Make the Perfect Cup of Tea

Tea - The Divine Medicine

I am speaking here about TEA, Camellia sinensis and closely related varietals, what in Chinese or Japanese is called cha. Green and black tea both come from this same plant. Unfortunately, in English the word “Tea” is imprecise and may mean any herbal infusion, such as peppermint or chamomile “tea.” I am using the term Tea only in the specialized Asian sense.

According to Chinese medicine, tea clears the mind, circulates the qi, strengthens the internal organs, and enhances quality of life.

There are six major kinds of tea:

White Tea: the lightest tea, air dried, a varietal of the leaf found in Fujian Province that produces a lilac aroma


Green Tea: the natural leaf, green and refreshing, the taste  of Spring


Oolong Tea: a beautiful reddish-green semi-oxidized leaf, with subtle dimensions of flavor and aroma


Black Tea: fully oxidized, red leaf with robust flavor– a more stimulating beverage


Puerh (also spelled Pu-erh) Tea: a unique large leaf tea from Yunnan Province, much loved in Tibet, often aged like wine, with peaty or musky notes

Dark Tea (Hei Cha in Chinese): Fully fermented (sometimes called post-fermented) dark tea leaf, with a slightly sweet aftertaste

 

The best teas are either picked from wild tea trees or grown with pride on a single plantation. Unlike machine harvested commercial teas, fine teas are gathered by hand (at least 2,000 pickings to make a pound), the quality of each leaf carefully checked. To vary the flavor, leaves may be dried, steamed, roasted, curled, rolled, pressed, twisted, or folded. Of course, the quality of the soil and natural elements greatly affect the quality of the leaf. Imagine the difference between tea grown on a steep mountain side, where pickers must be as agile as monkeys (such teas are called “monkey picked”) compared to tea that soaks up light and mist from the ocean. Some monasteries maintain their own tea gardens, their ancient plants stimulated by the sounds of the temple bells and chanting monks.

Ken's Tea Tips

Brewing Basics

  • Use good water. Pure spring water is preferred.
    Heat water in a stainless steel or pyrex kettle, never aluminum or copper. Be sure that tea equipment and utensils (kettle, teapot, thermos, cups, etc.) do not have the scent of coffee or any other substance!

  • Use fully boiled water for black and puerh teas; very hot water for oolongs (approx. 180-190o F.); and very warm water for green or “white” teas (160-170o F.). Hot water can scald and destroy the flavor of white or green teas. Tea is a plant, and like any plant it can be cooked. Fresh picked white or green tea should be steeped in a way that releases its refreshing flavor. Don’t use hot water and cook it!

  • Always add tea leaves with a wooden spoon (or, if necessary, a metal spoon). For flavor and cleanliness, do not use your hands to scoop tea!

  • Although the general rule is 1 tsp. of tea leaves per cup of water, this can vary quite a bit. With experience, you will discover just the right amount of tea leaves to make a delicious cup of tea.

  • Brew tea leaves loose, so they may open and release their flavor. Never use an infuser or tea ball with good tea leaves. Never stir tea!

  • Enjoy the appearance, color, scent, and taste of the Tea! Be sure to catch the fragrance of the tea by smelling the teacup before you drink the tea and immediately after you finish. Take time and savor the scent; you may sense the aroma and qi-energy of the mountains, forests, and landscape where the tea was grown. 

Three Ways to Prepare Tea
Note: White and green teas brew best in porcelain or heat tempered glass. Oolong may also be brewed in porcelain, but only Yi Xing ceramic ware (described below) brings out the full flavor. Puerh, Black, and Dark Hei Cha (including Rose Hei Cha) may be steeped in any style of teapot.

A. Western Style

  • Use a ceramic teapot (try the classic “Brown Betty”).

  • Preheat the teapot with hot water. Pour in; pour out.

  • Always place leaves in the pot before adding the water for brewing: approx. 1 tsp. of tea leaves/ 8 oz. of water + “one for the pot”. For example in a 4 cup capacity teapot use 5 tsp. tea leaves. More or less to taste.

  • Brew for 3 to 5 minutes.

  • Pour tea directly into guests’ cups. If you are using small or finely cut tea leaves, you may wishs to pour tea through a strainer.

  • Pour any remaining tea into a second tea pot or a small pitcher/decanter to prevent over-steeping and bitterness..

  • Re-infuse as necessary, adding about 30 seconds to each steeping.

  • You can generally use the same leaves for three infusions.

  • You may reuse the same tea leaves within a 3 hr. time period. Never drink day old tea.

B. Everyday Chinese Style

  • Use a ceramic cup, ideally with a lid. White interior color is best to highlight the color of the tea. One of the best ways to enjoy the tea experience is by drinking from a specially shaped Chinese ceramic cup called a gaiwan.

  • Preheat the cup.

  • Place 1-3 tsp. of tea leaves in an 8 oz. cup. The amount of tea leaves depends on the weight of the tea rather than its volume. For example, because white tea is very light (in weight), you may add 2-3 tsp. per cup. Tieh Guanyin, a famous oolong, is relatively heavy, requiring between 1 and 2 tsp. per cup.

  • Steep for approximately 2 minutes, checking for ideal taste and color. For green and white teas, leave the cup uncovered while steeping. For other teas, cover the cup. A Chinese Secret: when tea leaves have sunk to the bottom of a tall mug-style cup and left their color behind, the tea is ready.

  • Before drinking the tea, you may use the lid of the gaiwan to push any floating leaves gently to the side, where they will congregate to make a clear space for drinking. With a western style mug or cup you may wish to use a wooden or ceramic spoon to push the leaves gently to a corner of the cup.

  • Add approximately 30 seconds to each successive steeping, up to 3 times total.

Note: Many tea people use the gaiwan like a teapot. They brew the tea in it and then, to prevent over steeping, pour the tea into a small spouted tea pitcher, similar to a pitcher used to serve milk for coffee. The pitcher is then used to pour tea directly into small cups for the guests.

C. Gong Fu Tea: The Finest Way to Prepare Tea

Xi Ying teapot from Ken Cohen's collection. The calligraphy reads "Clear, Spirited, Tranquil, Peaceful"

Gong Fu (Kung Fu) is a term that applies to more than martial arts. It means a high level of skill in any activity, achieved through practice. Gong Fu Tea is famous for enhancing the sensual experience of oolong tea, though it may also be used for black, dark, and puerh teas. It is generally not advised for white or green teas.

Utensils: The most important utensil is a small ceramic teapot, somewhere between the size of an orange and a grapefruit– enough to hold one or two cups of water. The very best is Chinese Yi Xing Ware, from the town of Yi Xing in Jiangsu Province. The Yi Xing purple sand clay (zi sha) has been used to make teapots since at least 1500. The pots are  unglazed to display the subtle earth tones of the clay-- from red to brown, to sand colored-- and to allow seasoning of the pot.

Use your Yi Xing pot with only one category of tea: for example, don't use the same teapot for brewing Oolong and Puerh. This is because the clay is slightly porous and takes on the qualities of the tea. Some connoisseurs dedicate teapots to subcategories of tea: for example an Yixing pot only for raw Puerh, another for roasted Oolong, another for lightly oxidized flowery Oolongs, and so on. Yi Xing ware holds the warmth, flavor, and qi of tea like no other utensil. I sell quality Yi Xing teapots at tea tastings and workshops, You may also find them at Asian art and tea shops.

Other utensils needed include some small shot-glass sized tea cups (Japanese sake cups are fine.); a small ceramic, porcelain or heat-proof glass pitcher (a coffee creamer pitcher works) which will act as a decanter for the brewed tea; a flat-bottomed bowl (the “tea boat”) large enough for the Yi Xing teapot to sit in, with at least an inch or two between the teapot and the edge of the bowl (Look for an elegant soup bowl in a culinary shop or section of a department store. The bowl should either be plain or with colors and patterns that will not outshine the Yi Xing pot.); and a cloth to clean up any spilled liquids.

The Essential Steps:

  • Warm the teapot, cups, and the decanter with hot water. Discard this water.

  • Fill the pot about 1/3 with tea leaves. Always use a spoon, preferably wooden or bamboo, to put in the tea, never your hands! (The oil from your hands can affect the taste and freshness of tea.) With practice, you will learn the right amount of leaves to use, so that when they expand they will not block the spout.

  • Place the teapot in the tea boat (the bowl). Pour enough hot water into the teapot to cover the leaves, and immediately pour this out into the tea boat. That’s right. You are warming the pot, washing the leaves, and teasing some flavor and aroma from the leaves. Now you are ready to make tea. (Since caffeine is water-soluble, this will also slightly decaffeinate the tea, a process that will continue with subsequent steeping.)

  • Fill the pot with hot water (at a temperature appropriate for the type of tea). Put the lid on, and pour more hot water over the lid to seal in the heat. The bowl catches the hot water, forming a small pool that keeps the pot hot– a natural tea cozy.

  • Steep the tea for 5-20 seconds. Steeping differs from tea to tea, so it will take some practice to find the correct brewing time for the best color, aroma, and taste. When the tea is ready, pick up the teapot and make some leisurely counter-clockwise circles with it a few inches above the rim of the tea boat. This will mix the liquid and ensure that there is a harmonious infusion of tea flavor and color.

  • Line up the guests’ teacups, so they are touching. Pour the tea back and forth among the cups until they are all filled. (Otherwise, the last cup will have too strong a flavor) To prevent over-steeping pour the remaining tea into the pitcher.

 

As you and your guests finish the first infusion, pour more hot water into the pot. Steep several seconds shorter than the first steeping. (Again, no strict rule here. With some teas, the second steeping should be slightly longer.) Then repeat the procedure for pouring tea. With the third and subsequent infusions, most teas require adding about 15 seconds to each steeping. It will take some experimenting, until you know your tea.

When you make tea this way–a very tiny teapot with a large amount of leaves, steeped for a very brief period–you can keep infusing the tea from six to ten times before flavor is lost (depending on the quality of the tea and the shape of the leaf—for example tightly rolled leaves open and release flavor slowly). This is a simple, elegant way to drink tea.

Clean your Yi Xing pot with water promptly after use. Never scour or use soap.

Discover your Inner Tea Master: 


These steps are not “rules.” Unlike Japanese Tea Ceremony, the choreography of gong fu tea varies from practitioner to practitioner. The important thing is making a delicious cup of tea in a way that pleases you and your guests.

What about Matcha (Mo Cha in Chinese), powdered green tea? Best prepared in a Japanese style tea bowl or else a small ceramic rice or soup bowl. Place ½ tsp. of the tea in the dry bowl. Add ¼ cup boiling water. Immediately whisk the tea into a frothy jade brew. Sip right away (do not let it stand, as it cools off quickly). You can easily purchase a bamboo tea whisk online or in tea shops. Storage: The delicate powdered tea will last longer if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.   

Storing Tea
  • Loose leaf white and green teas retain full flavor for approximately one year. Most oolong teas last at least 3 years. Roasted oolongs will last even longer. Puerh, black, and dark (hei cha) tea last many years.

  • Puerh, especially green (sheng) puerh teas, are aged like fine wine with an almost unlimited shelf life, peaking in flavor at about 15 years.

  • Avoid moisture, light, smells, and heat. Do not store with or near spices or coffee.

  • If your tea does not come in a special tin, store it in an opaque container with a tight sealing lid-- ceramic ware is best, otherwise stainless steel. Exception: Some airflow is good for puerhs. The best storage containers for puerh are bamboo, wood, cardboard, kraft paper bags, or, my favorite, jute baskets. Puerh compressed tea cakes or bricks tea are best stored in their original (generally hand-made) wrapping paper or re-wrapped in tissue gift wrap paper or rice paper. Do not be surprised if the original wrapping paper around vintage tea cakes is slightly torn. This is common and does not mean that the tea is not fresh. Tea cakes are often stacked and wrapped in bamboo leaves, which sometimes tear into the delicate paper that covers the cake.

  • Green teas keep longer in a cool place and may be refrigerated (in an airtight container to avoid moisture). Other teas may be stored at room temperature.

Do you need to rinse your tea before steeping? Most teas are pre-rinsed, ready to infuse. However, compressed tea cakes (or “bricks”) are often aged and wrapped in paper, rather than immediately sealed in an airtight and dust-proof bag or tin. Thus, when you are ready to infuse your tea leaves, you may wish to first pour hot water over them and immediately discard; you have both cleaned and “awakened” the leaves, so they are ready to release more flavor

Why Is Tea So Expensive? (It's not!)

Let’s do some tea math: The price of conventional tea bags purchased in bulk, such as Lipton® tea, sells for $150 for 1 pound of tea (200 tea bags), each of which retain flavor for, at most, two infusions. That’s $150 /400 cups =.37 per 6 oz. cup.

By comparison, it is reasonable to spend at least $200- $400 for a pound of good quality Chinese tea, (approximately a year’s supply). One pound of loose tea leaves makes 181 cups of tea. Let’s say the pound costs $200. That’s $1.10 per cup. But since good quality leaves can be re-infused at least six times, this makes the price per cup 1.10/6 = 18 cents. And if your tea is a high-quality Oolong or Puerh, you will be able to infuse at least ten times, which is .11 per cup.

So, at $200 per pound, you are spending far less than on American supermarket tea (1/2 to 1/3 the cost). And instead of a tasteless brew made from leaves that are cut by machine, mixed with substandard teas from various continents, and generally considered unfit for consumption in its country of origin, you are having a healthy and enlightening experience!

FYI: Teas that win national competitions in China generally sell for $2,000 to $20,000 per pound.

​© Kenneth S. Cohen, all rights reserved.