By Lori Bricker, MS, RD
As a tea shop owner, one of my worst fears is that customers might inadvertently ruin their tea. This is especially easy for the novice who might not yet know the best practices. Here's a review of the most important things to do for a great tasting cup! I will assume that you have already bought nice loose leaf tea . . .
1. Please use good water. I can't overstate the importance of this. Tea is too delicate a beverage to mask the taste of poor quality water. I found this out first-hand many years ago. I had moved into a new house where the city water left a lot to be desired, but I got used to the taste and didn't think much more about it. I happily made my tea and drank it without complaint. Then I acquired a bottled water service at work, and since I made a lot of tea at work, became accustomed to its taste quickly. Back at home, I noticed my tea tasted awful! Before I realized what the problem was, I threw out a few pots of tea thinking I had let it get too old or something. Then I ordered the same bottled water service for home, and presto! Problem solved
2. Use the proper amount of tea. Most people use too much tea, which can contribute to a bitter or overly strong taste. It is also wasteful. The best way to not use too much tea is to weigh it with a gram scale (start with 2 grams per 6 oz. cup). Using a teaspoon per 6 oz. cup is also about right, but you have to note that some teas are very dense, like Gunpowder Green, while others are rather "fluffy," like Imperial Silver Needles, so you have to adjust.
3. Please pay attention to the brew time. In general, if you let your tea brew too long, it will get bitter. Some people are more sensitive to bitter taste than others, so preferences will vary widely. But it is a good habit to use a timer when brewing your tea. Even an old pro like me can walk away and get distracted only to come back 10 minutes later to an evil tasting cup. If you have your favorite tea all figured out and never ruin it, please watch it with new teas, especially green teas, which sometimes can get bitter even after one minute.
4. Use proper water temperature. The rule of thumb is boiling water for black and herbal; steaming water (i.e., sub-boiling) for green, oolong, and white. Some of the most delicate teas really do best if you use a thermometer to make sure you don't go over a certain temperature.
5. Store tea properly for longest life. The rule of thumb here is "air-tight, dark, and dry." Don't use the refrigerator or freezer, just use any opaque container that has a good seal and keep it away from moisture and odors.
6. Clean your teapot regularly. That buildup on the inside of your teapot will tend to add a bitter quality to your brew. If you drink a wide variety of teas, you should also have a designated teapot for each type, for example, chai, unflavored black, unflavored green, herbals, etc. Especially with ceramic teapots, flavors will be absorbed over time and can be noticeable when drinking a more delicate tea.
7. Experiment!! This is absolutely the only way to tell the best way to prepare any given tea. Keep in mind that preferences will vary from person to person. Some people have very sensitive palates and can tell if a tea has steeped 15 seconds too long, while others are fine with letting a tea bag hang out of their cup for an hour. But if you are interested in improving your cup, try these things:
Use bottled water for a few days, then go back to your tap water and see if you can tell any difference. Good quality tap water is often just fine, but even so, bottled is often an improvement.
Vary the water temperature and brew time, especially if you are noticing bitter tea — keep notes for each tea so you don't forget.
Try different infusers made from different materials. I find people have really strong preferences about whether or not they like metal, plastic, cloth or paper, and often it is because of the taste.
Got a story about how you brew your tea? Please share — we can all learn from each other!