Brewing a Better Cup

Tea. Teaspoons. Tea bags. Teapots. Tea timers. Strainers and infusers. Whisks and presses. Loose leaf and fannings. Tea can be complicated but when it boils down to it, tea is essentially hot water and dried leaves. All you need to get started is a vessel to steep your tea, a way to heat up water, and some tea leaves. Because of the simplicity, there are only a few variables that affect the final cup. Water temperature, steep time, and tea quantity. 

Let’s try to understand the science of steeping. Once tea makes contact with water, flavor compounds start going into the liquid until the compounds in the leaf and water reach equilibrium. Different flavors enter water at different rates and temperatures. The lighter, more volatile compounds that are responsible for aroma and flavor profile dissolve the fastest while the heavier compounds, like tannins, which are responsible for bitterness dissolve more slowly. Water temperature affects the rate at which these compounds dissolve. Higher temperature encourages extraction and some flavor compounds need higher temperatures to be extracted. Steep time affects how much of the compounds get into the liquid. Tea quantity affects the potential maximums of flavor compounds. We can use this information to adjust the variables and brew tea to our taste. Tea too bitter? Cut down on the steeping time or water temperature. Not enough flavor? Add more tea leaves or steep a little longer. If steeping longer just adds bitterness, you’ve reached the most flavor that amount of leaves can give.

There are two general styles of brewing tea, western style brewing and gongfu style brewing. Western brewing is the way most North American and European tea drinkers use to brew tea. This method recommends brewing a smaller amount (usually 1-2 teaspoons per cup) of tea for a few minutes. An example guideline would be steeping one teaspoon of black tea per cup of 200°F-205°F water for 3-5 minutes. This style of brewing is quick and easy and steeps a convenient cup of tea.

Gongfu tea, or tea made with skill, is a Chinese way of brewing a higher leaf to water ratio of tea with precision and control. This produces very flavorful cups of tea. Because of the many infusions in gongfu style brewing, a session might last anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours. Gongfucha can be very ceremonial, involving intricate equipment and many steps, or very casual, involving only a small brewing vessel, a cup, and a way to heat water. Regardless of the aesthetics, the principles are the same. High leaf to water ratio, short steep times, and many infusions.The idea of gongfu brewing is learning how to adjust brewing parameters for a better cup of tea. Each infusion gives us the experience to brew a better cup. This style of several infusions is a great way to taste how a tea changes with each infusion. The first 10 second steep will taste different from the third steep which will taste different from the seventh steep. If you have the time, I recommend gongfu style brewing to really savor and experience tea.

Another way of brewing tea, the preferred method of my grandpa, is continuously steeping and drinking tea from a mug. “Grandpa style” brewing refers to putting leaves into a large mug or thermos, repeatedly filling with water, and never removing the tea leaves. This is a convenient and lazy way to have tea the entire day without the need to strain your tea. A higher quality tea that does not get too bitter and has leaves that will sink is ideal for brewing grandpa style. This method is popular with the elderly in China.

7g of a Keemun black tea7g of a Bai Mu Dan white teaExpanded Keemun in 120ml of waterExpanded Bai Mu Dan in 120ml of water