Photo from my review of Teavana’s Peach Momotaro.
The majority of tea companies are very good about including steeping instructions for the teas that they sell. A full set of instructions should include, at minimum, the temperature of water to use and the time that the tea should be steeped for.
If I come across a tea that doesn’t include instructions (or I have trouble finding the instructions), I fall back onto the following water temperatures and length of time:
- White – 76-85°C (170-185°F), steep for 2-5 min
- Green – 60-85°C (140-185°F), steep for 30 seconds-2 min
- Oolong – 85-90°C (185-195°F), steep for 2-3 min
- Black – 93-100°C (200-212°F), steep for 3-5 min
- Herbal/Fruit Tisanes – 93-100°C (200-212°F), steep for 3-5 min
You may notice that these times or temperatures may vary a bit from what various tea companies recommend for their own tea. As a general rule of thumb, I find all steeping instructions to be more guidelines rather than hard or fast rules. For instance, if I get a very bitter cup of green tea after following the steeping instructions to the letter, I will do a second cup (with new leaves) at a lower temperature of water at a lower steeping time. You can always play around with water temperature and steeping time until you get a cup that you enjoy because there’s no sense in having a cup of tea that isn’t any good.
There are people who don’t think that tea can go bad because it’s dry leaves and it just stays in a cupboard for when you need it. But tea can go bad and nobody wants to open up a bag, hope to inhale the beautiful aroma of their favourite tea and be left with a hint of what the tea used to smell like – before it was left to mingle with air and the heat from being stored above the stove. In general, the factors that cause tea to go bad or to go stale include exposure to:
- Air, and
There is a reason why it’s recommended to keep tea in a cool, dry, dark place – like a cupboard.
Humidity/moisture is a big one – if your tea leaves get wet and then continue to stay wet or don’t dry out properly, you end up with mold. Dry tea is shelf stable, but only if it’s dry.
Heat is a problem for tea because heat speeds up the degradation process. The quality of tea degrades when it is exposed to heat, one of the reasons why a “cool” tea storage place is idea.
Air is a tricky one for a myriad of reasons. Air flow can introduce unpleasant odours to your tea as they can pick things up, but it can also introduce moisture to the tea leaves as there is water content in the air. A good air tight seal is ideal for most teas unless you happen to have pu-erh teas. Pu-erh teas do better when they can “breathe” and will benefit from air circulation (pu-erh teas is a tea that gets better/stronger with age as it ferments, but it can only do this if it’s allowed to have contact with air, so an air tight container is not necessary).
And then there’s light. Sunlight can degrade tea leaves by damaging the tea leaves. This is one of the reasons why clear glass jars are not ideal for tea storage. I do have some tea in glass jars, but I also keep them in a dark box so they’re not exposed to light all the time. The rest of my tea lives in tea tins or bags that can be sealed.
I personally use a combination of methods to store my teas. A lot of my teas live in their original packaging (especially if that packaging includes the dry leaf being in zipped baggies that live in metal tea tines), while some have gotten transferred. I find a lot of retail packaging is sufficient, but I will transfer the tea into clear zipped bags if necessary. And when I have a spare tea tin, I like to wash it out, dry it, and refill it with a tea that could benefit from being in a tea. A lot of my tea tins are from DavidsTea, but a lot of places now carry similar storage tins (e.g. dollar stores, kitchenware stores, other tea retailers).
Don’t you hate it when you’re making a cup of tea that smells amazing, but when you take a sip and it’s bitter? Bitter tea is the worst! Tea becomes bitter due to tannins from the tea leaves. Tannins are a naturally occurring chemical that is found in tea leaves, among other plants. Tannins are also responsible for that puckering feel you may experience in your mouth with some teas (and wines as well).
Now how that does that result in bitter tea? Tannins are released when you are steeping your tea. This can be due to one of two reasons:
- The temperature of water you are using is too high for the type of tea you are steeping, or
- You are steeping the tea for too long.
Any of these reasons can result in more tannins being released into your cup of tea. This is one of the reasons why it’s so easy to wind up with a cup of bitter white or green tea – the water temperature is too high or you’re steeping it for too long (or both!). That isn’t to say that you can’t have other bitter teas, because you can definitely wind up with a cup of bitter black tea if you’re not careful as well. I burn my green teas on occasion, even if I’m careful, and find up with a bitter cup from time to time.
If you are steeping a cup of tea with a tea bag, it will be done a lot faster than a similar tea that is in loose leaf form – the tea in tea bags is typically much smaller tea leaves pieces (often referred to as ‘fannings’ or ‘dusts’) which results in a higher surface area and overall less time to steep a cup of tea.
You can play around with steeping times quite a bit to troubleshoot your tea. If the recommendation is to steep for 3-5 minutes and you find 5 minutes results in a bitter cup, opt for 4 minutes the next time you try the same tea. Quality of water also plays a role in the taste of the tea – if you live in an area with hard water, it might be a good idea to try filtered water to see if that helps improve the tea.
If you have any tips on making a better cup of tea, leave them in the comments below!