Learn to Steep: Western Style

The western style of steeping is one of the better known methods of steeping tea, especially if you grew up drinking tea outside of Asia, but it’s also the steeping method that I’m starting off with in a mini series of steeping methods.

Traditionally, the western style of steeping utilizes a tea pot (or cup), and generally a small amount of tea to large amount of water. Think a tea bag with a mug of hot water, or a teapot with a teaspoon or two of tea into a strainer. In contrast, a tea pot of Chinese or Japanese origin is typically smaller in size, and the method of steeping uses more leaves and less water in comparison to steeping in a western style method.

Teapots that originate from Europe or North America tend to hold much larger volumes of water in comparison to teapots from China or Japan. For instance, some tea pots can hold 2 to 4 cups of water (or more!). There is a wide variation from western style teapots in terms of style, shapes, and designs. These teapots can come with strainers (or not), but you can also use a strainer over your cup of tea to catch errant tea leaves that might escape.

Western style teapots are typically ceramic, porcelain, metal (think silver!), or glass. The cost of a western style tea pot, depending on where you live, may be fairly inexpensive. I’ve seen teapots priced anywhere from $5 to over $50, and I have purchased teapots anywhere from specialty tea shops, thrift stores, and stores that sell home goods. This also holds true from tea cups/mugs – there’s a variety of materials that are used, styles and sizes. I personally like cups that fit well in my hands, and have a wide selection in my personal collection ranging from vintage tea cup and saucers to double walled borosilicate glass. I’m also a fan of ceramic/porcelain, as I find that they retain the heat decently well enough for me to finish the tea.

Using the tea pot is fairly easy. All you need to do is place leaves inside of the tea pot, add the appropriate temperature water, remove the leaves at the appropriate time and pour a cup of tea. some people do an extra step by pouring water into the teapot first and then pour it out, to warm the vessel prior to steeping the tea. If you are choosing the option of steeping directly in a tea cup or mug instead, the leaves are contained in a tea bag or a tea strainer. Tea strainers come in many options as well – from metal baskets or novelty plastic/silicone designs. I like the basket strainers the best because it allows space for the leaves to expand and unfurl, a fact that is particularly important when it comes to steeping compressed teas like oolong or pu’erh.

Teas steeped western style will likely be successfully resteeped a lower number of times compared to teas that are steeped gongfu style, if only because of the length of time the leaves are steeped in its entirety. Western style of tea steeping is one of my preferred styles of steeping, primarily due to the ease of steeping. The majority of steeping instructions for most teas, blends and tisanes that I have come across is for a western style of steeping (typically minutes instead of seconds).

What’s your preferred style for steeping your tea?

Cold Steeping vs. Sun Steeping

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All tea drinkers know the usual steeping formula: tea leaves + hot water = tea! But what about cold steeping (also referred to as cold brewing) or sun steeping? I decided to do a little experiment!

I used DavidsTea’s Honeycrisp Apple because it’s a tea that I love hot or cold, and I also had enough to complete this experiment. I use about 1.5x the usual amount of tea leaves that I would use for my regular steeping method. The amount of tea you use is entirely up to you. The benefits to both of these steeping methods is that you don’t run into the issue of bitter or oversteeped tea. Part of the reason why some teas are so tempermental is that they are sensitive to high temperatures and long steep times.

Cold Steeping/Cold Brewing

I put 2 spoonfuls of the tea into a mason jar and filled it up with room temperature water. The lid goes on, and I put it into the fridge. I started the process at 11pm and strained the tea leaves out at 9am. Total steep time: 10 hours.

Sun Steeping

I put 2 spoonfuls of the tea into a mason jar and filled it up with room temperature water. The lid goes on, and I put it out onto my patio in direct sunlight. I started the process at 11am and finished it at 3pm. Total steep time: 4 hours.

Most online references I found for sun steeping or sun steeped tea says to limit steeping between 3 to 5 hours.

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How does it taste?

For both jars of tea, I used a strainer to capture all of the tea leaves. What I was left with was two jars of tea.

The cold steeped tea was a nice, sweet tea, it smells just like the dry leaf and has a nice sweet taste that was almost as if I had added sugar or honey (except I hadn’t).

The sun steeped tea was considerably stronger in aroma – the apple flavour was quite fragrant. The flavours are stronger, brighter, but not quite as sweet.

I think the cold steeped tea requires less cooperative weather, I’m not sure how well it would fare if there was a bit of overcast as I picked a fairly sunny day that had highs of 22°C (~72°F). Cold steeping is something that’s easy to do if you do it the night before. Say you wanted iced tea for a party, just set up a pitcher and put it into the fridge. This is easiest if you have drawstring tea bags so you won’t have to strain out the tea later.

Both methods result in bitter-free tea, which is great since I did pick a tea blend that has a green tea base. This would be great with any type of tea since it won’t burn the tea leaves during the steeping process. I think both methods would be great for iced tea, just add some cubes after you’ve strained the tea.