Originally posted on the TChing site (in two parts in consecutive posts)
I don't cover that many back to basics themes but in this I'll explain ten ways to improve an approach to brewing tea.
1. ditch the tea bags and drink better tea
Tea in tea bags is typically terrible; low quality, ground-up dust. Sticking with an old favorite brand is fine but in the end that usually amounts to drinking bad tea.
Beyond tea bags loose teas vary a lot. In general if a tea looks ground up (as CTC, crush-tear-curl automated processed teas are, or just broken orthodox versions can be) then the brewed tea won't be very good. It's difficult to summarize what makes up "good tea," since that can mean a range of different things. Paying more is no guarantee, and not all vendors can probably even tell the difference themselves. The look of a website or physical shop tends to not mean much either. You have to go through a learning curve to judge for yourself.
2. don't use boiling point water for green tea
Simple enough. Preferences could vary, and for different green teas different temperatures would work best (per individual preference), but dropping down to something like 75 C / 170 F for most green teas works much better, for most people. Even lower for some Japanese green versions; it's best to experiment a bit and read around.
3. don't trust bloggers or vendors for input
So much for the rest of this list, right? More than half the people offering advice about tea online--vendors included--know very little about tea, and haven't experienced much for varying parameters, checking out different versions, even trying very high quality tea, looking into background research, etc. Even what I say should be taken with a grain of salt, to some extent. Most input really would be helpful, it all just needs to be screened.
orthodox Assam in a For Life infuser basket and lid device
I tend to de-emphasize this factor but brewing devices are a critical aspect. For Western style brewing (the teaspoon per cup approach) it seems to not matter as much; you could use a ceramic teapot, infuser basket, gravity device (similar to a drip coffee maker in design), or even a French press, and results wouldn't vary much. Some people brew green teas in a glass to see them swirl, which also works out using specialized tea bottles / tumblers, and those also travel well. Covering a tea while brewing probably makes a difference; volatile components that make up the flavors could evaporate off otherwise.
5. try out Gongfu brewing, versus Western style
There are two main ways to brew tea; Western style uses roughly a teaspoon or 2 grams of tea per one cup of water, infused for around 4 minutes, often twice. Gongfu style brewing uses a higher proportion of tea to water and a different type of device, most often either a gaiwan or clay pot instead of a ceramic teapot, tumbler, or gravity infuser. Different teas work better using different proportions, timing, and water temperatures. One school of thought advocates using boiling point water for everything, adjusting for strength using shorter infusions.
For many people clay pots make for an optimum solution for some tea types. Any porous clay material allows for tea components to soak into the pot, and to re-release flavor back into later rounds of brewing, once a pot is appropriately "seasoned." It takes a lot of research to even get started on clay pot styles, ideal clay types (Yixing, a region also used to describe a range of local clay comes up), how to best limit use to one tea type (how narrow to go for range), and which pot style and clay types match with which tea versions.
gaiwans work really well but clay pots are handy and provide a different aesthetic experience
6. try varying infusion strength
People tend to have a preconception about what infusion strength is normal for different types of teas, often based on how that typical Western proportion and timing works out. I wouldn't go much stronger than that (longer, or just infused stronger), but lighter in strength can be nice to experiment with. Sheng pu'er works better brewed quite light compared to black teas, for example. White teas work across a broad range, brewed strong to match the thickness and style of black teas, or brewed very light to be enjoyed as a more subtle version.
the same tea brewed at two different infusion strengths (a Da Hong Pao)
7. consider the water
Different mineral content in water can make or break a tea brewing experience. This tends to be where dedicated (obsessed) enthusiasts separate from casual tea drinkers, but really anyone could try out using a bottled water instead of tap water. One might think distilled water or reverse osmosis processed water--stripped of everything, minerals included--might be ideal, but the minerals play a role in the infusion process, and affect the final outcome positively (or negatively, if the balance or type doesn't work well). Researching the absolute best water for a specific type is nearly impossible but trying out minor variation at home is easy.
Per most input even using a Brita filter could make a positive difference. One odd trick relates to placing bamboo wood charcoal into the water--not while you brew, in a pitcher of some sort before heating it--to either absorb the wrong types of minerals or trace elements or maybe to add some others. I guess if it seems to work you really don't need to know how it works.
8. consider the cup
It's only psychological, I think, since you could drink tea out of a coffee mug, a fancy British tea cup, or a stainless steel camp cup (my typical water glass, at home) and it shouldn't make that much difference. But most tea enthusiasts claim it really does, and I sort of have to side with that, even though my range of use of teaware is non-existent compared to most. For people with no budget limits what to try out for teaware is an easy call; choose it all, and see what works. For everyone else taking small steps in different directions can work; try out a few interesting variations from a thrift store, or splurge and try a beautiful bowl shaped version that looks more like artwork than an everyday use cup.
some teaware does have a cool look (photo credit)
9. try different teas
This isn't advice about brewing, it's about sourcing the tea and the type instead. If you like Indian or Sri Lankan black teas (Assam, Darjeeling, or Ceylon) it's still worthwhile trying Chinese blacks, to see how those vary. Different oolongs can be approachable, not necessarily hard to brew (maybe just tricky to optimize in some cases), and many are good across a broad quality level range. As your palate and preferences change, and as you try different types and better quality teas, factors that were less important earlier on can influence results more.
10. make it your own
Experiment, and break rules! It works to vary infusion technique every time you make tea, or even infusion round to round. Or go the other way, make a science of it, and try to zero in on carefully controlled optimums through small adjustments. That second approach would seem to tie together with researching other people's informed opinions more but I guess that could work either way; someone might experiment from the ground up on their own, based on conventional approaches, or read up on lots of crazy ideas to try new things that are unconventional.
To me the nice thing about tea is the range it covers. It can be an inexpensive food-related interest, with lots of variation possible even at low cost, involving low effort and knowledge input. Or the subject can be bottomless, involving ever deeper layers of exploration.