As the second most commonly drunk beverage in the world (after water), most of us are very familiar with tea, but there might just be more to your humble cuppa than you think.
Real tea is an infusion made from steeping the processed leaves of the tea plant with water. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is an evergreen plant that thrives in the tropics but, like wine, produces exemplary results when grown at extremes, such as at high altitude in Taiwan or Darjeeling, or on precipitous slopes.
Herbal teas, on the other hand, are infusions made by steeping almost anything other than real tea with water, eg dried herbs, petals, flowers, bark and seeds. These beverages, correctly known as tisanes, are often caffeine free and quite uncomplicated.
In contrast, real teas can be quite complex due to the processing steps that convert the abundant chemical compounds in the raw leaves into an array of desirable aromas and flavours in the finished leaf. It is these chemicals, such as polyphenols, amino acids, chlorophyll, minerals and volatiles, which have led to the association of tea with good health, and a proliferation of scientific studies on the subject.
There are two main varieties of the tea plant – Camellia sinensis sinensis (meaning from China) and the large leaved Camellia sinensis assamica (originally from Assam) – and there are thousands of cultivars, or varietals, of each variety. The final character of the tea will depend on the particular cultivar used, but also on a range of other factors. These include the way the leaves are cultivated, picked and then processed, as well as the terroir of the growing area. Terroir is a term borrowed from the production of wine, and refers to the natural environment where the tea is made, including soil, climate, altitude and latitude, all of which impact on the individual character of the finished tea.
Theoretically, after the tea leaves have been picked, they could be processed into any one of the 6 main tea categories: green, white, yellow, oolong, black and puerh. In truth, however, some cultivars are much better suited to different styles than others, but is it customary to define the tea category depending on how the leaves are processed after picking.
The main tea processing steps are withering, oxidation, drying and sorting. Not all teas go through the full gamut of processing steps and, to make life easier perhaps, it is the level of oxidation that is most often used to distinguish between tea categories. For example, after plucking, leaves for green teas are heated immediately to halt oxidation, preserving the green colour of the raw leaves, and, at the other extreme, leaves for black tea are fully oxidised. Oolongs are partially oxidised teas, and the leaves for white tea experience a light natural oxidation that is neither encouraged nor prevented. Unlike the other tea categories, puerh is fermented and has the ability to continue to improve with time.
So, in all, it’s fair to say there is a lot to learn about tea! Tea chemistry is complex and much of it is still not understood. However, and partly thanks to the link with tea and health, there is now more research worldwide than ever before on the subject, and the secrets of the very special tea plant are being slowly unravelled.
We have squeezed a lot into this introduction, but you can read more about the individual tea categories below, and in time we’ll write more in depth about the processing steps in our blog.
This section is being updated – pop back soon! If you can't wait, you can read the summaries at the top of the tea category pages. Click here for a summary of black tea to start off with.
We hope these brewing guidelines help you on your way to enjoying your whole-leaf tea to the max. But remember, every tea has a sweet spot, and you’ll need to experiment to find it.
1. Good quality tea
Choose good quality tea from a reputable supplier who carefully sources the tea and packs it to maintain freshness. Remember, if your tea is exposed to light, air or humidity it will degrade. Also, keep an eye on the harvest date: green tea is best drunk within a year or two, while more stable, heavily oxidised or roasted teas (such as black tea and some oolongs) will last two to four years.
2. Water quality
Tea is 99% water, so the quality of your water does matter – if you don’t like the taste of your tap water, you won’t like your tea either.
The simple solution is to use a good jug filter, which will filter impurities and reduce chlorine so that aromas in your tea can shine. Hard water will become sweet and your tea will be enlivened. Don’t forget to use freshly drawn water with good dissolved oxygen content.
By way of explanation, the ideal water for tea is soft and low in mineral content. Distilled water, without any minerals, will taste flat and lifeless, as will water left to boil furiously, which depletes the oxygen content. Likewise, bottled mineral water is unnecessarily expensive and wasteful, and probably too hard for tea, adding a chalky taste and clogging your kettle with scum to boot.
3. Water Temperature
The wrong water temperature can destroy the aromas and flavours of your tea or fail to coax them out, so it’s worth some consideration. As a very general guide, we suggest:
- Black Teas: 95-100°C. Allow the water to reach or nearly reach boiling (but don’t let the kettle boil excessively, which de-oxygenates the water).
- Oolong Teas: 80-90°C. Oolongs range from lightly to fully oxidised, and require cooler to hotter water as appropriate.
- Green Teas: 60-80°C. Allow boiled water to cool for a few minutes. Green leaves are sensitive to high temperatures, and while 70-80°C is fine for most, very delicate first flush green teas may be better brewed as low as 60°C.
- White Tea: 80-85°C. Some suggest even cooler temperatures for white tea, but white teas don’t tend to bitterness in the same way that green tea can, and therefore brew well in slightly hotter water.
A temperature-controlled kettle is a fantastic buy for tea drinkers, but hand-held temperature gauges are also effective.
The aim is to extract just the right amount of flavour from the tea leaves. Generally, less oxidised teas (such as green tea) need cooler water to achieve a fresh and sweet infusion, and more oxidised, stable teas (black and darker oolongs) need hotter water to extract richer, more complex and fruity notes. Balance is key. Boiling water poured on a delicate green tea will scald it, and attractive flavours turn from sweet and elegant to that of boiled cabbage, or even bitter and metallic. Moreover, the structure of the tea will change and the body in green tea will be reduced as dissolved particulate matter from the leaf is destroyed by the release of more acids.
On the other hand, tepid water will not extract sufficient tannins from black tea, resulting in tea with an incomplete flavour profile that is lacking in body. Don’t steep for too long though, or the tea will develop an astringent mouthfeel.
4. The Balance of Tea, Water Quantity and Infusion Time
The ratios below are intended as a guide only when brewing your whole-leaf tea, and you can experiment with all components to find out what works for you.
Western brewing: 3g tea, 200ml water, 2+ minutes infusion time
Asian brewing: 6g tea, 200ml water, 30 seconds infusion time, numerous infusions
For Western-style brewing we often suggest 3g of tea per cup (around 200ml of water). Brew for around 2 minutes for the first cup.
For Asian-style brewing there is a higher leaf to water ratio (often 6g per cup), which enables shorter and more numerous infusions – 30 seconds can be adequate, with increasing infusion times thereafter. However, there are many exceptions: 10 seconds is enough for the first infusion of some first flush greens, for example gyokuro, a steamed tea, and the first infusions of some heavily rolled and roasted oolongs may require longer to allow the ball to open and release its flavour.
When you first start drinking tea, we’d advise you to weigh the tea. Whole leaf teas are so varied in their surface area that it can be tricky to judge weight, but you’ll soon recognise how many teaspoons your favourite tea weighs without the scales.
When you’ve brewed your tea for the requisite time, empty the entire pot into your cup and decant any extra into a warmed serving jug. Otherwise the tea leaves will stew and subsequent infusions will be compromised. The alternative is to use a teapot with infusion basket, which can be removed when the tea has brewed. Keep in mind that loose leaves need adequate room to swirl and swell in the water during infusion, so tiny infusion baskets are not ideal, no matter how cute they are.
One of the many advantages of whole leaf tea is that you can enjoy multiple re-infusions as the full gamut of flavours develop. Oolongs can be re-infused numerous times, and green and white teas usually give three good infusions. Black teas are the least successful when it comes to re-infusing, although two cups are usually possible (if not over-infused on the first cup).
Remember, these are just guidelines. Taste is subjective and with experience and experiment you’ll find your own methods. Enjoy!