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A Few Words About Tea: The Essentials
Understanding the crucial role that water plays in tea brewing requires a basic understanding of what tea is, where it comes from, and how brewed tea gets its unique flavor.
Pure teas are the processed leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which grows primarily in tropical and mountainous areas of Asia, select areas of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa.
There are two varieties of the tea plant that are responsible for the world’s tea production:
- Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which has origins in China and has been brewed by the Chinese for thousands of years; and
- Camellia sinensis var. assamica, which was discovered growing wild in the foothills of India.
Six primary types of teas are brewed around the globe:
- White teas
- Yellow teas
- Green teas
- Oolong teas
- Black teas
- Fermented teas (pu’erh)
What differentiates one type of tea from another is mostly determined by the degree of oxidation that the tea leaves have gone through, with no oxidation (white and yellow teas) at one end of the spectrum and full oxidation (black teas) at the other. (The six teas above are listed by their degree of oxidation.)
Green teas undergo minimal oxidation, which is partly why its leaves retain their greenish color. Oolong teas are unique in that they typically go through several rounds of oxidation, with each session imparting another layer of flavor.
In a category all by itself are the highly prized Pu’erh teas, which are the only type that undergoes real fermentation and are commonly sold in compressed patties or bricks.
You may want to read my article Is Tea Fermented or Oxidized? And What’s The Difference?
Where Does Tea’s Flavor and Characteristics Come From?
Tea leaves, like many other plant species, contain unique compounds that are part of its natural defenses against pests, diseases, and other threats to its well-being.
These substances are known as polyphenols, and they are primarily responsible for the unique attributes of tea, including its pleasant aroma, inviting color, and complex flavor profile, not to mention its purported health benefits.
Polyphenols are found throughout the edible plant kingdom, and fortunately for humans, they can contribute desirable characteristics such as flavor and color, when processed and eaten. Examples of polyphenols at work include the astringency found in the skin of wine grapes, the bitterness of grapefruit, and the red color of many types of berries.
There are over 500 types of polyphenols that have been identified in plants.
In the case of tea, there are a host of compounds other than polyphenols that account for its unique attributes. Bear in mind that some of these are more prevalent in certain types of teas than others, due to the different ways that teas are processed.
Here are the prominent compounds and substances found in tea that give it its highly sought flavor and characteristics:
- Polyphenols – Found in great abundance in tea leaves and accounting for up to 30% of their dry weight. Polyphenols include chemicals known as flavonoids, which play a significant role in the desirable characteristics of tea, including its aroma, flavor, and color. Teas that undergo little to no oxidation retain more of their polyphenols, while oxidized teas contain more theaflavins and thearubigins.
- Amino acids – Often referred to as essential building blocks for the human body, amino acids are necessary nutrients. Tea contains an amino acid known as L-theanine, which has been found to possess relaxing qualities with positive effects on specific brain functions. In conjunction with naturally occurring caffeine, L-theanine creates a state affectionately referred to as wakeful relaxation.
- Caffeine – A naturally occurring substance that is also found in other plants such as coffee and cacao. Caffeine is a stimulant and, in moderate amounts, can create a sense of alertness and energy. The caffeine content in a cup of tea is less than an equivalent serving of coffee. Nevertheless, depending on the tea type and steeping time, caffeine content per cup can range from as little as 6 mg (white teas) up to 110 mg (black teas).
- Vitamins and minerals – Tea leaves naturally contain a host of essential vitamins and minerals in varying amounts. Vitamins found in tea include Vitamin C, carotene, thiamine (Vitamin B1), Vitamin B6, and folic acid. Minerals include manganese and potassium. Interestingly, tea leaves are one of only a few plants containing naturally occurring fluoride, which promotes healthy teeth and gums.
Many of these chemicals and compounds are considered antioxidants by the scientific and well-being communities, which is why tea is revered by many as a beverage that is not only richly satisfying but also promotes a healthy lifestyle.
In particular, the high presence of polyphenols, and more specifically catechins, are believed by many to have widespread health benefits.
How to use the tea brewing calculator
Choose the type of tea you’d like to brew.
How strong would you like it to be? We’ve got a few brewing options for you:
Delicate – good choice for the caffeine sensitive and those who prefer subtle tastes. It’s also more economical – you use less tea and can get about two infusions per amount.
Medium – we recommend starting with this style of brewing – you use more leaf, and therefore the taste is richer, and you can brew it about three times.
Strong – the first infusion is meant to be intense in flavour – we achieve that by adding more leaf and/or increasing the steeping time. Good option if you don’t have much time and want to get a quick, strong caffeine kick (not recommended for the caffeine-sensitive). You can try having a second infusion, but be prepared, it will be a lot weaker.
Gong Fu – traditional Chinese style of brewing. You add a lot of leaves and steep the tea multiple times (up to 10-20!) at a high temperature. You pour the water in and out immediately (the quantity of leaves allows the tea to steep in no time). This style produces more flavourful infusions, which change over time. Also, the amount of caffeine is naturally higher, so be careful if you’re sensitive to it.
Cold brew – did you know that you can brew tea in the fridge? A cold brew is the perfect choice for summer. Just enter how much tea you’d like to have, and the calculator will give you a set of instruction.
- Enter the volume of your vessel – you can brew in a gaiwan, teapot, or in a cup. It’s best to use a porcelain or earthenware vessel. You can change the volume unit, which is by default US customary cups (237 ml).
If you want a guide to the brewing process, select “yes” next to “step-by-step instruction”. If you choose “no,” the calculator will output only the needed quantity of tea, water temperature, and steeping time.
Follow the instructions in the calculator. If you don’t have a variable temperature control kettle, use the built-in water cooling calculator, which is based on the calculations and experiments of our physicist. You’ll be instructed on how to reach the right water temperature by how long you should wait, how much cold water to add, or by pouring water from one cup to another.
Tea Serving Temperature
So you’ve boiled, brewed and are ready to serve, but let’s not forget those all-important safe tea temperatures. After all, a cup of our favorite infusion is nothing if it can’t be enjoyed safely and healthily.
Doing your best to monitor the temperature when boiling water for tea is great, but as we’ve seen, some of those heights on our chart might still be a harmful tea temperature.
You might be wondering:
Research and studies have shown that while 150℉ is the upper limit, 135℉ is the optimum temperature for hot drinks. But what about those all-important oxidizing temperatures for the water? Don’t worry, drinking and serving tea is a two-part process and you can get the best from both!
Brew your tea with boiling water at the above temperatures to release just the right levels of catechins for taste, and then let it cool to a safe tea serving temperature.
The important thing is not to freak out too much about the cooling time. Recent research has found that a cup of tea with milk cools to less than 150℉ in under five minutes.
Great news for Brits and those of you who take your tea brew with milk. For everyone else, leave it a bit longer – 7–10 minutes should be fine.
As well as seeking advice for health reasons if you’re worried, make sure you get your tea from a good supplier. A tea expert should be able to tell you the ideal brewing and tea serving temperature for any leaves you buy.
One of our favorite tea suppliers is Art of Tea, and they provide a tea temperature guide with each of their product descriptions (under Preparation Tips).
Brewing Herbal Teas
Aside from pure teas brewed from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, there are other “teas” that are very popular, either for their relaxing and soothing characteristics or for their flavor.
These are commonly referred to as herbal teas or tisanes, and they typically comprise flowers, stems, roots, seeds, and fruit.
You may want to read my article Is Fruit Tea a Real Tea? Infusion? Tisane? A Full Guide.
Popular examples of herbal teas include chamomile, peppermint leaves, rooibos, herbs, and several buds and flowers. Two or more of these are often blended to create refreshing herbal infusions for brewing.
As with pure teas, proper water temperature is essential to preparing a quality cup.
These are the essential steeping recommendations:
- Recommended Water Temperature: Rolling boil (> 212° F)
- Recommended Tea Amount (Weight): 1 teaspoon of flowers/leaves/herbs per cup, plus 1 teaspoon for the teapot
- Recommended Steeping Time: 5 minutes minimum (up to 10 minutes)
Pro Brewing Tips
Unlike pure teas, herbal teas will not produce bitterness if over-steeped.
They may, however, produce other off-flavors native to the particular flower or herb used.
If seeking a more robust, more intense cup, it is recommended to start with more flowers/leaves/herbs, rather than infusing for a more extended period.
Mastering the art of tea brewing boils down to knowing a few essentials about the particular type of tea you enjoy drinking, starting with learning the right temperature for the brewing water.
With a few tidbits of knowledge, you can elevate your tea brewing game, and reward yourself with perhaps the best cup you have ever enjoyed, with the satisfaction of preparing teahouse quality brew in the comfort of your kitchen.
Teacraft – why tea types vary
The graph below explains the processing stages of all tea types:
What happens to the leaves is:
withering – once removed from the plant, leaves wilt as they lose water.
oxidation – the loss of water causes the cell walls inside the leaves to break down, so the components inside mix and are exposed to oxygen, starting a series of chemical reactions. To achieve cell damage, tea producers macerate, roll, or tumble tea leaves.
fixing (shā qīng – “killing the green” in Chinese) – when tea producers wish to halt oxidation, they heat the leaves by pan firing, steaming, or baking.
drying – for shelf stability and to enhance flavour, tea producers reduce the moisture level to 2-3% by drying in an oven, with the sun, or with special machines.
rolling – leaves are broken and twisted by a rolling-machine.
bruising – the leaves are shaken, lightly rolled or tumbled until the edges bruise, causing cell damage, which starts the oxidation.
CTC (crush-tear-curl) – a process used for commercial black teas, the leaves are macerated using a rotorvane or a CTC machine.
wrapping – a unique processing stage where small batches of tea leaves are wrapped in cloth bundles, enabling tea to yellow.
fermentation – chemical changes caused by microorganisms, enabling the production of pu-erhs, and other fermented (also known as dark) teas. Sheng type of pu-erh ferments naturally, while shou pu-erh is pile-fermented to mimic the results of slow maturation.
Different varieties and cultivars, terroirs, and processing procedures result in various chemical compositions of tea. If the outcome is decent, all that chemistry sometimes creates an effect known to the Chinese as Cha Qi – the energy from tea, that pleasant, relaxed yet alert feeling when L-theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier. A little satori. It is hard to define – as they say, “you will know once you feel it.”