How to Make a Great Cup of Tea
Starting with loose tea isn't any more complicated or time-consuming than brewing a pot of coffee. I manage to make myself a cup of loose tea every single morning, in a barley-lit room, while still half asleep.
Really, truly, it's not hard.
Are you wondering if it really matters whether the tea is loose or comes in a teabag? Yes, it really does matter. While there are good quality teabags on the market, by and large, teabags are to quality loose tea as store-brand instant coffee is to fresh-roasted, whole-bean coffee.
There's another, non-tea-snob reason to skip the tea bag: Tea bags don't offer a whole lot of room for the tea leaves to unfurl as they steep, so you're potentially losing out on all the flavor that the tea has to offer. Try an infuser instead.
I will concede that tea bags are awfully handy for travel though.
2. Clean, freshly drawn water
Freshly drawn water contains more oxygen than water that has been sitting for a while. Oxygen helps to get the full flavor of the tea from the leaves into the cup.
Impurities and additives in the water, such as chlorine, sulfates and minerals can ruin a cup of the tea. Case in point: I have seen certain well waters (I'm looking at you, Harding County South Dakota!) cause herb & fruit tisanes, which should be a lovely reddish color with a deep, robust fruity flavor to instead turn a really weird purplish-grey color and taste like dirt.
If you have to choose between clean bottled water and freshly drawn water from a questionable source, choose the clean water. Safety first.
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Once you have quality tea leaves and clean water, a great cup of tea is just a matter of time, the ratio of loose tea to water, and temperature.
Time: Steeping for too long is probably responsible for more bad cups of tea than any other single factor.
The amount of time tea spends steeping affects the flavor in a couple of ways.
Firstly, it affects how strong the overall cup is.
Secondly, it affects what specific flavors are released into the cup.
Not all of the flavors in the tea leaves are desirable. Black, green, Oolong and Darjeeling teas will release more tannins the longer they are steeped. Tannins impart bitterness to the tea. Rather than a longer steeping time, you'll be better off using more tea leaves.
Rooibos, herb & fruit tisanes and other herbals generally have little or no tannins, so steeping time is less critical for them.
Ratio of tea leaves to water: More tea leaves in the teapot means a stronger tea, less tea leaves makes for a weaker tea. Black teas are traditionally prepared as a single, strong infusion. Other teas, such as white, green and Oolong, may be re-infused several times, resulting in a progressively lighter infusion.
Temperature: The temperature of the water for steeping teas can influence both the flavor and the caffeine content of the infusion. You'll be rewarded with better flavor if you take the time to prepare white, green and oolong teas at the recommended lower water temperatures.
Iced Tea: Dead simple. Steep twice as much loose tea as you'd use for hot tea, with freshly boiled water.
I use about 1.5 ounces, by weight, of loose tea to make a gallon of iced tea. I steep that loose tea with a large infuser, in a quart canning jar, with enough freshly boiled water to fill the jar.
If you like sweet tea, add that after you remove the tea leaves, while the tea is still hot, and stir until dissolved. Now, pour the hot tea over a glass (or a pitcher) full of ice, add a straw and enjoy!
A note to both the Rule-Followers and the Rule-Breakers out there: Upon playing with the ratio of tea to water and the steeping times, you may find that you like your tea stronger or weaker, that the flavor suits you best with a shorter steeping time, or that you actually like the bitterness that tannins give to the tea. It's OK, it's just tea. The tea police aren't coming to get you.
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