On Tea

Hey, there’s some stressful and depressing shit going down lately. Let’s talk about something pleasant and stress-reducing!

Well, okay, so being super picky about making tea may be stress-INducing for some. If so, no worries. I have one, firm position on how to make the best cup of tea: the best cup of tea is one you enjoyed making (or making it didn’t annoy you too much) and tastes good to you. I will not budge from that position.

That said. There are some ways in which attempts to make that cup of tea are susceptible to various predictable failures. And so I figured I would share the things that work for me to prevent those failures. And also maybe provide opportunities for folks who might actively enjoy the fiddly tea making process if they tried it to have a bit more fun with it and nerd out even more than they already might. (Those of you who are already nerding out probably already do or have most of these things.)

So! The first, most common pitfall in making tea: You heat the water, throw the bag (or the infuser full of leaves) into the cup, pour the water, set it on the desk beside you and…promptly forget about it as you dive into your work. Hours later you remember that tea, now cold– and bitter enough to strip paint.

Friends, there is a simple solution to this, provided you remember to implement it: a timer. This could be a voice assistant on your computer or your phone, an app made purposely for timing the steeping of tea, or a dollar store kitchen timer shaped like a strawberry. Really, it doesn’t matter, but this is a tea-hack that can cost very little and vastly improve your tea-drinking experiences.

For the style of brewing that’s the default in the US (the sort most of you reading this likely think of as just “making tea”), you’ll probably like black tea best at 3-5 minutes, green tea 1-3 minutes (if you’ve got a really nice sencha you might even want to go 30-45 seconds), oolong 3-5 minutes, and white tea 2-5 minutes depending on the actual tea. Those are just guidelines, adjust as needed for your taste. If you want to be super nerdy you can note down what times work best for you for each tea. I don’t do that. I just do black & oolong at 3 minutes, most Chinese greens at 2-3, and sencha at 1 minute. When I’m making them in a cup with an infuser, anyway. If I’m doing the “lots of leaves, many short steeps” method (in a gaiwan, say) I won’t go much longer than a minute, but that’s something to play with if you find you enjoy that kind of thing, and that’s not a brewing method that’s suitable for the “get some caffeine in me so I can get to work this morning” thing.

If you’ve moved to loose leaf brewing, you’ve probably found that measuring out teaspoons of leaves doesn’t quite work. It might work for stuff with very small leaves, or that’s been cut into very small pieces, but it’s useless for large-leaved teas–different teas take up space very differently and some just won’t go into a spoon, no not even that cute little “perfect cup of tea” spoon so many places sell. This makes it difficult to get the amount of leaves just right, let alone consistent from cup to cup (or pot to pot).

So. Doing loos leaf? Want maybe another level of nerdery/tea improvement? Consider a scale. You can get a nice little pocket scale for about ten bucks. The one at that link is the one I have. I set my infuser on it–I use these bad boys–turn it on, and then add however much tea I’m going to use. Rule of thumb for most teas (Western default style brewing) is about 3g per 8oz of water. That’s only a rule of thumb–some need more and some might be fine with less.

You might want to find out how many fluid oz your favorite mugs hold, by the way, so that when you stagger into the kitchen you’ve already done the math and know that you need 5g of tea or whatever.

Once you’ve got this down, you can play with other styles of brewing, btw. For instance, I’m not much of a white tea fan–but I do enjoy it a fair amount when I use the high-volume-of-leaves/low-steeping-time/many-steeps method. Poke around for information on using a gaiwan–though you could totally do something similar in a cup with an infuser, which honestly I recommend because as awesome as gaiwans are I always burn the everliving fuck out of my fingers when I try to use one, and the Manual Tea Maker No 1, which I love and which solves that problem for me, is kind of pricey.

If you really want to get nerdy, you can fiddle with water temperature. There’s an expensive way to do this, and a cheap one. The expensive one involves buying a variable temperature kettle. Which is super fun, but, yeah, costs.

However, if you have a food thermometer–and if you cook it really is a good idea to have one–you can heat your water to whatever temp you like on a stove or with your regular kettle. Either heat to boiling and test the temp till it drops to where you want it, or test it as it heats till it gets to the right place. I’ll be honest, that sounds like a drag to me, but lots of folks do it and enjoy it. Google around for some recommended temperature ranges, try some things out and see what you like best.

For keeping pots of tea (or sufficiently large and stable cups) warm, check out the various glass, ceramic, or cast iron tea warmers. I use this one, but there are others out there. You put a candle in them–a tea light, right? Yeah, that’s why they’re called that!–and set the pot or cup on top. These work really well, but remember not to just leave the candle burning if you walk away for more than a few minutes. I’ve never actually had a problem, but when it comes to candles you’re better safe than sorry. There are also electric tea warmers out there, just the right size for a cup or a mug to sit on. Once again, don’t forget they’re plugged in and switched on.

Oh, and hey! Almost forgot this one. Matcha has been kind of trendy, and you can get a cool matcha set with a bamboo whisk and learn to froth it, and if that’s something that you’ll enjoy then I salute you! But me, I use a very large mug (which I only fill about three quarters full of water) and a little $3 battery-powered milk frother. No, it’s not meditative or anything. But I like it.

So there you go, a few ways to maybe increase your tea nerdery and also give you a more consistently excellent cup of tea, none of which cost much. If you try only one of them, try the timer. It’s a ridiculously simple tea-hack, honestly, that’s made my life so much nicer.

11 thoughts on “On Tea

  1. K
    Kate says:

    Today I learned where tea lights got their name.

  2. S
    Stardreamer says:

    We prefer iced tea, and use a Mr. Tea tea-maker to brew it. Four mini-scoops of tea and a carafe of water, half of which is used for the brewing and the other half added afterwards, then you can either drink it immediately with ice or put it into a pitcher in the refrigerator.

    The mixing of plain and flavored teas in the brew is a fun thing to experiment with. I have two base teas, Barooti black and a basic green; I pick the one that I think will work best with the flavored variety (or varieties) I’m going to use. I have a couple of your Radchaai blends, too!

    When I want hot tea, I generally just heat up some water in the electric kettle, pour it into a cup, and add a teabag or infuser. And you’re right about using a timer — it keeps you from ending up with cold, over-steeped tea.

  3. Sylvia Sotomayor says:

    My favorite teashop sells a mild black Keemun in teabags that I use for my morning tea. I prefer this one because I can never remember to set a timer, especially before caffeine, and the Keemun still is drinkable and not at all bitter after 15-20 minutes of steeping in 200 degree water.* I make a whole pot at the time (with two tea bags), and then keep it warm in my Thermos. (4 hours later, still drinkably hot!)

    *I also have a variable temperature tea kettle for at home. It also keeps the water at the desired temperature for up to half an hour before pouring. The work and travel tea kettles are just electric kettles for boiling water.

    P.S. A url for the Keemun tea: http://abcteabrand.blogspot.com/search/label/d.%29%20Teabags%3A%2068%20series

  4. E
    Eliska says:

    I find a nice hack for tea temperature that bypasses *both* the need for an electric kettle *and* the constantly-checking-temperature drudgery is to figure out how many ice cubes you need to add to boiling water to get it to the right temperature.

  5. T
    Tony Cullen says:

    For keeping tea warm, may I suggest that a tea cosy is also a good option. (I *strongly* recommend an image search on ‘tea cosy’.)

  6. V
    Vicki says:

    Another way to keep a cup of tea warm is to use a lid, or some approximation to that.

    Many years ago I went down to Chinatown and bought a mug with a matching lid for $3. I kept that mug at my office, which was where I was most likely to be interrupted partway through a cup of tea.

    The mug has since broken, but the lid fits on some of my other mugs. Now that I’m writing this, I’m considering looking for a replacement mug-and-lid, possible at the shop where we just got our new tea kettle, which is mostly in the pottery/dish business.

  7. Lindsey says:

    I’m going to try to weigh my tea! I have a food scale but for some unknown reason just never have thought to weigh it. Most of my teas are rather compact except for a strawberry white.

    And I have to say, I bought a matcha tea bowl, whisk, and scoop, and it’s very meditative. I’m probably not using the right technique and I’m fairly sure someone watching from a distance would think I’m scrubbing a dish. (But it still tastes good!)

  8. E
    Emily says:

    You mean you don’t have a knitted tea cozy? I highly recommend it for “making a pot of tea, forgetting about it for more than an hour, still having delicious tea” which is my usual MO. Also, unlike a million other things I’ve knitted, I use it all the time.

    … would you like a tea cozy? If you email me a picture of your teapot standing in front of a ruler, I’d love to make you one.

    1. Ann says:

      I have had quite a few tea cozies in my day. Not all the pots I use are particularly amenable to cozies–the small ones aren’t really–and it doesn’t keep the tea quite as warm quite as long as the candle warmer does. Plus I can put my cup on a warmer, where putting a cozy around a cup would be impractical.

      But you’re right, cozies are a nice thing. Thanks for the offer!

  9. L
    Lisa says:

    Yes, a timer is key (4 minutes for my loose black builder’s tea or a Yorkshire Gold bag in a large mug). Also, filtered water freshly boiled in electric kettle and a CLEAN recepticle – you would not think this is in question but you should have seen my father-in-laws face when I scrubbed out his white previously mingy brown) tea pot.

    Sorry, I prefer cloth, not knitted tea cosys as they fit all sizes, even mugs (mine is decorated with hares).

    Loose tea is preferable, but it must have plenty of room to move around in whatever you infuse it in (tea sac, metal infuser). No tea bondage, please.

    Regardless, the tea should be fresh. When I travel, I do take my own tea (just in case!) to avoid any tea-related stress. No laughing!

  10. t
    tuppenny says:

    A Chinese cookbook I bought many years ago had a lot of quotes from classical Chinese sources. One of the ones on tea said to heat the water until it laughs – which is just before boiling. To my taste that is the perfect heat point for a good brew.

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