Morning, afternoon, or evening, it’s never a bad time for a steaming, soothing cup of tea. (Mother’s Day brunch might be the best time of all.) Whether your penchant is for a caffeine-free herbal tisane made with fruits and spices, a deep and smoky Lapsang souchong, or fragrant and friendly English Breakfast tea you’ll want to make the ritual perfectly enjoyable. But as simple as it sounds (heat, steep, sip), you might be doing it wrong. Tea experts weigh in with the ways you may be messing up your cuppa and how to easily fix them so you can make the best tea every time.
1. Don’t Use Low Quality Tea
Tea bags may be the most convenient, but what’s inside is often sub-par. “What ends up in tea bags tends to be the leftovers from tea processing and fermentation in the form of ‘dust’ which can contain all sorts of other ingredients,” says Joseph Cerione, general manager at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, D.C., which has a stellar tea program. “It is best to use loose tea when brewing to ensure the quality and sourcing of the tea is at its best.”
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Mesh tea balls easily keep leaves contained, or you can select a fancier option like a glass teapot with a built-in mesh infuser. Blue Duck Tavern uses loose teas from Palais des Thés and Rare Tea Cellar.
Palais des Thés Signature Tea Blends, $21 at Food52
These high-quality blends include everything from flower petals to citrus peel.
2. Don’t Use the Wrong Temperature Water for the Kind of Tea You’re Brewing
News flash: Water doesn’t always need to reach 212°F for tea. So if you are putting the kettle on the stove and waiting for that whistle you might end up with water that’s way too hot. Black teas tend to be more forgiving and will be just fine topped with water that’s reached a rolling boil says Cerione, while white and green teas (including matcha) do better with lower temperatures. (One exception is first-flush Darjeeling, he says, whose buds break early in spring and require delicate handling and a brewing temperature of around 180°F.)
Related Reading: Everything You Wanted to Know About Matcha Green Tea
As a general rule, “the darker the tea, the higher the temperature and vice versa,” says Matthew Davis, product expert for beverage and toast at Breville. “Darker teas will taste bland and papery if the water is not hot enough and lighter teas will become extremely dry and bitter if over-extracted.” He also adds that bags are less sensitive to temperature as they tend to be more processed than loose leaf, thus releasing more volatile aromatics.
One way to be sure you always get it right is to invest in an electric kettle with variable temperature settings. Breville’s Smart Kettle has five settings to brew water for green and white tea (175°F), oolong tea (195°F), French-press coffee (200°F), black and herbal tea (205°F), as well as boil (212°F); it heats quickly and has a stay warm button to keep the water at just the right temperature until you are ready to pour.
Breville Smart Tea Kettle, $179.95 at Williams Sonoma
Take the guesswork out of brewing tea.
Fellow Stagg Pour-Over Kettle, $79 at Food52
You can find other kettles with temperature gauges and controls too.
If you don’t have a kettle with temperature settings, Cerione suggests placing two or three ice cubes into your tea infuser before adding the water, especially for green and white teas. “This takes down the temperature just enough so that the delicate, sweet and savory components to the tea come through while the tannins remain subtle.”
3. Don’t Steep the Tea for Too Long…Or Not Long Enough
Again, oversteeping leads to a bitter, tannic flavor while not dunking in the tea long enough results in a dull, weak, less-than-enjoyable afternoon beverage. “Four minutes tends to be just the right amount for most teas,” Cerione says, though there are exceptions like a delicate white tea called Silver Needle which needs up to ten minutes of steep time at 160°F. When in doubt, check the directions on the package or ask your tea purveyor.
4. Don’t Squeeze Out the Tea Bag When the Tea Is Done Steeping
Trying to eke out every bit of liquid is actually counter-intuitive. While pressing thick-skinned red grapes like cabernet sauvignon and then letting their skins maintain contact with the juice can give the resulting wine desirable tannic structure, squeezing a tea bag just makes for bitter, astringent tea. When using a bag, let the tea drip over your mug or teacup when removing it, then toss into the sink or trash.
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5. Don’t Use Too Much Loose-Leaf Tea (Or Too Little)
According to the authors of “The Official Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook: Teatime Drinks, Scones, Savories & Sweets,” when brewing a pot of tea you should use 1 teaspoon of loose-leaf tea per person (cup) plus 1 teaspoon for the pot. They also suggest setting a pitcher filled with hot water on the tea tray so those who prefer a weaker cup can adjust it to their taste.
6. Don’t Use the Wrong Kind of Sweetener for the Type of Tea You’re Drinking
While purists may think tea should always be served sans sugar or milk, you might prefer a touch of sweetness along with the bergamot tinge of your Earl Grey. Before you reach for the bowl of white refined sugar though, consider the kind of tea you are drinking.
White sugar and rock sugar will add sweetness without other flavors to your tea, and agave can add double the sweetness with half the amount of sweetener.
Coconut sugar and brown sugar give tea toastiness and earthy notes, but stevia’s herbaceous flavor can be off-putting to some.
Experiment to find your favorites; try honey with apple cinnamon tea, coconut sugar with black vanilla tea, and agave with orange ceylon tea.
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