How to Steep Tea: The Complete Guide
No matter what method you use to steep your tea, great tea should taste incredible: sweet, aromatic, and never bitter. Loose leaf tea is not fussy or hard to brew, as long as you start with great leaves from great people! In this guide, we’ll explore how to fine tune your techniques for the best brew possible.
When a talented farmer craftsperson like He Changke hand-picks and hand-finishes your tea, you want to make sure you are experiencing that tea in all its glory. This means adjusting your steeping methods to yield the best results.
There are three critical variables of steeping tea: water temperature, steep time, and leaf-to-water ratio. Adjusting each variable changes the quality of your cup. We’ll review each element so you can make informed choices and discover your own ideal brew.
"Keep in mind the critical variables of steeping tea: water temperature, steep time, and leaf-to-water ratio."
Making Tea: What You Need to Know
Steeping tea is as simple as combining leaves and water.
How much loose leaf tea you use, the temperature of the water you brew with, and how long you steep your tea are three “tools” you can use to get to your perfect brew.
No matter what brewing style you choose, starting with good tea leaves means you’ll be drinking good tea.
Generally, we talk about two main brewing styles: “Western” and “Gongfu”.
Western brewing is the classic method familiar to US-based tea lovers. This style uses a large vessel (like a mug or tea steeper pot) and longer steep times.
Gongfu brewing is based on traditional Chinese styles. Specific methods vary, but generally, gongfu tea brewing packs lots of leaves into a small vessel, brewing the same leaves over and over in one long session..
Tea Water Temperature
The higher your water temperature, the faster your tea steeps.
Hotter water needs less infusion time, while cooler water gives flexibility for longer brew times. This is why some people recommend cooler water for certain teas - increasing temperature without decreasing time can create bitter tea. However, because heat brings out more aromatics and complexity, it can be worth it to use very hot water for some teas.
For gongfu brewing, near-boiling water is almost always used, with flavor controlled by adjusting brew time.
• Hotter water means a smaller window for the perfect brew - if your tea seems bitter, try using cooler water!
• Hot water makes more aromatic tea than cooler water.
• If you change water temperature, adjust brew time to balance the final brew.
The longer you steep your tea, the more flavor you’ll get.
It takes time for all the goodness in the tea leaf to infuse into water. That said, if you let a tea sit for too long, it can become too strong. Start with shorter infusions when you taste a new tea. This lets you dial in on your perfect flavor by increasing the steep time as you go.
For gongfu brewing, you’ll be surprised how short the steepings are! Just 5-10 seconds can be enough time when you are using boiling water, lots of leaves, and a small vessel.
• Longer steep time means stronger tea
• Shorter steepings with hotter water yield more aromatic tea
• Longer steepings with cooler water yield rich tea with engaging texture
Leaf to Water Ratio
Leaf-to-water ratio defines your brewing style.
Classic “Western style” uses less leaves in a larger vessel and is often more forgiving of changes to temperature or brew time.
In contrast, gongfu brewing methods use lots of tea leaves in a smaller vessel. Many short infusions from the same leaves show off how a tea’s flavor changes over time.
• More leaf in less water yields stronger, more complex, and more concentrated tea
• If you use enough leaf, you can brew the same leaves many times
• Less leaf in larger vessels requires hotter water and longer steep times to get enough flavor, and usually cannot be brewed again
How to Steep Tea (in General) Step-by-Step
With all our big “tools” covered, let's explore the process of brewing and enjoying tea - from making sure you have the right tools (and water!) to enjoying every sip.
Prepare Teaware and Tools
That said, good teaware can make the brewing process easier and make your tea feel special.
Recommended tea tools:
Some brewers combine several tools in one with integrated strainers or steeper baskets fitted into mugs and pitchers.
You can’t make good tea with bad water.
Time, temperature, and ratios can all be adjusted, but water with an off-taste cannot be fixed. If your water tastes great on its own, it will make great tea. If not, consider a filter or spring water. Hard water can create unpleasant film and stained teaware, but some mineral content is important for tea’s texture. Avoid distilled water or RO water.
Boil water however you want - don’t listen to anyone telling you otherwise. Even microwaved is fine if you use it safely! An electric kettle makes life easier since you can conveniently reheat water between steepings, but at the end of the day, hot water is hot water.
Can You Make Tea with Cold Water?
You’ve got great tea and boiling water. Now, you just need to decide how to steep your tea!
To brew, think ahead to how you will stop the infusion and separate the leaves and the water. You can use a brew basket or infuser that comes out when the tea is ready, or you can pour through a strainer when you are happy with your brew.
The ideal steep time and temperature can vary depending on the type of tea, brewing Western or Gongfu, and your own taste preferences.
For Western brewing, start with 5g of leaf in a 12-16oz pot or mug, boiling water, and a 2 minute brew time.
For Gongfu brewing, use 5g of leaf in a 4-6oz gaiwan or teapot, boiling water, and a 10 second brew time, enjoying many infusions.
Taste is on the palate and in the brain.
A critical part of making tea is getting in the mindset to really enjoy it. This means making time and space for tea in your day and thinking about how a tea feels as you taste it. Good tea should have lasting aroma, building sweetness, complex flavor and texture, and a beautiful aftertaste. The best teas are exciting to taste, evoking places, memories and experiences.