How to Brew Better Tea

If you think you're not a tea person, start here.

<p>Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen</p>

Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

As someone who bookends most days with a pot of tea, I’m surprised at how frequently people who can rattle off the differences between light- and dark-roast coffee or Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon start to look worried when confronted by a question like “Oolong or Assam?” After water, tea is the second-most-consumed beverage in the world, yet until recently, most Americans were content to stop at the word Lipton.

That’s changing, though. Right now, we’re in the midst of a tea renaissance. American drinkers are realizing that fine wine and tea have a lot in common and that, just as with wine, you get what you pay for—and it helps to know where (and how) to look.

But first, the basics. All true tea comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. (Herbal “teas” are really tisanes, not teas.) The difference between premium teas and the bagged offerings at the grocery store depends on where the leaves are grown, when they are picked, and how they’re treated afterward. “If a tea is grown at low elevations in a warm climate, the leaves grow very quickly and at a higher volume, but they can often be quite bitter,” says Peter Luong, the owner of Song Tea & Ceramics. Leaves grown at high elevations and cut by hand instead of by a machine are more balanced in flavor. And the pace of oxidation (a process during which leaves are intentionally damaged to expose them to oxygen, creating unique and complex flavors) also impacts the tea’s final flavor profile.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Japanese Tea

“When it comes to brewing coffee, you’ll get really general, straight answers down to the minute,” says Elena Liao, owner of Té Company. “But all tea leaves are different. It’s always best to refer to the temperature and steeping time recommended by the seller on the package.” That said, there are a few rules of thumb to bear in mind.

How to brew a perfect pot of tea

  1. Measure your tea using a teaspoon or electronic scale. The amount of tea you’ll need per cup will usually be on the package.

  2. Heat the water to the prescribed temperature. (A kettle with precise settings is especially helpful.)

  3. Time your tea. Once you’ve poured water over your tea leaves, set a timer.

  4. Halt steeping once the time’s up by removing the tea leaves (or bag) from the water—but don’t toss them in the compost just yet.

  5. Repeat. Once you’ve finished your first cup, you can steep the same tea leaves several more times—just add more hot water back to the brewing vessel. “All good teas can and should be able to do multiple infusions,” says Liao. “Teas that are tightly rolled [like oolong] have these beautiful bell curves of steeping. You’ll see the fullest presentation or personality of the tea by the second infusion and get more flower notes or just the fruit notes by the third or the fourth.”

Temperature guide for teas based on style

  • Japanese green and white teas: These teas are delicate and often made using the bud of the tea plant, which is why they can tolerate water only at around 165°F and may require longer brewing times.

  • Matcha: Heat your water to 176°F before whisking in this milled green tea powder.

  • Oolongs and jasmine pearls: Use water between 190°F and 212°F (boiling). “Anything that looks like it’s tightly rolled, you want really hot water for the leaves to actually open up slowly,” Liao notes.

  • Black teas: These teas to tolerate high water temperatures and less precise steeping times without becoming unpleasantly bitter or astringent. Heat your water to 200°F.

How to taste tea like a professional

If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting, you already know what to look for in a cup of tea. First things first: Get a good look at the color of the liquid. Is it golden yellow? Pale and grassy? Or dark brown, with a hint of cherry red?

Next, notice how viscous it is. Then, give it a sniff—get a good whiff of both the tea and the dried leaves, if you have them. “Ultimately, growing conditions and climate change are huge considerations with tea and wine,” says Peter Luong of Song Tea & Ceramics. “And also the craftsmanship component of it. In a vineyard, what you end up with after a harvest is a grape, but at some point, there’s a lot of skill that goes into changing that grape into a wine. Likewise, there’s a lot of skill that goes into changing, say, a green leaf into a tea.”

Related: What Is Chai and How to Make It

Where to buy the best tea

Best black tea purveryors

For breakfast-tea devotees, Luxmi Estates makes thoughtful loose-leaf and bagged blends from Assam and Darjeeling using only natural floral extracts and spices. Song Tea & Ceramics, which on its website refers to black tea as “red tea,” the traditional Chinese term, carries high-end Chinese offerings you won’t find elsewhere in the U.S. The Cultured Cup is the easiest way to get your hands on special blends from Mariage Frères, the famed French tea company that dates back to the mid-19th century. Try the Wedding Impérial, which is the perfect pairing for a slice of fudgy chocolate cake.

Best oolong tea purveyors

Three Gems Tea carries delightful, miniature tin flights of Taiwanese and Chinese oolongs, and we’re especially fond of their Midnight Blossom oolong, for which each leaf is handpicked and goes through a series of withering, roasting, and rolling steps.

With a focus on Taiwanese teas, Té Company carries everything from milk oolong, known for its creamy, buttery flavor, to a smoky, almost peated variety known as Iron Goddess, a lightly oxidized, oolong with rolled leaves that you’ll encounter when you sit down at many Dim Sum restaurants.

Best green tea purveyors

Our favorite shops for buying green tea include Tekuno, our go-to for bagged green tea that still feels special, with gift-worthy packaging and beautifully written tasting notes. New York-based Kettl offers a staggering selection that includes more than a dozen different senchas, while In Pursuit of Tea, which has been in the game for 25 years, is a great entry point into the classics, from genmaicha to gyokuro.

Matcha lovers should look to Ippodo Tea. The company has been sourcing high-quality Japanese teas since the early 1700s; it’s hard to beat their variety. Blue Bottle Coffee carries some of the best-priced everyday drinking matcha we’ve tried, while Kettl’s monthly matcha Mill Club Subscription is a fun way to try teas you’re unlikely to find elsewhere; the brand also carries stellar milled and unmilled hojicha.

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