Other than the quality of the tea leaves, the other essential elements in brewing a perfect cup of tea are the quality of the water and your brewing method. Find out more how these two elements would affect your tea.
Quality of water
A cup of tea is more than 99% water. So good water is as important for a good brew as the tea itself. Fine teas are delicate. A contaminant like chlorine, high concentration of minerals (i.e. hard water), or a poorly washed teapot can affect your enjoyment of good tea.
Ideally good water means fresh spring water with a neutral pH level (i.e. close to 7) and have just enough minerals to give it a round taste. Most experts believe mineral concentrations ranging from 60 - 180mg of total dissolved solids per litre of water and magnesium to calcium ratio of 1 to 3 with under 10mg of magnesium per litre of water is ideal. That said, we have tried soft water with Magnesium to Calcium ratio exceeding the recommended ratio and found that to be good enough for our teas. Many bottled spring water brands in Asia fulfil these criteria.
If your tap water is too 'hard' (i.e. high concentration of minerals), you may want to use bottled spring water, following our guidelines above. If your tap water has an acceptable level of minerals, use a good activated carbon water filter to remove unwanted chemicals such as chlorine, fluoride or other chemicals that may affect the taste of your tea. We found most filtered tap water in most Asian cities acceptable, but not so for many European and American cities.
On the other end of the spectrum is distilled water. Although distilled water, with their lack of minerals can bring out more flavours in the tea, they impart a raw, sharp edge to the tea, making it taste 'rough'. We want some minerals to 'round up' the taste of the tea. If suitable mineral water is not readily available and your tap water is too hard even with a water filter, you may mix suitable proportions of filtered water to distilled water to achieve the desired mineral concentration. Its often trial and error with water.
Finally, do not over-boil the water. Boiling water removes the dissolved oxygen in water. Dissolved oxygen makes the tea taste more 'lively'. When we brew tea, we typically add just enough water to the pot so reboiling the same water is minimised.
There are two general brewing methods used for making tea. Here we classify them broadly as Western Brew vs. Eastern Brew.
Western Brew Method
The Western Brew method requires less leaves to water, sits in the water much longer and typically requires a lower water temperature for brewing (usually 5 degrees celsius lower than the water temperature used for Eastern Brews). With good quality tea leaves, straining is often not necessary if you use an appropriate water temperature range. If the taste of the tea is overpowering, just add more water to dilute and its good to be drunk.
The Western Brew is a convenient method for most busy people, who do not want the hassle of having separate tea wares. In its simplest form, all you need is a mug. Put in the desired amount of tea leaves and add water. Wait for it to cool sufficiently and sip from the same mug directly, blowing the floating tea leaves away.
We usually recommend adding 180ml of water (about two third of a standard water mug) to the recommended amount of tea leaves (usually 1.5 to 2 grams). After you have drank half the tea, top up with more hot water to the two-third mark. You may top up two to three times, increasing the water temperature if you want a stronger brew. This brewing method is simple and and allows you to enjoy your tea.
Alternatively, you may use a teapot and strain the tea once it reaches the taste that you desire. We typically strain all the tea into a separate 'pourer' before pouring the tea into a cup to ensure a consistent concentration. If you prefer to pour the tea from the pot directly into your cup instead, swirl the tea pot lightly or give the tea a good stir before pouring. If the remaining tea in the pot gets too concentrated, just add some water to dilute before pouring your next cup.
Eastern Brew Method
The Eastern Brew method is the traditional brewing method used in Chinese tea ceremonies. A small Chinese tea cup with a lid, or small tea pots made of clay or ceramics is used to brew the tea multiple times. If you use brewing vessels made from porous materials, such as Yixing pots, it would be best to use the tea pot solely for one type of tea. Porous clay would retain the taste of the teas that are brewed in them.
Compared to the Western Brew method, we typically use more tea leaves for each brew (say 3 to 8 g for a standard size brewing cup), slightly higher water temperature and short steeps that can be as short as 5 seconds for each steep. Depending on the type of tea leaves and the amount of tea leaves used, it is not uncommon to reach twenty infusions or more for good quality Pu'erh and Oolongs. An advantage of the Eastern Brew over the Western Brew is that one gets to savour the different taste profile of the tea over multiple brews, making the whole tea drinking experience a lot more interesting.
Brewing a good cup of tea is an art. First of all, you need to decide how concentrated you like your tea and adjust the amount of tea leaves according to your taste. If the tea leaves are compressed, like some of our pu'erhs, we generally add about one fifth to one quarter of tea leaves into the lidded tea cup or pot. If the tea leaves are not compressed, we typically fill half of the lidded cup or pot with tea leaves. Some seasoned tea drinkers even fill the whole cup with tea leaves!
Depending on the surrounding air temperature when you brew your tea, you may need to warm up your tea vessel with hot water prior to adding any tea into your brewing vessel. Colder climates definitely require pre-warming of tea vessels whereas in the tropics, one may get away without having to pre-warm them.
We typically rinse the tea and discard the first brew without letting the water sit too long. For the next two proper brews or so, add just enough water to cover the tea leaves and strain after 10 seconds of steeping. You don't need too much water as the tea leaves have not fully expanded during these brews, especially for compressed tea. When the leaves have started to expand after the first or second proper brew, shorten the steeping time of the next one or two steeps while gradually increase water levels to just cover the tea leaves, maintaining the same water temperature. Some people may lower water temperature slightly while maintain the same steeping time.
Based on our experience, the first and second proper brews usually require longer steeping time compared to the third brew because the leaves are not fully open yet in the initial brews. As they open up after the second brew, a shorter steeping time is required to achieve a similar concentration. After the fourth or fifth proper brew or so, gradually increase the steeping time by 5 to 10 seconds for each subsequent steep, increasing or decreasing water temperature slightly, depending on taste. An increase in steeping time or temperature is required in subsequent brews to achieve consistent strength in those brews.
Sounds complicated? Tea brewing requires practice, patience, experience and an understanding of how your tea would turn out with the water temperature that you use and the steeping time. Generally, higher water temperature and longer steeping time would result in a stronger brew, and vice versa. You may control these variables, as well as the amount of tea leaves, to achieve the concentration you desire. Just be careful not to over-brew your tea as that would destroy its aroma and taste. Conversely, under-brewing would result in an underwhelming brew that doesn't have enough flavours. All our teas come with a brewing guide.