Tea is such a part of what makes us human. Nearly everywhere in the world, it’s what people offer friends and gather around almost every day.
So it’s worth it to learn to make a good one. The difference between a well-brewed cup of tea and one in the hands of an amateur matters. The good news is that you don’t have to master a tea ceremony to get something far better than slapping a paper mystery bag into a mug of microwaved water.
You and your guests will be thankful you took the time to learn.
Understanding the Types of Tea
Believe it or not, white, green, oolong, and black tea all come from the same plant. Anything else is what is referred to colloquially as herbal tea. This would be your varieties such as jasmine, mint, and yerba mate.
So what makes black tea black and green tea green, if they as well as oolong and white come from the same plant? It the different processes applied to the plant once those tiny leaves — about 2,000 to make a pound — are plucked.
One main difference in teas is the level of oxidation. Oxidation is the same process you see when a banana gets old on your counter and starts to turn brown. The cell walls break down and enzymes interact with oxygen. In the world of tea, you might hear this referred to as “fermentation,” but oxidation is what it actually is.
White tea is the tea with the least amount of processing and the most delicate flavor. Green tea is tea from leaves that have not been allowed to oxidize. Oolong tea has the most complex preparation process, with varying levels of oxidation. And black tea is from leaves that have been allowed to oxidize completely.
Let’s look at how to turn any of these into the perfect cup of tea.
If you’re happy with your tap water, it’s perfectly fine to use for your tea. But you might consider buying a carbon filter water pitcher if your local water has a particular taste. You’ll want to get the water to just the right temperature, which brings us to the tools you’ll need.
Though some kettles out there for the stove are gorgeous, an electric kettle will get you the exact temperature you need. They’re starting to come in some beautiful designs as well. We get into the temperatures below.
One of the tools you’ll most likely think of first when you think of tea is the tea bag. But that’s actually a fairly new invention. While tea goes back thousands of years, the tea bag was an accidental invention just over a century ago.
They tend to be superior to bags because tea leaves need to expand in order to release the full potential of flavor. That’s why bags tend to use smaller pieces of lower quality. These cheaper grades are called “fannings” or “dust.”
Worse, the paper filters don’t allow the water to flow as freely through the cup. Some companies have started using larger bags with better leaves, but loose-leaf tea is going to give you a more quality experience most of the time. It also produces much less waste.
The filter can be anything from a bag to a basket in a mug to the filtered straw called a bombilla traditionally used for mate. When the tea goes inside the device, it’s called a tea infuser. You want to make sure you find one large enough for the tea to expand, with holes that allow the water to flow through easily. Infusers built into kettles and bottles can be convenient, but make sure there’s a way to remove them, so you don’t overbrew the tea.
Loose-leaf tea comes in two varieties: whole leaf and loose-leaf. Whole leaf is what it sounds like, a tea made from unbroken leaves. This is the high end of the tea market.
How Much Tea to Use
A general rule to stick to is one teaspoon of tea leaves to every 8 ounces of water. You may want to measure the volume of your favorite mug with a measuring cup at least once, because some can be much bigger.
What’s tricky is that the amount of tea you want is really in grams, 2 grams to be exact. A more open leaf, often found in white tea or oolong, may take more to get to that weight.
Experiment and find what works for the tea you buy, or get a tea scale.
The right temperature for your tea varies by the variety. Black, dark oolong, and herbal teas are fine with boiling water.
More delicate teas, such as green, green oolong, and white teas need water that’s a little cooler, around 180 degrees.
If you don’t have a thermometer, you can simply boil water then let it sit for five minutes to get an approximation.
If you’re using the hot water method most common, you’ll want to brew most teas for only 3 to 5 minutes. Any longer, and it risks getting bitter.
The lighter oolong teas as well as green tea will only need 2 to 3 minutes.
You could also use the sun brewing method, which produces a mellow flavor. Put the appropriate amount of tea in a large glass container, and leave in the sun for 3 to 5 hours, rather than minutes.
Brewing Cool Tea
Making your own iced tea is quite simple. You just have to account for the extra liquid that will come from the ice. To do it, double the amount of tea leaves you use and steep as you usually would. Then add ice until the level of the water doubles.
Extras in Your Tea
Iced tea benefits from some mint and lemon (which looks nice for serving guests as well).
For hot black tea, in the UK especially, milk or cream might be added. Sugar is more common globally.
The trick is to experiment. Try something new every day for a month, and chances are that you’ll find your favorite brand, method, and variety, a recipe that will bring many cups of enjoyment well worth the effort.