Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Making the perfect cup of tea, article response

A recent news article about tea put me in the mood to talk about tea, to break from reviewing.  The whole link is here:

I agree with a lot of what is in the article but it mixes together different ideas that don't make sense taken together, what tea enthusiasts and experts would say (or scientists--odd to bring them in though), and what an ordinary person might actually do.  Just to clarify I'm no expert, but evident in the other blog posts I've given tea some thought, and tried some, much more than referenced in this blog.

To keep it simple I'll comment on individual ideas from the article:

Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association claim tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers.

Right, sort of.  Really tea enthusiasts use one of two different general methods of brewing tea (neither involving a tea bag at all):

1.  the "Western" technique of brewing a pot or smaller amount in a different vessel.  This possibly involves one longer infusion (the five minutes they mention, give or take), or multiple infusions for shorter times, with the number and times depending on the tea (and the water temperature, how the leaves are prepared, etc.)

2.  traditional Chinese method, or "gong fu cha," which translates roughly as "tea technique."  This is the same term as "kung fu," which would mean martial arts technique, just without specifying that the subject is fighting.  A much higher proportion of tea to water is used, brewed for very short times using many multiple infusions, typically in either a small clay pot or a gaiwan (like a small bowl with a lid).

my gaiwan, with a black tea from Taiwan (lid not shown)

To adapt the first general method to tea bags it might work best to brew using three tea bags instead of one for one short infusion, say 2 minutes, then repeat for a second longer infusion, maybe 3 more.  Given that tea bag tea is typically so low grade it doesn't matter you could also just use one bag and come back to take it out whenever you get around to it.

A study carried out by Cravendale milk in 2011 found that the perfect cup of tea needed eight minutes (two minutes with the tea bag or leaves, six more afterwards) before it reaches optimum flavour and temperature.  The scientists at UCL suggest that tea is best drunk at around 65C.

Odd the article is now contradicting itself; is it two minutes or brew time or five minutes?  Different scientists...  Really proportion of water to tea is the other main variable, along with temperature of water, an ideal for which varies by type of tea being brewed, so any one optimum would need to address all the different factors.

Tea does show flavors better when slightly cooler, as they say, but it's hard to imagine tea always cooling from boiling temperature to 65 C in 8 minutes (150 degrees F if you're on that page, a little hotter than what comes out of a tap, where hot water from a sink tap is a real thing).  This sounds wrong, and slightly pointless; if you like it hotter then drink it at 80 or 90 C, or let it get cold, it's your tea.

On to the main points though.

Making the perfect cup of tea:

1. Water temperature? Use freshly boiled water to pour over your tea bags or tea leaves

For black tea boiling water is fine but some instructions suggest 90 C is better even for black (194 F), and for other tea types slightly cooler is definitely better.  Green tea in particular will be more bitter (astringent) if brewed at boiling point, so cooler is better, but it's not always just about cutting bitterness, also about optimizing flavors.

instructions with a nice Indonesian tea (follow this link to my post)

2. Pot, cup or mug? A warmed ceramic pot is ideal, but mugs and cups do nicely

Tea enthusiasts wouldn't agree a mug is ok, because using an enclosed vessel retains more of the flavor (essential oils that can evaporate away, if you must know).  Not so much worry about that in aged, badly stored, bone-dry, over-processed tea ground to a powder as in most tea bags.

3. Milk first? It depends – if you are making tea in a mug, add the milk later (because cold milk will lower the temperature so tea won’t brew in your mug as well); if pouring already steeped tea from a pot into cups, then it is fine to have a splash of milk in first.

For most "tea people" this is simple:  no milk, no sugar.  Even most black teas aren't astringent enough to require this, and it detracts from really tasting the tea.  Of course it's all a bit subjective, so if someone really loves blended black tea with milk and sugar it's their beverage to adulterate, but they would need to try decent loose teas to know if their preference doesn't just relate to the lowest grades of tea tasting better adjusted quite a bit.

I just shared a small cup of an incredible tea with a co-worker, a 2012 Rougui I'd just received (review to follow later I'm sure, but this unrelated vendor link says what the tea is) and she asked "could I add milk to this tea?"  After the momentary shock passed I told her that she had just insulted the tea, but I forgave her, and that no, she couldn't.

4. Steep time? anything between two to five minutes (this particularly varies on personal preference)

Right, subjective.  But it's a different story for the powder in tea bags, which brews faster, and varies a lot across loose tea brewing methods.

Conclusion, about that perfect cup of tea:

The perfect cup of tea starts with tea that's much better than Lipton, Tetley, PG Tips, Dilmah, or Twinnings tea bags (no offense intended; those last two make some other decent products).  Even tea sold as high-end premium loose tea in sophisticated pyramid-style bags is a bit dubious; better to just take the leap and brew decent loose tea.

But what is decent loose tea?  I've only thrown dirt on the main products everyone has access to, right?  And not everyone is going to dedicate a part of their lives to a beverage as I have.  So I'll start to answer this, but with a limited scope, just saying a little about what decent black tea is, and of course not really getting far with that.

I've just read an interesting article that informs what tea blending is all about, but it's too much to get into here:

To oversimplify lets say some mid-range quality level product blends could be very decent and could come close enough to making "the perfect cup of tea," even if for tea enthusiasts they would produce a very mediocre cup of tea.

in our break room now; definitely not great, but decent

Ordinarily "better" tea is sold as a single-origin tea; at least it's from one place, even if that does allow for some degree of mixing (for example, a country is a big place).  Really better teas yet are sold as from a more narrow origin, from a particular farm and producer.  Tea from different areas have a different character, and there are lots of other factors, grade, growing factors (eg. how much it rained, and when), harvesting factors, processing (huge variances relating to that), on and on.

Note the goal here is shifting, and making a "perfect cup of tea" really isn't the point; it's about making a decent cup of tea related to what you expect and want.  There's no reason that couldn't continually change, and you couldn't keep on making better cups of tea than you were aware is possible in the past.  That just won't happen if you keep using the same commercial tea bags.

As far as how to come by decent tea (even limited to black tea), the starting point isn't so hard.  Find some loose tea by a large commercial maker like Twinnings, work out how to brew loose tea, and keep on going from there.  Decent mid-grade black tea, better tea than most people know exists, isn't that expensive, and there are lots more sources than it might seem at first.  Of course black tea is just one general type, and the two other main ones, green and oolong, offer lots of range, and there are others yet.

For people using the internet--most of us--there wouldn't be that much to it; click around, try some from a vendor chosen at random.  Don't get too caught up in hype or feel the need to buy $100 (50 British pounds) of tea at one go, or worry about optimizing purchase of the right types of samples, just get started.  Same for brewing gear and method; don't overdo it at first, try something basic and adjust from there.  You really can brew loose tea in a coffee mug, there's just a straining issue to work around.

Tea shops short-cut all that; decent ones will brew the tea for you to try, and you know if you like it right then before you buy it, and can see how they made it.

The real conclusion:

Now I've went and shifted from brewing back to the tea (leaf) itself, probably the better starting point than how to brew.  One could just read tea blogs to sort through the ideas but those are all over the map, and just because someone writes a lot about tea doesn't mean he or she knows much about it, or has a decent palate, or isn't an idiot to begin with.

I'd already mentioned one general tea reference site, the Tea Guardian, but there are lots of others.  That site includes a tea shop finder, since visiting a cafe or a tea shop involves access to the products and not just information, and here is another tea map locator site from Adagio teas.

The take away is this:  to start on making much better cups of tea find decent loose tea, put it in hot water, and be amazed at the result.  Optimizing those steps takes a lifetime but you'll be ahead of most people that drink tea the first time you get that far.

Postscript:  adding sugar to tea (sort of applies to milk too)

A comment reminded me of one special consideration that really fits with the rest of these ideas, about adding sugar to tea.  There is an interesting contradiction in two seemingly opposed ideas:  it's common sense that people can add whatever they prefer to their tea (it's their tea), and "tea enthusiasts" tend to gravitate towards saying that better tea (the processed leaves) prepared properly as the beverage doesn't benefit from added sugar.  A natural derivative from the latter is that if you add sugar to tea you are either drinking bad tea or making it wrong.  So how to resolve this; it can't be that simple, that one side or the other is right or wrong.

One function of sugar is to offset bitterness, or change the flavor profile when the taste could use some adjustment.  It is the case that this applies more to lower grades of tea, or to tea that has been brewed improperly, at the wrong temperature or steeped long enough to draw out excess tannins, resulting in astringency or bitterness (overlapping concepts, maybe not exactly the same though).  Better teas also exhibit a range of subtle flavors that probably are easier to appreciate without adjusting the overall flavor at all, even if sugar and sweetness level are relatively neutral.

On the other side tea preference isn't only one thing; subjective preference is a personal thing.  There's nothing inherently wrong with someone adjusting their own tea, even if some separate near-consensus opinion disagrees.  There are cultural aspects to this; my understanding is that in Turkey people prefer very strongly brewed black tea taken with sugar to offset the astringency; they like it that way, on purpose.  In Vietnam they seem to generally prefer green tea brewed in such a way as to be too bitter, per almost all other guidelines.  Of course masala chai is made with milk and sugar, sort of a special case.

I seem to have contradicted this by saying my co-worker couldn't add milk to a very unique type of Chinese tea I recently tried, that she insulted the tea.  To me she did, but much as it pains me to say it if it were her tea she could've went about adding milk, I guess.  In practice it wouldn't work out that way.  No one would get to the point of seeking out a tea that many tea drinkers have never heard of to drink it with milk.

One last idea relates to the experience of a palate learning curve when drinking tea (or tasting wine, also related to foods, etc.).  It's normal to experience a certain range of types and preparations of tea earlier on, and for those to change over time, along with preferences.  There's essentially nothing wrong with someone drinking black or green tea made from tea bags with sugar, but it would be nice for them if they could also broaden that range of experience and try different teas made and prepared in different ways.  One typical experience is to prefer less sugar or no sugar later in most tea.


  1. Agree, unless it's tea from my favorite Ethiopian restaurant. The guy brews black tea with whole spices (cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise) and a bunch of sugar. You don't even have a choice. It's the only time I have sugar in my tea, but I don't mind because it reminds me of Christmas :)

  2. Nice work. Plenty of detail and research here. I like it.

  3. thanks for the nice feedback! I really couldn't go into detail about most of what goes into making better tea because it's too broad but I think I will go back and add a bit more about adding sugar, a special case. really that could be a separate post, but it fits with what I've already said.

  4. @ohshecooks I assume your Ethiopian restaurant is simply brewing "chai"...

  5. This is really great review about tea,..It looks really perfect,.Thanks for sharing this post with us,
    "best brewing method"