How to prepare the perfect up of tea: tips and tricks for new tea players

First let me state that preparing leaf tea is EASY!

However, there are a few things you should keep in mind to get the best from your leafy treats. After all, tea is an amazing and complex product that has taken time and skill to grow and produce. So, it makes sense that a little extra care taken to prepare it will help to bring out its best.

Keep in mind the following are guidelines if you are looking for somewhere to start. The amounts of tea to use, the appropriate water temperature and steeping times may vary depending on the particular tea. They will also depend on your personal preference. You should experiment with your teas to find out the conditions under which they perform best.

In the words of Kakuzo Okakura 'There is no single recipe for making the perfect tea …. Each preparation of the leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with water and heat, its own method of telling a story' (The Book of Tea).

The basic ingredients – tea leaves, water and steeping vessel

Use the best quality tea you can afford – although keep in mind that the most expensive tea will not be the best quality. That is a whole different info post, so more on that later. Make sure you store your leaf tea well – somewhere dry (preferably not in a cupboard above your kettle, coffee machine or stove), away from direct sunlight, sealed well and away from other food or drink that might have strong odours.

Use the best quality water you have available to you. Heavily chlorinated water, for example, can detract from the taste of tea. If your tap water is not all that great and you do not happen to live within easy walking distance of a babbling brook, a simple charcoal water filter can do the trick.

You will need something to infuse the leaves in – this can be as basic as a pot or cup and a strainer. If you are using a pot make sure you pour off all the tea after the correct infusion time – otherwise the leaves will oversteep and become bitter. A basket cup infuser is a convenient way to make tea by the cup – as long as it is large enough to let the leaves fully 'breathe' and stretch in the water. For this reason I recommend steering clear of the small ball style infusers.

 

How much tea to use?

Many of us will have heard growing up that when making a pot of tea the appropriate quantity to use is one teaspoon for each person, and 'one for the pot'. This is not a bad rule of thumb.

But now that we are drinking so many different types of teas, with different leaf sizes and styles, it can be useful to get some clarity around that! Generally we say to use 3 grams of tea leaves per 200ml cup.

This will usually translate to roughly one teaspoon of leaves per cup. However, depending on how bulky or heavy the leaves are, this will vary. For example, a tightly ball rolled Oolong like the GABA Oolong, will be relatively heavy so a 'thin' teaspoon will give you about 3 grams. Conversely, a large twisted leaf like the Da Hong Pao is bulkier and lighter so you may need to use a 'larger' teaspoon.

What temperature should the water be?

  • Black teas, Pu'erh and herbal infusions 100°C
  • Oolongs 90°C
  • Green teas 80°C
  • White teas 75°C

Again these are guidelines. The behaviour of leaves in the cup will change depending on the individual tea, where it is grown, and when it was harvested. For example, some of the Oolongs from Northern Thailand I've tried recently are noticeably best brewed at temperatures of 75 – 80°C.

How do you know when the water from your kettle is the right temperature?

There are many fancy gadgets around these days that have temperature controls and other settings to help you brew the perfect cup. However, you don't need to buy one of these gadgets in order to get the temperature (about) right.

An easy way to cool boiled water from the kettle to 80°C before brewing your green or white teas is to simply add some cold water (or an ice cube) to the cup or pot before pouring in the boiled water from your kettle.

For 90°C water you could do the same using less cold water, or otherwise wait a few minutes after the kettle has boiled for the water to cool down.

 

Or, as recommended by Lu Yu as recently as 780 AD, if you can take time to mindfully prepare your tea you can tell the temperature by observing the water …

When the water boils for the first time,
something akin to the eyes of a fish appear on the surface
and a faint hissing sound can be heard. (70-80°C)

Then the gurgling brook develops
with a string of pearls round the edge. (80-87°C)
This is the second boiling.
Then the turbulent waves appear: this is the third boiling (100°C).

Steeping times

Steeping times will depend largely on the individual tea, and how you like it.

Green tea is perhaps a more finicky tea, and in most cases steeping for longer than one or two minutes will turn your green tea bitter!

There are exceptions to the rule, however. Some of the Taiwanese green teas (like the Honey Green Tea) can tend to be more forgiving in this respect and can be steeped for longer without becoming bitter. If you do happen to walk away and forget about your steeping leaves, with these there is less chance of returning to a cup of bitter disappointment (within reason).

The following table gives you some guidelines to help you get started with water temperatures and steeping times for the major categories of tea.

Tea type Water temp (C) Steep time (mins)
Black (Red), Pu'erh 100° 2-4
Oolong 90° 3 -4
Green 70-80° 1-2
White 70 -75° 5-10
Rooibos 100° 5-6


There are many different ways to prepare leaf tea, and you will find that in each culture and different part of the World people have their own special styles and preferences, customs and ceremonies around the preparation of tea. I hope to bring you more on that over time, but for now this should be enough to get you started enjoying your leaf tea!