Global Tea Mart’s Guide to Steeping the Perfect Cup of Tea©
In Global Tea Mart’s ideal world, pure tea correctly steeped, would be appreciated not just as a beverage, but as a miracle of nature’s genius and man’s ingenuity. Tea has been central to mankind’s health, commerce, art and religion for nearly five-thousand years. All true tea is made from the buds and leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen, perennial shrub first discovered in China’s Yunnan Province. For centuries, the empires of China had an absolute monopoly on the harvesting, processing, consumption and exportation of this extraordinary “liquid jade.” By 780 A.D., tea had become an indispensable part of everyday life in the Celestial Empire, and the first treatise about tea that embodied the totality of tea knowledge was written by the poet and scholar Lu Yu. His monumental work, the Ch’a Ching, to this day remains the definitive work on tea preparation, addressing everything from water and tea leaf selection to steeping times and temperatures.
Tea is not so much a beverage, but rather an elixir made in five simple steps that, when properly followed, produce teas of exquisite aroma and taste. Every excellent cup of tea begins with the correct amount of fresh, high-quality tea leaf steeped in hot water. The selection of water is critical, as it is often said that “Water is the mother of tea.” Then one must have containers in which to steep the leaves and drink the brewed liquor. The selection of brewing and drinking vessels spans centuries and encompasses not only utility, but history, art and beauty.
Just as the evolution of fine porcelain took hundreds of years, so too, the perfect cup of tea cannot be hurried. Preparing delicious tea requires time and patience, and has given rise to some of the most intriguing and enduring of mankind’s rituals. Whether one is precisely measuring out Matcha for the Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu, or a spoonful of tea leaves for a cup at home, the joy of learning each leaf’s brewing characteristics is a great part of tea’s appeal. To obtain a cup of exceptional flavor and aroma, perhaps even drama, requires steeping the tea leaves for the correct amount of time in water that has been heated to the proper temperature. Truly distinctive tea is well worth observing these few simple, but precise steps.
The first ingredient for steeping excellent tea is the selection of water, for a cup of tea is a small amount of tea leaves and many ounces of water. The pinnacle of tea steeping is to produce clear, bright, good tasting tea. Since Lu Yu’s day to the present, many people prefer spring water for their tea, but if one does not have access to a natural spring, what then? Water for tea should be fresh, odorless, clear, clean and well-oxygenated. You want to be able to taste your tea, not calcium or chlorine or other musty flavors. Filtered water is often the solution, or purchasing spring water that is bottled by a reputable company from clean sources is also an excellent resource. The maxim, “Know your water source,” is essential for steeping the perfect cup of tea. Equally important, one must know the source of your tea leaves.
Since most of us do not go to China, India, Taiwan, or other countries of origin to obtain our tea, it is imperative that we rely on reputable tea merchants. Finding a tea vendor who is passionately devoted to bringing fresh, high quality teas to his or her tea drinkers is one of life’s treasured moments. Tea professionals who are knowledgeable about their offerings show a great reverence for the tea leaf. Those who carry a reasonable selection of fresh teas at affordable prices, and who are delighted to guide and advise you on your selections are much preferred over those who view tea as only a commodity. Many clues will give you hints in your quest for a tea merchant who cares about the quality of tea they sell and your tea drinking experiences.
As tea is plucked seasonally, does your tea vendor herald the new crop of teas in the proper season? Does your tea merchant offer small sample sizes, so that you can try a new tea before committing to the purchase of a larger size? It is often said that one must know your teas and know your tea merchant. Does your tea purveyor offer classes or online education, so that you might gain the skills and knowledge to judge good tea? Does he or she take a personal interest in your tea questions? All of these are crucial ways you can tell if the teas being sold will be fresh and of very good quality. Excellent tea is not necessarily expensive, so one must learn to judge tea on its merits rather than its price. And one must learn to judge a tea merchant on his or her knowledge and willingness to guide you through what can be a truly intimidating number of tea choices.
Although there are thousands of teas available, all true tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant and it is the processing that produces the different types of tea that are so familiar to us. Whether your favorite is black tea, green tea, oolong tea, white tea, or a blend, there are quite literally an overwhelming number of choices. Again, it is crucial to know your tea source and to find a knowledgeable tea merchant to obtain the best and freshest tea of any type. Once having selected the tea you want, how do you store the tea to maintain this freshness? The preferred way to store tea is in an airtight container that is kept in a dry, dark cupboard away from other aromas, such as spices, scented teas, and soaps. Light, moisture, and air are the enemies of tea—keep your teas in a tightly sealed container and extract just enough for the amount of tea you want to brew at any one time.
Then we come to the question of how much tea leaf to use? A standard teacup usually holds about 5.5 ounces of liquid. Teapots come in varying sizes, so whether you are steeping a single cup or a pot full, it is essential to know how much liquid your brewing vessel holds. The general rule of thumb is to use 2 grams of tea leaves per 5.5 ounces of water. Using a small tea scale is one way to measure out a 2 gram portion of tea leaf for each cup. Another way is to measure out a teaspoon of dry tea leaf for each cup you are steeping. Although not as accurate as using a scale, because tea leaves vary in size and weight, this method is easy to use and simple to remember.
If you are taking the time to properly prepare your tea, then nothing is more critical than that the water be heated to the correct temperature for the different tea types. As a general rule of thumb, black teas should be steeped in water just off the boil from 212°F, while oolongs require slightly cooler water, ranging from 205ºF to 210°F, depending on the particular oolong leaf. Green teas, while naturally sweet, can turn bitter if steeped in water that is too hot. Take care with your green tea leaves and use water that ranges around 175°F to 180°F. White teas require water ranging around 175°F, or just under.
Your trusted tea vendor will make sure that his or her tea packaging is clearly marked with such helpful information as water temperatures and steeping times for each tea. Steeping times vary widely, even among the same tea type, so owning a timer is a necessary part of preparing the perfect cup of tea. As a general rule, black teas usually yield the best cup if they are steeped for about 3 minutes, while oolong teas should steep from 2-4 minutes. Green teas steep 1-3 minutes, while white teas steep 2-3 minutes.
Because of the tremendous variety of tea available, your knowledgeable tea purveyor will be happy to guide you in the correct steeping time for the teas you prefer. After steeping at the right temperature for the proper amount of time comes the happy moment when you pour your fresh, delicious, and perfect cup of tea into your favorite teacup.
What determines your choice of teapot and teacup? Are they mementos passed down to you through generations, or gifts from loved ones, or one of those special treasures found at your favorite shop, or perhaps a precious antique you picked up during your travels? No matter where your beloved tea vessels come from, they complete the sensory enjoyment of your freshly steeped cup of tea. It is time to sit back, congratulate yourself and savor your cup of exceptional aroma and flavor. After having taken the time and patience to select fresh, high quality tea leaves, obtain clear, clean water, and steep your tea for the correct time and at the proper water temperature, you have produced one of nature’s miracles…
A perfect cup of tea.