperature can be bitter and astringent. The British are known for brewing their teas with water straight from the kettle, which is in most cases too high a temperature. Electric water kettles can now be purchased with built in digital thermometers purposely made for the brewing of tea. An instant-read thermometer works just fine too. A long-time tea drinker will recognize the correct temperature of boiled water by the way it looks. A tall column of steam usually means the water is at a low temperature (170–180°F), whereas large bubbles indicate a moderate temperature (180–200°F), small bubbles, a high temperature (190–200°F). If the water is white-hot (200–212°F), it is a full rolling boil, which is too hot for most teas except aged teas such as Puerh. At this temperature the water can scorch the more delicate tea leaves such as white and green. Always pour the water not directly over the tea leaves but onto the side of the tea vessel to prevent scorching of any kind.


Tea TypeTemperatureBrewing Time
White160–170°F90 seconds to 2 minutes
Green170–180°F2–3 minutes
Oolong180–200°F90 seconds to 2 minutes
Black190–200°F3–5 minutes
Puerh200–212°F2–5 minutes


Serving

The process of serving is just as significant as the process of brewing. It's not just for show that certain tea-serving customs are held, but for treating the tea with the utmost respect. Before serving, the tea pot and tea cups should be warmed. Fill them with hot tap water and let them sit for a few minutes before pouring the water out. To the tea pot add spoonfuls of tea or measure by weight. Fill with the appropriate temperature of water, cover, and let steep for the appropriate amount of time. Strain the liquid into the warmed cups and serve. The tea should be poured off from the leaves immediately or the leaves should be removed from the tea once the correct brewing time is achieved. Do not let the leaves stay in contact with the water too long as it will make a very astringent cup. A touch of milk can be added to black teas and a few drops of lemon juice complements oolong tea. Otherwise sweeteners are unnecessary. It's best to taste the tea as it is, particularly with white and green teas, which have subtle flavors to begin with.

Suggested Reading

The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea

The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide

Suggested Purveyors

Harney & Sons Fine Teas

Special Teas