Tea Column: Time, temperature, type

Before I begin this “lesson” in the art of steeping, I’d like to thank those who read this column. You guys and gals are awesome!

I am so happy to be writing for The Campus and have the opportunity to reach out to everyone about a simple subject like tea. So thank you. But without getting too mushy and teary–eyed, let’s dive right into this week’s lesson: Steeping.

There’s a good amount of banter and argument about the essence of steeping as well as its importance in regard to the overall integrity of the tea. Although my constant reiteration in these articles is “drink what tastes good,” some of you may be confused or misled into thinking that steeping your tea is arbitrary when it is in fact incredibly important. A watchful eye on the clock can be the difference between a tea bursting with flavor or a dreadful mess of bitterness and cottonmouth.

To make this simpler, I’ll split it into three easy parts: Time, temperature and type.

Let’s start with the fundamentals of time, arguably the most important of the three factors here. Whether you’ve decided to go with a whole–leaf blend or take the plunge and grab a quick tea bag (shudder), steep time is vital in order to maximize your overall flavor and minimize spitting your failed tea all over the place.

Though I will get to specifics in the “type” section, I would like to say that being conservative is best when letting the flavor emanate through the hot water.

Simply put, if you steep too long (for example, if you forget about your tea…shame on you) in your infuser or you keep the tea bag in your morning hot cup, you will be a victim of some terrible tasting tea (unless you like it incredibly bitter, like, say, coffee).  So it’s best to err on the side of caution, depending on what tea you’re brewing up.

Next we come to temperature, a more trivial but still important component of the infusion process. Although in my experience it is not vital to use water at an exact temperature to steep, I would say that after the whole process you want to let the tea cool down to specific temperatures in order to get the most flavor.

For example, if you make yourself some delicious, yet subtle, white tea and drink it right after you steep it, it’s going to taste like sugar water with a hint of tea. Though white tea does not punch you in the face when you drink it, you will definitely get more flavor if you wait three minutes or so afterward.

In my experience, the flavors will open up and attack the mid–palate and back–palate like you wouldn’t believe! Basically, a little waiting period before burning your mouth on tea benefits you enormously.

Finally, we come to the role of type in the simple and incredible steeping process. Like before, we have White, Green, Oolong, and Black Tea (“true” teas…more on that in another article). Each of these varieties have a specific steep time and temperature in order to make your tea taste perfect.

As a general rule of thumb, White and Green teas are to be infused for two to three minutes, though “darker” greens should take a bit longer, more like three to four minutes.

I would say that Oolong should wait until around the four-minute marker or so, depending on how strong or weak you’d like it.

Finally, black teas are best served from five to seven minutes, depending on its region (as is true for all teas). Like I said, these are simple guidelines to go by if you’re unsure or are experimenting with a new brand or something. It should also be mentioned that when you steep your tea for the first time, the most caffeine and flavor comes out of it. If you want to make your own decaffeinated tea, simply steep the leaves, pitch the tea (preferably give it to a friend who is up all night writing a paper) and re-steep using the same leaves.

It is perfectly acceptable to infuse multiple times. In fact, experimenting with this idea encourages unique flavors to come out of the leaves, sometimes allowing up to 10 different steeps! Of course, with each infusion steep time is to be extended by at least one or two minutes.

There’s your crash course on getting the perfect steep!

Remember, it’s really important to perfect and experiment in your own manner in order to achieve a perfect balance that is enjoyable to your palate!

Never be afraid to try new flavors and varieties to expand your flavor vocabulary. Heat, steep and be merry.

Pat Canella is a member of the class of 2011. He can be reached at [email protected], at www.alleghenycampus.com, on Twitter at @pcanella / @teacast or become a fan of Tea Cast on Facebook.