Easy Steeping for Busy Folks

Let’s examine the steeping of tea in its simplest form for a moment: when we steep tea, we are making a drink from the leaves of a plant. We take into account the type of tea leaves we are using and the way they were processed along with the water temperature and steeping time.

Too many times we end up drinking what Heidi Kyser from TChing [http://www.tching.com/index.php/2009/03/12/down-with-brew-waste/] calls “brew-waste.” This is “when a server ruins a perfectly good tea by brewing it at the wrong temperature, for the wrong amount of time, and/or using the wrong kind of equipment.” And if we haven’t been educated properly, we may be creating brew-waste ourselves.

Some of us have moved on from these simple and quick methods of steeping to using conventional Chinese techniques, while some of us have just graduated from tea-bags and are ready to jump into the world of loose-leaf tea.  This article is for those people that are ready to give up tea-bags and small infusers and really experience awesome tea. For the purpose of this article, I am assuming that you are using loose-leaf tea for a free flow steep which you will then strain, or are using a large infuser.

Key Factors: Tea Type, Water Temperature, Steeping Time

Type of tea

Each type of tea has an ideal steeping method, water temperature, and steeping time. Arranged from light to dark the main teas are: white, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. Each of these teas prefers a certain temperature and steeping time.

Different processing methods leave us with tea leaves of different sizes. A tea leaf that has been broken into tiny bits [see left image] will have a greater surface area and will brew darker and faster than a tea leaf that has been slightly withered and dried [see right image].

broken_pekoe_black_tea loose_leaf_oolong1

Water Temperature

The following chart is a simplified guide to water temperature for steeping. Be sure to experiment between the limits:

Type of Tea

Steeping Temperature

White

165F

Green Tea

170-185F

Oolong Tea

180-190F

Black Tea

Rolling Boil

Pu-erh Tea

Rolling Boil

If you don’t have a thermometer, you can use Lu Yu’s (wrote the first book on tea) method monitoring water temperature:

160-180F – Fish Eyes: when tiny bubbles begin to float on the surface of the water.

180-190F – String of Pearls: when strings of bubbles connect the bottom of the kettle to the surface.

190-210F – Turbulent Waters: a rolling boil.

For an even simpler method of temperature control, the Food Network’s Alton Brown recommends that for black teas, walk the tea to the kettle (this gives us straight boiling water). For teas that require temperatures below boiling, walk the kettle to the tea (this gives the water a chance to cool down a bit).

Steeping Time

Steeping times vary depending on the size of the tea leaves we are using as said earlier. So the bottom limit of steeping time would more or less be a broken, or unrolled loose-leaf, the upper limit being a full-leaf or rolled leaf tea. Furthermore, if the leaves we are using can produce multiple brews, the steeping time will need to be increased for each consecutive brew as we draw more flavor out of the leaves. So always begin at the lower limit and work your way up:

Type of Tea

Steeping Time

White

4-8 minutes

Green Tea

2-3 minutes

Oolong Tea

1-8 minutes

Black Tea

3-5 minutes

Pu-erh Tea

3-5 minutes

Whats next?

So you may already know these things. The purpose of this site and my writings is to provide a base understanding of tea and steeping methods and then delve into the more complex topics. The tea ceremony is all about the appreciation of tea, and whether your “ceremony” is a quick 3-minute brew before work, or a complex Gong Fu ceremony, don’t forget to appreciate your tea!