Food & Home
How to Brew a Better Cup of Tea
The ritual of making tea, especially loose-leaf tea, isn’t embedded in American culture the way it is in places like the UK, India, China, or Japan. Quentin Vennie, cofounder of Equitea, hopes to change that by making high-quality tea—and the benefits that go with it—more accessible here in the States.
He started to get serious about tea when a neurologist suggested green tea to help his son with ADHD. If he had a cup of it before school, that small amount of caffeine could potentially help him stay focused and on task in class. The grassy flavor of straight green tea wasn’t exactly a hit. So Vennie got creative, mixing custom blends to better suit his son’s palate. They landed on a blend of green tea, lemon verbena, lemongrass, and lavender, and it’s a family favorite to this day.
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Almost eight years later, he has a tea business, Equitea, with several delicious blends. Brewing loose-leaf at home might seem complicated or intimidating, but once you learn a few basics, Vennie believes that the act of brewing tea can be a meditative experience all of us can benefit from. He helped us put together a guide to brewing your first cup.
A Primer on Tea Varietals
The six main types of tea all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. What makes each tea different has to do with when it’s harvested, how it’s dried, and (most significantly) the level of oxidation.
Oxidation happens when picked tea leaves are exposed to air. They dry and darken, kind of like when a cut-up apple turns brown. For teas, this process has a significant effect on flavor and aroma. There are specific methods for oxidation: The tea leaves might be crushed or rolled for more intense air exposure for fully oxidized teas or handled little, if at all, for milder teas. Then the desired level of oxidation is set with heat, which halts the process—this could be done by baking, steaming, or frying.
Once all that work has been done to grow, harvest, and prepare the tea leaves, it’s up to you to brew it. As we learned with coffee, the temperature of your water is crucial. According to Vennie, using water that’s too hot for a certain type of tea can effectively burn the leaves, which will make your tea quite bitter tasting (this can be avoided by using a precise temperature-controlled kettle, like this one). Steeping time is another critical factor—oversteeping can also result in unwanted bitterness, and understeeping won’t give tea enough time to fully release its essential oils, resulting in a bland cup.
These are the finest and youngest tea shoots that are handpicked at the beginning of each season with the fine, silvery (white) hairs still attached to the leaves. They’re air-dried, with minimal processing to maintain their delicate young flavor. White teas tend to be smooth and very light in color.
Steeping temperature and time: 165°F to 170°F for 1 to 3 minutes
The process for yellow tea is similar to that of green tea, except the leaves are allowed a longer drying process. As the leaves dry, they become yellow in color and lose some of the grassy notes common to green teas.
Steeping temperature and time: 165°F to 175°F for 2 minutes
Black teas are fully oxidized. Once picked, the leaves are exposed to hot air for several hours. This reduces their water content by about half. They are then hand- or machine-rolled, releasing their essential oils.
Steeping temperature and time: 212°F for 3 to 5 minutes
Infusions made with ingredients like mint, chamomile, and hibiscus are technically tisanes, not teas, as they don’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant. They’re typically caffeine-free and are often made with ingredients that encourage relaxation.
Steeping temperature and time: 200°F for 5 to 7 minutes
Green teas do not undergo an oxidation process, which is why they retain their green color. The leaves are plucked and allowed to wither for a few hours before being steamed or pan-fried. The flavors vary from region to region, but they are generally vegetal and slightly sweet.
Steeping temperature and time: 175°F to 185°F for 3 minutes
Oolong leaves are picked in a specific way—the top bud and two or three leaves from each plant only. Then they are exposed to the sun and later dried indoors to promote oxidation. The most crucial part in the production of oolong tea is to know when to stop the oxidation process. The flavors will vary greatly based on the length of oxidation—either light and grassy or fuller-bodied and toasty.
Steeping temperature and time: 185°F to 205°F for 3 to 5 minutes
There are two types of pu-erh, raw and cooked. Raw pu-erh is picked, sun-dried, compressed, then aged. It has a mild earthy flavor.
Cooked pu-erhs are picked, processed, and partially fried to allow the leaves to retain moisture. The lightly moist leaves are piled with some good bacteria that help them ferment. The tea is then aged in an underground room or cave. It’s full-bodied, often described as woodsy or mushroomy.
Steeping temperature and time: 185°F to 195°F for 3 to 5 minutes
Tools for Superior Tea
Fellow Stagg EKG Electric Kettle goop, $159
The temperature control on this kettle makes it ideal for dialing in your brew.SHOP NOW
Zwilling Kitchen Scale goop, $50
If you’re ready to upgrade to weight measurements for tea and coffee, you’ll need a good scale. Vennie suggests about three grams of tea per six to eight ounces of hot water.SHOP NOW
Zwilling Milk Frother goop, $100
Frothy tea lattes made easy.SHOP NOW
VIVA Bjorn Large Glass Steeper Kettle with Removable Strainer Filter Amazon, $50
You don’t need a fancy teapot. You just want to make sure the steeper won’t crowd your tea leaves. They need some space to steep properly. Unglazed clay is a favorite of many tea connoisseurs, but Vennie says he tends to prefer glass or cast iron.SHOP NOW
FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Extra-Fine Tea Infuser with Lid Amazon, $32
If you’d rather brew a single cup at a time, an individual steeper like this is a great choice. It’s small enough for most mugs but roomy enough for proper steeping.SHOP NOW
Sweets to Enjoy with Your Cuppa
Pistachio and Orange Truffle Bites
These aren’t too sweet, so they won’t overpower your tea.
As delicious as peach pie, but half the work.
A classic addition to afternoon tea. Try them with jam and clotted cream.
More on Coffee and Tea
A Guide to the Best Coffees, Alt Lattes, Matchas, and Teas
The Gear, Tricks, and Beans for Making Excellent Coffee
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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.