1. Tea Preparation – Individual Taste and Situative Context
A large part of the topic’s complexity is due to the fact that there are as many individual tastes as there are people on earth. Strictly speaking, even many more… Because the same person will evaluate the same taste differently at different times and in different situations. The first insight to be gained here is therefore that there is no such thing as the “best possible” taste of a tea – and thus its “correct” preparation – as an objective, generalizable term.
Accordingly, the correct preparation of a tea is, on the one hand, always linked to the individual taste of the person/s for whom it is prepared. On the other hand, the respective situational context and the perception shaped by the same also play an important role. Your tea is “properly prepared” if you – or the person/s for whom you are preparing it – will like its taste.
What may sound banal at first is not that easy in practice … Two things will help you to prepare a tea without endless experimentation so that it will taste good to you and/or a specific target group. On the one hand, this is the knowledge of the parameters of tea preparation and how changing them affects the taste of a tea. On the other hand, there are established standards of tea preparation that you can use as a starting point for exploring any type of tea.
The most important parameters of tea preparation are your water, the dosage, the infusion temperature and the brewing time. Beyond this, the shape and material of the preparation vessel/s also influence the taste of your tea.
2. Parameters of Tea Preparation
When it comes to the question of which water is best suitable for preparing tea, the rule of thumb is: the softer the better. Soft water means water with low lime content. The reason for this is, on the one hand, that water with a low content of calcium/magnesium-carbon dioxide compounds tastes better per se. On the other hand, the lime contained in the water binds amino acids extracted from the tea leaf, which are essential for the taste of the tea. That is, the more of them are bound, the “flatter” the tea’s taste becomes, and vice versa. This effect is particularly evident when preparing green tea.
As a rule of thumb: water with a degree of hardness below 10°dH (Degree of German Hardness) is suitable for making tea. As opposed to this, water with a degree of hardness over 10°dH, is rather not.
But even where the quality of the tap water compromizes its suitability for brewing tea, there are remedial options. The cheapest of these is probably the use of a common household water filter. Alternatively, you can produce completely decalcified water using a simple reverse osmosis system. That may sound a little “geeky”, but there are tea lovers out there finding it worth the effort. And a third option, of course, would be buying low lime water in the supermarket. This, however, is not necessarily an attractive option due to the relatively high associated costs
2.1.2. How Hard is My Water?
How hard the water is at your place of residence is something the website of your local waterworks will reveal. Alternatively, you can use test strips as available in pharmacies and/or drug stores.
Please note: Of importance is also the use of fresh – in contrast to rather stale – water. Accordingly, fresh spring water is actually the best suitable water for making tea.
The dosage reflects the ratio of the amount of water to the weight of tea leaves in an infusion. The effect follows an obvious logic: the higher the share of tea leaves, the more intense the taste of the resulting tea. At this, particularly interesting is the interaction with another tea preparation parameter, the brewing time. Because the higher the dosage, the shorter the tea needs to infuse in order to have taste.
However, the taste effect of increasing the amount of tea leaves is not the same as that of increasing the brewing time. This is because not all active substances are released to the water at the same time. Rather, this takes place at different speeds for different substances at different temperatures. Therefore, this interaction opens up a particularly interesting scope for experiments.
A good example of this are the bitter substances in green tea. Their extraction takes place very slowly at infusion temperatures of around 70°C. As we will see later, a common preparation standard for green tea is therefore an infusion temperature of around 70°C. The popular catechins also tend to loosen slowly from the tea leaf. If you drink your tea because of these active ingredients, you should therefore infuse it hot and long – or several times. On the other hand, the caffeine is extracted quickly and even at a lower infusion temperature. So, if you drink your tea because of this stimulant, an infusion temperature of 70°C and 2 minutes of steeping will do.
2.2.1. Determining the proper amount of tea leaves
The best way to get an accurate dose is by using a precision scale. This can be digital or mechanical (for example classic beam scales). It is particularly important that it weighs precisely in the relevant measuring range between 1 and 50g. What is not good, however, is measuring quantities in “teaspoons” or trying to measure gram values with such. The spoon won’t hold large-leaved teas at all. And for all other types of tea, the weight on the spoon will vary with the leaf size.
2.3. Infusion temperature
The principle is a simple one … the hotter the tea water, the higher the extraction rate. This results from the increased mobility of the electrons on the outer spheres of the atom when applying heat. So, always pour as hot as possible, in order to maximize extraction? Well, this would at least be the logical credo of anyone drinking tea for health reasons. The connoisseur, on the other hand, will prefer comparatively moderate infusion temperatures for many types of tea. This applies to most types of green tea, for example. However, the taste of many white, yellow and oolong teas also benefits from infusion temperatures below 90°C.
2.3.1. Measuring your Infusion Temperature
Basically, the following applies: bubbling hot boiling water has a temperature of around 100°C. After calming down, i.e. just a few seconds after switching off the heat source, this has dropped to 90°C. And after pouring it over the leaves in the teapot, the liquid is just about 80°C or little more. Strictly speaking, there is actually no way to infuse a tea with water at 90°C or even 100°C. Accordingly, the common recommendations for preparing black or Pu-Ehr teas refer to the water’s temperature peak in the heating vessel rather than to the actual infusion temperature. Well, we’ll do the same in the following …
Knowing your infusion temperature rather well is important for the preparation of many green, white, and oolong teas. On the one hand, these types of tea can be very sensitive to excessively high temperatures. That is, they easily become too bitter or otherwise no longer taste good with too high infuson temperatures. On the other hand, you will not want to infuse such teas too cold, because you could deprive yourself of the best of their taste and some of the desirable active ingredients contained in the tea leaf. You will therefore want to use a water thermometer to prepare such temperature-sensitive teas. Alternatively, you will also find special tea water thermometers in specialist shops.
Please note: Always heat the tea water to a boiling point before preparing the tea. Then let the water cool down accordingly for teas that require a lower infusion temperature. It is also advisable to newly heaten the water to boiling point before each invidual infusion.
2.4. Infusion Period
Here, too, the basic principle is clear … The longer the tea steeps, the more flavor and ingredients are released from the tea leaf. Which substances exactly and how much of them in which time also depends on the water, the respective dosage and the infusion temperature. Accordingly, the brewing time is not only the most variable, but also the most discussed parameter of tea preparation.
This is not least due to the interaction of the steeping time with other parameters. In particular, these are the dosage and the infusion temperature. A nice example to illustrate such an interaction is the cold infusion, which often takes place overnight. The long infusion time and the very low infusion temperature ensure a relatively intense taste without any bitters. And, by the way: the use of as-soft-as-possible water is particularly important for cold infusions.
An old folk saying says that tea wakes you up after 2 minutes steeping, but has a calming effect when steeping 5 minutes. This is actually nonsense, but there is a real core to it: the catechins, which are released at a later point in time, block the receptors for the caffeine. Accordingly, the effect of the caffeine is fully effective after 2 minutes of steeping. On the other hand, with longer infusion periods, the catechins that are released increasingly inhibit the caffeine’s effect.
2.4.1. How to control your brewing time
There are a number of options for measuring the brewing time. In the absence of any timepiece, counting the seconds or simply waiting by feeling helps. That is of course quite imprecise and in the worst case it can go wrong … Well, in the age of the smartphone, everyone always has a stopwatch and timer in the form of a relevant app. The second and minute hands or the digital display of the classic wristwatch also help if necessary. Alternatively, you can also get a special Tea Timer from a specialist shop.
2.5. Vessel Types and Materials
Of course, the vessels used for tea preparation also influence the taste of your tea. This applies to their shape, but even more to the materials they are made of. As to that, the characteristic shapes common in the various tea cultures are extremely diverse. Examples for this are the classic chinese teapot, the Japanese side handle teapot (Kyusu), or the – also Japanese – shiboridashi. All these are clay vessels by standard, while China bone, glass and cast iron are also common materials.
“Scholars” argue about which shape and which material is best suitable for the preparation of individual tea types… However, one thing is certain: you NEVER go wrong with clay! As for glass, it’s use in tea preparation often serves aesthetic purposes. In particular, green tea leaves provide a great show unfolding, descending and rising in a glass jug. However, there are also critical voices saying that glass is rather detrimental to the taste of green tea. And even more critical voices saying so for cast iron… As opposed to this, there is much agreement regarding the taste-neutral properties of porcelain in tea preparation. And as I said, you really can’t go wrong with clay…
3. Application of these Parameters in the Practice of Tea Preparation
Now, how do I apply my knowledge of the individual parameters of tea preparation in practice? Assuming that I have no other prior knowledge and my tea comes without any instructions or preparation recommendations … Then I’d have no choice but selecting random parameters for my initial preparation experiment. After tasting, I would then have to adjust these parameters – based on the known effects – in the direction of the desired taste result.
In order not having to repeat this from scratch for each type of tea, most specialist retailers ‘s teas will come with preparation recommendations. However, we can get along very well without such – often arbitrary – preparation recommendations, if we have a set of relevant standards at hand. There are many different standards for the parameter values to be used in the preparation of teas of individual tea processing categories. However, using values that are based on others’ experiences and taste preferences will hardly ever lead to complete failure. And our knowledge of the individual parameters and the effects of their modification will help us to adapt the preparation of a certain type of tea to our own individual taste.
Chapter 9.2, “Standards of Tea Preparation” deals with such standards for the selection of parameters when preparing specific types of tea from individual processing categories.
One more thing, on my own account…
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