Indian Tea Garden

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Steeping Tea and
Tea Preparation

To make a good pot of tea, it is essential that special attention is made to the quality of water, the water temperature, the amount of tea that is used, and the time of steeping.

Steeping Tea

Steeping means to soak in water for the purpose of extracting some constituent. Whereas, the term brewing is more correctly applied to the making of beer or ale, in that there are several steps involved, steeping being one of them along with boiling and fermentation. Fermentation in the brewing process results in alcohol production. Fermentation, as applied to tea, really refers to oxidation of certain chemical compounds (polyphenols) that are found in tea leaves. During processing, when tea leaves are broken or crushed, the polyphenols are exposed to the air and are subsequently oxidized. This oxidation is referred to as 'fermentation', though incorrectly, as this there is no production of alcohol.

Next, the liquid that results from steeping the tea leaves is known as an infusion. An infusion is made from leaves and/or flowers of a plant that are allowed to steep in hot water for several minutes. By way of comparison, a decoction, a term incorrectly applied to tea, is made from the hard parts of plants, i.e. roots, stems, branches, peels etc. These plant parts are boiled in water from a few minutes for up to an hour. Lastly, infusions (and decoctions) made from anything but true tea are correctly referred to as tisanes and not tea.

Water - Obviously, clean, fresh water is a given. Various opinions exist concerning the mineral content of water. One is that it is best to use 'soft' water because it has a low mineral content and that 'hard' water should be avoided all together. Tea states that 'soft' water needs a full flavored tea and that the twist of the leaf should be loose so that the tea will more easily release its flavor. In addition, 'hard' water requires the use of brisk and pungent tea, whose leaf should be curled tightly so that it will only slowly give up its essence.

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Steeping Temperature

Temperature - The temperature at which tea is steeped will vary depending on the type of tea that is being steeped.

For fully 'fermented' black teas and scented black teas, i.e. First, Second, and Autumnal Flush Darjeelings, lychee, or Lapsang Souchong, moderately 'fermented' oolong teas, i.e. Darjeeling Oolong, Ti-Kuan-Yin, Shui-hsien, and Tung-ting, and heavily 'fermented' oolong teas, i.e. Pai-hao Wu-lung, are made with water that has been brought to the boiling point, 100C / 212F.

For lightly 'fermented' oolong teas, i.e. Pouchong, and 'non-fermented' teas, i.e. green, white (whyte), yellow, and scented teas that have one of these as the leaves that were 'scented', i.e. Jasmine, are made with water that is around 80-90C / 175F-193F. Some even recommend a temperature around 70C / 157F.

A thermometer is helpful in determining when the water is at the appropriate temperature. For a reference for those without a thermometer, check the following table for the length of time it takes for water to cool down from the boiling point. Following the table, are descriptions to help determine the correct water temperature as the water is being heated and before it has reached the boiling point. For convenience, these descriptions I've referred to as the 'Sight and Sound' method.

At time zero, water that was brought to the boil, was poured into the cups, which were at room temperature. The highest initial temperature in each of the cups was recorded. It is apparent that pouring boiling water into a room temperature cup results in an initial water temperature, in the various cups, to be less than 100 as some of the heat is transferred to the cup and the thermometer. Only the thermometer was in the cup, no tea. The room temperature was 65F/18C.

The conditions for the glazed, porcelain tea pot were as follows. Boiling water was poured into the room temperature tea pot to warm it, as recommended, prior to steeping. This water was then discarded and more boiling water was added to the tea pot, which only had the thermometer in it and nothing else. The lid was left off of the tea pot all the while that it cooled.

For the readings from the tea kettle, the thermometer was placed directly into the kettle via the spout, once the boiling point had been reached and the heat turned off. I left the lid on the kettle as I wanted to follow my regular routine for heating water.

Based on the results, it appears that the recommendation of warming the tea pot prior to steeping tea is really only needed when using black or the more heavily 'fermented' oolong teas, both of which require boiling water for correct steeping. Green, white, yellow, and the lightly 'fermented' oolong teas need cooler water temperature, 80-90C / 175F-193F, for proper steeping. The water in the warmed tea pot (ht.pot), took five minutes to drop to 90C / 193F, and fourteen minutes to drop to 80C / 175F! When the same steps were followed but starting with a room temperature tea pot (rt.pot), the cooling times of the water in the pot were slightly less, with three minutes to drop to 90C / 193F, but still ten minutes to reach 80C / 175F.

I imagine that the tea kettle, in which the water was heated on the stove, would probably cool quicker with the lid off, but I do not remove the lid from the kettle as a routine, which again is why I left in on the kettle. This was on a gas burner with a rather thin trivet supporting the kettle. Since an electric burner retains heat longer and has a larger surface area upon which a kettle sits, it probably takes even longer for the kettle to drop in temperature. Of course, another variable would be the effect of removing the kettle completely from the heat source was the boiling point is reached. Again, placing the hot kettle on another stand, trivet, or burner at room temperature would probably hasten the cooling of the kettle. Obviously other variables include thickness of the cup and/or pot, the material from which the cup and/or pot is made (i.e. a Japanese Tetsubin tea pot is made of cast iron), actual room temperature, ventilation, and atmospheric pressure.

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Via a Thermometer

1. Temperature per minute, for various amounts of water in various containers. In regards to the table, the columns are different cup sizes and a kettle with 500ml of water and another with 1500ml of water.

'Cool-Down' Table
(see above for details about the table)
'M' = minutes  'rt.pot' = room temperature tea pot  'ht.pot' = preheated tea pot

M 6oz
cold pot
hot pot
0 198F
1 188F 186F 188F 189F 190F 198F 203F 212F
2 180F 180F 183F 184F 184F 195F 200F 210F
3 175F
180F 180F 193F
198F 210F
4 170F 171F 173F 176F
190F 196F 208F
5 164F 167F 170F 171F 172F 187F 194F
6 160F
164F 166F 168F 170F 184F 192F 206F
7 156F 160F 162F 164F 166F 182F 190F 204F
8 153F 158F
160F 162F 164F 180F 188F 204F
9 150F 156F 157F
162F 178F 186F 202F
10 148F 153F 154F 156F 158F
184F 201F
11 144F 150F 152F 154F 154F 173F 182F 200F
12 142F 147F 150F 151F 152F 171F 180F 199F
13 140F
145F 147F 149F 150F 170F 178F 198F
14 138F 143F 145F 147F 148F 168F 176F
15 136F 141F
174F 196F

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