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The scientific pursuit of brewing

The great thing about the tea plant is that SO MANY styles can be derived from that one plant. Is it magic? Probably. Today, we’ll concentrate on how best to brew each style of leaf.

We have six varieties of production. These are black, oolong, green, yellow, white and pu erh. Some of these you may be familiar with. You may know of all of these! Power to you. The appearance and flavours vary greatly among the styles. In conjunction with this comes a need for varied preparation techniques.

Let’s break it down:

  • Black teas are often the most familiar to us. They are a hearty leaf and can handle the heat. 100°c recommended. I  personally favour a 2 minute default steeping time, yet adjust from there depending on the individual tea! A really brisk, finely broken leaf (say Irish Breakfasts and other strong morning blends) can allow a quicker extraction of flavour, so I may drop down the steep time to a minute or so. Fuller leaves I allow to ruminate and circulate maybe for a two and a half minutes. It’s a highly singular preference, so experimentation is definitely encouraged.
  • Green tea and white tea enjoy a reputation of delicacy. The tender leaves must be steeped in lower temperatures to protect the prized flavours. Pour a fresh kettle’s worth on the leaves and you are guaranteed a ruined and bitter brew. Drop the water temperature to 80°c (70°c even for white teas and really special greens) and you’ll find the resulting brew to be succulent and free from bitterness or unwanted astringency.  A 2-minute steep for greens is a great starting point. Brew time for white teas can range from 3-10 minutes. Experiment by tasting the tea at each new minute marker and see what your magic white tea brew number is. Mine is seven minutes.
  • Yellow tea is quite rare – only three main established varieties remain in production today. It most closely resembles a green tea and should be prepared as such. It deserves its own post entirely, so keep your peepers peeled…
  • Oolongs are tricky fellows. They span varying levels of oxidisation. Does it lie nearest the black tea end of the spectrum? Or the green tea end? Smack bang in the middle? Adjust accordingly! Darker roast oolongs can withstand heat – take it to 90°c and enjoy the malty, toasty enigma of dark oolong. A greener style oolong wants, again, a lower temperature. Vegetal complexities are coming your way. If it looks green, hit up the 80°c water. Traditional Chinese brewing methods practice what is called “awakening the leaves”. I definitely recommend this for tightly rolled oolong. It involves giving your leaf a quick burst of hot water – a rinse, pitching that lot and starting with newly dampened leaves, which will unfurl more readily.
  • Now, pu erh teas, these are specific. They MUST be rinsed. It is a tradition but also a rule.  Given that the tea is aged, very much like wine, it is important to flush any sediment or particles which may have settled onto the leaves. Brew with freshly boiled water and brew multiple times. It will yield up to and even beyond seven infusions. Brew time is highly personal with pu erh tea. I know people who prefer a 45 second first infusion and some who go for a 2-5 minute steeping. Gong Fu style brewing ceremonies will use special porous clay pots which will attain the flavour over time of whichever tea is chosen to be brewed therein. These ceremonies are also performed with oolong tea.

It can seem very sciencey indeed – but will make all the difference to your experience by using appropriate temperatures and times for each style of tea.

Enjoy playing around with brew time. A difference of thirty seconds can yield a noticeable change in taste.

There is a favoured phrase among tea academics, which demystifies the complexity behind tea brewing. I will leave you with this: “It’s just leaves and water.” Happy brewing.

2 thoughts on “The scientific pursuit of brewing

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