Whether you have no experience whatsoever with brewing tea, or whether you brew tea on a daily basis, there’s always something you can learn to make your hot drink of choice even better.
While it’s easy to get the hang of making the perfect cup of tea using tea bags, loose leaf tea is an entirely different game. Brewing loose leaf tea is an art, and masters in that art can spend years perfecting their brewing technique.
With that being said, don’t be put off working with loose leaf tea. There’s no need to spend years perfecting your tea brewing, but there are some guidelines and tips we recommend following to make each cup of tea as enjoyable as possible.
In this guide, we’ll be explaining how to brew the perfect cup of loose leaf tea (see also: How Much Loose Tea Per Cup?)by bringing you all the details you need to bear in mind. Trust us when we say that this guide will help you make the best tea (see also: A Complete Guide To White Tea (What Is It?))you’ve ever had!
Forget Everything You Think You Know
The first step to moving away from teabags and learning how to brew excellent loose leaf tea is simply to forget everything you think you know about brewing tea. This may also be known as adopting a beginner’s mindset when it comes to tea.
It’s easy to get stuck in our ways when we’ve been doing something for a long time and assume that we know best.
In this case, though, it’s best to allow your mind to be a blank slate so that you can get used to a whole new method of tea brewing without being held back by old habits.
A Chinese saying that is very relevant to this subject is ‘empty your cup’. This is part of a Zen teaching where a student stops their master from pouring tea into a cup as it begins to overflow, stating that the cup is already full.
In reply, the Zen master affirms that the cup is full, and compares the cup to the student’s mind. If it is already full, there is no room for new teaching.
Therefore, in order to learn effectively, you first need to empty your mind of what you knew previously. This is the first and most important step to improving your tea-brewing skills.
Once you have adopted a beginner’s mindset regarding tea-brewing, there are a few basic principles you should pretty much always follow when brewing tea. These are
- Adjusting the amount of tea you use depending on whether you choose to brew Western-style or Eastern-style. More on this later.
- Always use filtered water and make sure it’s freshly-drawn. The tea will not taste as good if it’s made with old water or unfiltered tap water. You should also avoid using water that has been reheated.
- Always make sure your tea cups and the teapot itself are warm before you pour the hot water. Otherwise, your tea will immediately start to cool down and the infusion will not be as strong.
- When you need to stir the tea leaves, do so by pouring hot water on top of them and not by physically stirring them.
Western Or Eastern Brewing Technique
The first decision you will need to make will be whether to use Western or Eastern brewing. Bear in mind that Western brewing is also known as English brewing, whereas Eastern brewing is typically referred to as ‘Gongfu’.
It is important to remember that not all tea varieties are suited to all brewing methods. For example, Gongfu brewing is not used to make green tea or any kind of scented tea.
You’ll typically only want to use Eastern brewing techniques if you’re brewing oolong tea or black tea.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to brew Western or English-style, you’ll be using more water and fewer tea leaves. To avoid a weak brew, however, you’ll be leaving the tea to infuse for longer so that the maximum flavor can be extracted in a single session.
If you’re going to be brewing Gongfu, you’ll need to use more tea leaves in a smaller amount of water. To make sure that the brew doesn’t end up overly strong due to the leaf-to-water ratio, you’ll also need to shorten the infusion time.
Another thing to consider if you’re going to use Gongfu brewing is the fact that you’ll need a specific type of teaware.
Usually, Gongfu brewing is done in a smaller teapot, often a Gaiwan teapot. This is because these teapots are capable of infusing multiple times to extract various individual flavors every time.
For any kind of loose leaf tea brewing, it’s best to use a teapot. If possible, you should purchase a teapot that comes with a large-size tea infuser.
This makes it easier to take the leaves out of the teapot before you pour the infusion into the cups. Nobody wants loose tea leaves floating around in their cup, after all.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to use a ball infuser, there is another option. You can purchase a teapot that has holes in the spout. These holes will catch the loose leaves when you tilt the teapot to pour out the tea.
Avoid the temptation to spend less money on a smaller infuser if you’re using large leaves. Large tea leaves require a larger infuser so that they have enough space to expand as they interact with the water.
If tea leaves are not allowed to expand properly, the flavor of the tea will not be as strong.
Step By Step Brewing
Now that you know which types of tea can be made using both Western and Eastern brewing styles and have chosen a suitable teapot (and ball infuser if you choose), it’s time to learn the proper technique for brewing the tea.
Bear in mind that while different brewing methods come with guidelines for infusion time and water temperature, you shouldn’t necessarily be afraid to deviate from the rules.
Some people simply prefer their infusions stronger than others, for example, and that’s completely fine.
There isn’t really a right way or a wrong way to brew tea, but this guide will be useful as a starting point for those who want to learn and perfect the traditional methods before incorporating their own styles and preferences.
Choose Your Tea
Before you do anything else, you’ll need to choose your tea. As we mentioned above, the type of tea you choose to brew may depend on your chosen brewing method, and this might be dictated by the teaware you have at the moment.
For instance, if you only have a Gaiwan teapot, it will be best to attempt Gongfu brewing since this is what this teapot is designed for.
This means that you should probably choose either black or oolong tea since other types of tea such as green tea do not infuse as well when Gongfu brewing methods are employed.
Get The Water Ready
Getting the water ready to brew your tea requires more thought than you might have assumed. That’s because different types of tea (and by extension, different brewing methods) require different temperatures to get the best quality infusion.
For example, both oolong tea and green tea is usually most flavorful and potent when the temperature of the water is around 170 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit. That means it’s around 30 degrees below boiling.
A temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for black tea and can also be used for oolong tea, but green tea needs to be brewed at a cooler temperature since the leaves are quite delicate.
If you’re not sure how to tell when the water has reached the desired temperature (admittedly, this can be very difficult to determine based on factors such as steam and bubbles alone), it might be best to invest in a water thermometer.
This way, you can tell exactly when to take your water off the boil without having to do any guesswork. Some kettles even have thermometers built in so you don’t have to buy one separately.
However, if you don’t currently have a thermometer and can’t tell when the water has reached the right temperature, there is a way to get roughly the right temperature easily.
Just let the water come to a boil, and once the kettle has stopped, leave the water to stand for about 5 minutes. In this time, the temperature should reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take a few degrees.
Consider Your Leaf Size
Another factor that goes hand in hand with the type of tea is leaf size. Different types of tea may have larger or smaller leaves, and this will impact the infusion process.
For example, let’s say you’re brewing a tea with a smaller leaf size. In this case, the small leaves actually have a larger surface area, which means they don’t need to be left to infuse for as long.
On the other hand, if you’re working with bigger leaves, the leaf volume will be larger. That means you should leave the leaves to steep in the hot water for longer to extract maximum flavor.
You might have become used to measuring tea in terms of teaspoons, but it;s much more accurate to actually weigh the tea. In general, if you’re making a 6-ounce cup of tea, you should be using somewhere between 2 grams and 2.5 grams of tea leaves.
If you compare the amount you weigh to the amount you measure out in a teaspoon, you’ll probably notice that there is a significant difference, which is why weighing your leaves is recommended. Bear in mind that digital scales tend to be more accurate than analog scales.
Since different tea varieties have different leaf sizes, if you do choose to use teaspoons, you’ll need to adjust the number of teaspoons you use according to tea type.
So, for example, if you’re making herbal tea, Pu-erh, black tea, or green tea, you’ll need to use 1-2 teaspoons per cup. On the other hand, for white tea or oolong tea, you’ll need 2-3 teaspoons for every cup.
Depending on the type of tea you’re working with, not only will you need to adjust the temperature of the water, but you should also be using different infusion times.
That’s because some teas infuse more quickly, so leaving them in the water for too long will produce an extremely strong cup of tea, whereas, other tea varieties take a little while for maximum flavor to infuse into the water.
Different herbal teas may take anywhere between 3 and 5 minutes to infuse. If you prefer a slightly stronger herbal tea, you should wait for the full five minutes, whereas if you like your tea to taste a little milder, err on the shorter side of the infusion window and go for 3 minutes.
Other types of teas that take around 3 minutes to infuse include Pu-erh and white tea. Oolong tea can be left to infuse for up to 3 minutes, but if you don’t want it very strong, you can leave it for just 2 minutes.
If you’re making a cup of green tea, you should wait a minimum of one minute for a weaker brew, or a maximum of 3 minutes for more flavor.
The infusion time is usually most varied for black tea, because some people prefer this type of tea to be very strong and others don’t want quite so much flavor.
Because of this, you can leave black tea to infuse for anywhere between 2 minutes and 5 minutes according to your preference.
Add Enhancements (Optional)
Many people like to add extra flavors or enhancements to their tea. There is nothing wrong with this, but some tea varieties are more receptive to enhancements than others.
Teas with complex flavor profiles may end up tasting very strange if you add a lot of enhancements, so be careful here.
If you’re making green tea, this is one tea variety that works very well with a lot of different enhancements. Both sugar and lemon are common additions to green tea, but you could also add a little bit of honey or even mint.
Milk should not be added to green tea, white tea, or herbal tea. In fact, the only type of loose leaf tea to which you should add milk (if you want) is black tea.
Milk works best in black tea that has been left to infuse for the maximum 5 minutes since this is when it will be at its strongest.
For oolong tea, floral tea, or smoked tea, you probably won’t want to add any extra flavors since these teas are potent and flavorful enough in their purest form.
If you do choose to add any enhancements, remember that less is more. You can always add a little more after the first sip if you want, but you can’t take anything out.
Exceptions To The Rules
As we mentioned earlier, there are times when you might want to deviate from the traditional rules of tea brewing. How you like your tea is a very personal thing, so you shouldn’t feel pressured to follow the rules outlined above if there’s a reason why you’d rather do it differently.
One common reason not to follow the above guidelines is if you’re making a tea cocktail or iced tea.
In this case, the lack of hot water will mean that the infusion doesn’t produce as strong of a brew, so you’ll need to add more tea leaves than specified above to get a good flavor.
While we’re on the subject of tea cocktails, you will be mixing different ingredients, and that might mean that you want one of the tea varieties to be stronger or weaker depending on how the flavor interacts with the other ingredients.
In this case, it’s totally fine to reduce infusion time or tea quantity to end up with the flavor profile you’re looking for.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Make A Stronger Brew?
If you want your tea to have a stronger taste, you may be tempted to leave it to infuse for longer. This is effective, but only up to a certain point.
For example, if you’re making black tea, you can leave it to infuse for a minimum of 2 minutes and a maximum of 5 minutes. To make a stronger black tea, infusing for 5 minutes is the best course of action.
However, if you have already left your tea to infuse for 5 minutes and it’s still not as strong as you’d like, don’t try to make it stronger by leaving it to infuse for longer.
By this point, the water will be cooling down so extra infusion won’t do very much. Just take note, and next time, add more tea leaves to the teapot.
Does Altitude Affect Boiling Temperature?
It is a little-known fact that depending on your altitude, the water in your kettle may boil at a different temperature.
A good rule of thumb is that for every 500 feet of elevation above sea level, your water’s boiling temperature will get lower by just 1 degree (Fahrenheit).
It might be worth researching the elevation above sea level where you live and adjusting the temperature you need your water to reach according to this rule.
If you are only very slightly above sea level, it probably won’t make much difference, but if the elevation is significant, you might find that the quality of your brew improves once you adjust the temperature of the water.
Can Tea Be Brewed For Too Long
It’s definitely possible to brew a cup of tea for too long, especially if you’re working with a particularly potent tea variety such as black tea.
When making black tea, leaving the tea to infuse for a long time may cause unwanted bitterness. Even with tea varieties that aren’t known for being bitter, such as herbal tea, an excessive infusion time might make the brew taste unpleasantly strong.
Additionally, if you draw out the infusion process for too long, the water will have more time to cool down before you drink it, and you may end up with a lukewarm cup of tea.
The perfect way to brew a cup of tea(see also: The Best English Breakfast Teas For The Perfect Cup Of Tea!) will ultimately depend on what variety of tea you’re working with and whether you’re using Eastern or Western brewing techniques.
Depending on your chosen tea or brewing style, you’ll need to adjust the temperature of the water as well as the quantity of tea leaves and the infusion time. There are general guidelines for this, but you should also be guided by your own personal preferences.
To remove some guesswork from this process, invest in a thermometer and some digital kitchen scales.