Verdant Tea

How to Steep Tea: The Complete Guide

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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."


  TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Making Tea: What You Need to Know

"Steep" definition:
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”.

once you have good tea, just add water!once you have good tea, just add water!
once you have good tea, just add water!

 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..

Compare Loose Leaf Tea Brewing Methods: Western vs. GongfuCompare Loose Leaf Tea Brewing Methods: Western vs. Gongfu
Compare Loose Leaf Tea Brewing Methods: Western vs. Gongfu

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.

Steep Time

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

Common Tea Brewing Issues: Troubleshooting GuideCommon Tea Brewing Issues: Troubleshooting Guide
Common Tea Brewing Issues: Troubleshooting Guide

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.

get ready to brew loose leaf teaget ready to brew loose leaf tea
get ready to brew loose leaf tea

Prepare Teaware and Tools

Teaware is a big part of enjoying fine tea, but don’t be scared off by the gear! The best teas require nothing more than water and a simple cup

That said, good teaware can make the brewing process easier and make your tea feel special.

Recommended tea tools:

  • Good water and a way to heat it

  • A vessel for brewing your tea like a teapot, mug or gaiwan

  • A way to stop the infusion process like a strainer and pitcher, a brew basket, or loose leaf tea steeper

  • A tea cup or mug to enjoy your tea

For Gongfu brewing, you’ll need a gaiwan or teapot, a pitcher and a small cup.

Boil Water

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?

Steep Tea

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.

General Guide: how to brew tea "Western style" vs "Gongfu style" infographicGeneral Guide: how to brew tea "Western style" vs "Gongfu style" infographic
how to brew "Western style" vs "Gongfu style"

Enjoy!

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.

Learn about how to taste tea, or listen to Li Xiangxi of the Yangxian Tea Institute explain how environment impacts your tasting.

How to Brew Loose Leaf Tea by Variety

We’ve covered basic techniques for Western and Gongfu brewing and the variables we have in our “toolkit.” Let’s see how these techniques apply to brewing different kinds of loose leaf tea by type.

as many brewing methods as there are kinds of teaas many brewing methods as there are kinds of tea
as many brewing methods as there are kinds of tea

Brewing Black Tea

Great black tea should be sweet, cozy and never bitter. 

Many fine black teas like Jin Jun Mei or Yunnan Golden Buds Black Teas are full of downy bud material, which makes for thick rich tea when brewed correctly. For buddy teas, try a lower temperature and longer brewing time to bring out texture and sweetness. 

For Western brewing, these parameters give balanced flavor and texture

  • Black tea temperature for brewing: 200° to 210° Fahrenheit

  • How long to steep black tea: 2.5 minutes

For Gongfu brewing, 200° F water and 15 second steep times yield beautiful results with high quality buddy black teas. For large leaf black tea, use hotter water.

Brewing Green Tea

Green tea is challenging tea to steep perfectly, because it can turn bitter if something goes wrong. 

The best way to get it right is to start with the freshest, highest quality green tea you can. Better tea can tolerate a wider range of brewing styles. 

Cooler water and shorter steepings are safest. Leave your pot or mug uncovered while you brew to help keep your tea sweet and aromatic.

If you are brewing in a large pot or a mug, try these parameters: 

  • Green tea brewing temperature: 175° Fahrenheit

  • How long should green tea steep: 1 minute

For gongfu brewing, steep green tea in a gaiwan or in tempered glass. Green tea water temperature is best around 175° with short 5-8 second infusions. Leave some water over the tea between steepings to protect it from oxidizing as it sits.

Brewing Oolong Tea

Oolong teas are some of the most aromatic and complex teas in the world. They benefit from full-boil water and short steepings to make the most of that complexity.

The best oolongs can be floral, fruity, honey-sweet, tingling, cooling and even mineral-driven. Lighter oolongs like Dancong need the shortest brew time, while darker oolongs like Big Red Robe can handle slightly longer brews. 

For western brewing, we recommend using these parameters:

  • Oolong tea temperature for brewing: 212° Fahrenheit

  • How long to steep oolong tea: 2 minutes

For gongfu tea, there are as many styles of brewing as there are oolong! The gaiwan is the most versatile tool for appreciating aroma, but feel free to experiment with small tea pots or modern gongfu loose leaf tea steepers. Use boiling water and 5-10 second infusions, enjoying many steepings. Taller porcelain sipping cups focus aroma best.

Brewing Pu’er Tea

Pu’er is a deeply misunderstood kind of tea. Many people resign themselves to sour or musty pu’er, but the truth is, great pu’er should be sweet, clean, complex and utterly drinkable - no matter how old it is. 

Younger Sheng Pu’er is best with hot, short infusions, while dark shu pu’er is best brewed a little cooler with longer infusions to draw out sweetness. 

  • Brewing temperature: 208° F for sheng, 200° F for shu

  • Steep Time: 1 minute for sheng, 2.5 minus for shu

For gongfu brewing, a gaiwan or dedicated yixing teapot is best. For sheng pu’er, 208° water and a 10 second steeping is perfect. For Shu pu’er, try 200° and about 30 seconds as a great starting point.

Brewing White Tea

White tea is minimally processed to lock in the natural flavor of tea buds fresh off the bush. It is almost impossible to make good white tea go bitter, so feel free to experiment with brewing style. 

For western brewing, start with these specs:

  • White tea temperature for brewing: 208° F

  • How long to steep white tea: 2 minutes

For gongfu brewing, a porcelain gaiwan helps bring out aroma in your white tea. Use 208° water and a 10-15 second steeping. Cooler water brews sweeter tea, while hotter water brews more aromatic tea. 

Brewing Herbal Tea

Herbal teas include caffeinated offerings like yerba mate, spices like dried ginger, or specially-finished teas like Goji leaf or near-tea relatives like Crassicolumna. Generally, herbal teas need hot water and longer brew times than traditional tea. 

For western brewing, this is a good place to start:

  • • Herbal tea temperature for brewing: 212° F

  • • How long to steep herbal tea: 3 minutes

Most herbals are only suitable to steep once, but some are specially finished using tea craft techniques and can be re-steeped. For these teas, 212° F water and 10 second infusions work best.

Browse Our Beautiful Tea and Teaware Collections
to Brew Your Perfect Cup

Brewing the perfect cup starts with finding the perfect tea. From there, it is all about balancing water temperature, leaf-to-water ratio and steep time. 

Longer steep times, hotter water and more leaves all yield stronger tea. Gongfu brewing relies on more leaves, allowing you to steep the same tea many times. 

The very best teas are sweet, aromatic, complex, evocative, and taste great no matter how you steep them. However you brew tea, make time to enjoy its taste, texture, aroma and aftertaste. Get to know everything you can about the place the tea was made and the people who made it to really enjoy the tea fully.

Find the perfect gear in our teaware collection, and find your next favorite tea with farmer-focused tasting kits or tea of the month club.

How to Brew Loose Leaf Tea

Though it may seem intimidating at first, loose leaf tea is actually fairly simple to brew, especially if you keep in mind brewing’s three main variables: leaf to water ratio, water temperature, and steep time.

While we do include detailed instructions for each of our teas in a gaiwan, in a mug and iced, these instructions are basic recommendations. You are free to experiment with how you brew your own teas, especially because different brewing methods and brewing styles will bring out different qualities in the same leaves.

In this review of how to brew tea, we’ll start by breaking down the main variables, and then provide different recommendations for how to brew your favorite teas in several different styles.

 

Some Like it Hot: Water Temperature

 

Water temperature has a great effect on the chemical reaction of tea infusion every time you brew. The higher the temperature, the faster the rate of infusion. The hotter the water, the more rapid the extraction of flavor compounds from a tea leaf.

With this in mind, you can see why more delicate and temperamental teas (like green teas) so often call for a cooler water temperature.

If you imagine that every tea has a perfect window where everything is in balance and to your own taste, then increasing the water temperature means this “perfect window” gets smaller while decreasing the water temperature means the window is larger. The hotter the water, the easier it is to miss that window of opportunity by just a second or two. Cooler water gives you more time to find the sweet spot, simply because the cooler temperature means that the chemical reaction of infusion takes more time to reach the same strength.

Too much extraction can lead to a bitter flavor, while too little extraction can be too light in flavor. Some flavors seem to come out best at lower temperatures, especially savory notes. Others (such as vegetal and spicy notes) become especially pronounced at higher temperatures.

Sometimes a tea needs a long infusion in cool water, while other times you may want to introduce the leaf to hot water to bring out the vegetal notes and encourage rapid cooling for the sweeter and more savory notes.

Experiment with water temperature to find your own perfect sweet spot. Just remember, if you use hotter water, you’ll want to keep your brewing times shorter, or use a lower leaf-to-water ratio. If you use cooler water, you can be more flexibile with your brewing times, or you can take a chance with a higher leaf-to-water ratio.

In general, we usually recommend using higher water temperatures and brewing for a very short amount of time. We have found that this method works best for brewing gong fu style – enjoying many small cups over multiple infusions in one brewing session.

Li XIangxi brews tea at her family's Tongmu home and workshop

 

Finding the Balance: Leaf-to-Water Ratio

 

The most common question we get about brewing loose leaf tea is: how much tea should I use? The only way to answer this question is with another question: how much water are you using, and how much tea do you want to brew at a time?

The question is all about the ratio of tea leaves you use to the amount of water you’re brewing in. For example, if you are brewing in a giant tea pot, but you only want to brew for a few seconds, then you are going to need a lot of tea leaves! On the other hand, if you only have a few grams of your favorite tea left and you want to get a lot of steepings out of them, then you’ll want to brew in a very small vessel.

In general, if you use more leaves in less water, you will need less time to brew to reach the same brew strength, and the shorter your steepings can be. If you use less leaves in more water, you’ll need to brew for a longer period of time to reach the same level of infusion.

This is the main difference between Western brewing styles and gongfu brewing. Western brewing calls for a lower leaf to water ratio, and so requires a longer steep time. Gongfu brewing calls for a much higher leaf to water ratio, and therefore only requires a short steep time.

autumnreservelaoshanbilochun-5454_large

Western brewing may seem more economical, because it lets you brew a large amount of tea in one session and use less tea leaves. Indeed, if your goal is to cozy up with a big mug of tea and don’t plan on resteeping many times, this method could be the way to go. However, gongfu brewing allows for multiple resteeps. This means it’s great for sipping and tasting, and turns your brewing session into an activity to fill an hour or an afternoon. The difference in flavor you get between each steeping this way is also fascinating, and often reveals more complexity and nuance in a cup of tea than you get in a big mug.

It all depends on your goal. If you’re an impatient person, you may choose to use a high leaf-to-water ratio in order to benefit from super short brewing times. On the other hand, if you are just getting starting with gongfu brewing and want the flexibility of a little more time, you can always use less leaves and brew for a little longer each time.

rainy-day-1224_largex2

 

Timing is Everything: Steep Time

 

As a general rule, the longer you brew your tea, the more flavor you get.

The longer you brew, the more time the chemical reaction of infusion has to take place. When you remove the leaves from the water (or the water from the leaves!), you stop the chemical reaction and fix the current concentration of tea. The more time you allow for infusion, the more concentrated your final brew will be.

In general, we almost always recommend shorter brewing times. The reason for this is very simple. When getting to know a new tea and brewing it for the first time, it is almost always best to err on the lighter side. If your brew is lighter than you’d like, it is easy enough to increase the steeping time on your next infusion (or – if you’re using a brew basket – you can always put the brew basket back in for a few more seconds). However, if your first brew is too strong, it is much more difficult to correct.

We also often recommend gongfu brewing and shorter steeping times in order to enjoy more of what your teas have to offer. The more time a tea spends brewing, the less aromatic it will be. This is in part due to the volatility of aromatic compounds in tea and their tendency to “burn off.” It is also due to the more intense and potent flavor making it difficult for the senses to pick up the more diverse aromatics.

Different teas are at their peak at different levels of balance between aromatic and flavorful.

Much depends on personal preference. This is why we always recommend experimenting, listening to your tea, and remaining flexible in your brewing style.

 

Try it Yourself!

 

The next time you brew your tea, think about your goals, and you can adjust each of the three variables accordingly.

Higher leaf to water ratios make for stronger brews, as do higher water temperatures and longer steep times. Lower leaf to water ratios make brews that are more mellow, as do lower water temperatures and shorter steeping times.

If your tea is too bitter or strong, try a lower water temperature, a shorter steeping time, or a lower leaf to water ratio.

If you tea is too mellow or weak, try a hotter water temperature, a longer steeping time, or a higher leaf to water ratio.

For gongfu brewing in a gaiwan or small tea pot, we recommend using 5-7g of leaf in 5-6 oz of water, and brewing for just a few seconds (5-10 seconds). For more delicate teas, like flat pressed green tea or budset tea, use a cooler water temperature. For all others, use just off boiling water. Enjoy multiple steepings over many infusions, increasing the brewing time each time by a few seconds or to taste.

If you’re brewing Western style in a mug, for example, we recommend using about 4g of leaf in 6-8 oz of water, and brewing for 30-45 seconds. You’ll get less infusions from the same leaves and you’ll need to brew longer with each infusion, but you’ll get to enjoy more tea each time you brew.

No matter what style you use to brew your tea, you can always adjust each of the three variables to find your ideal brew.

a cup of Laoshan Black

 

How to Brew Loose Leaf Tea

Though it may seem intimidating at first, loose leaf tea is actually fairly simple to brew, especially if you keep in mind brewing’s three main variables: leaf to water ratio, water temperature, and steep time.

While we do include detailed instructions for each of our teas in a gaiwan, in a mug and iced, these instructions are basic recommendations. You are free to experiment with how you brew your own teas, especially because different brewing methods and brewing styles will bring out different qualities in the same leaves.

In this review of how to brew tea, we’ll start by breaking down the main variables, and then provide different recommendations for how to brew your favorite teas in several different styles.

 

Some Like it Hot: Water Temperature

 

Water temperature has a great effect on the chemical reaction of tea infusion every time you brew. The higher the temperature, the faster the rate of infusion. The hotter the water, the more rapid the extraction of flavor compounds from a tea leaf.

With this in mind, you can see why more delicate and temperamental teas (like green teas) so often call for a cooler water temperature.

If you imagine that every tea has a perfect window where everything is in balance and to your own taste, then increasing the water temperature means this “perfect window” gets smaller while decreasing the water temperature means the window is larger. The hotter the water, the easier it is to miss that window of opportunity by just a second or two. Cooler water gives you more time to find the sweet spot, simply because the cooler temperature means that the chemical reaction of infusion takes more time to reach the same strength.

Too much extraction can lead to a bitter flavor, while too little extraction can be too light in flavor. Some flavors seem to come out best at lower temperatures, especially savory notes. Others (such as vegetal and spicy notes) become especially pronounced at higher temperatures.

Sometimes a tea needs a long infusion in cool water, while other times you may want to introduce the leaf to hot water to bring out the vegetal notes and encourage rapid cooling for the sweeter and more savory notes.

Experiment with water temperature to find your own perfect sweet spot. Just remember, if you use hotter water, you’ll want to keep your brewing times shorter, or use a lower leaf-to-water ratio. If you use cooler water, you can be more flexibile with your brewing times, or you can take a chance with a higher leaf-to-water ratio.

In general, we usually recommend using higher water temperatures and brewing for a very short amount of time. We have found that this method works best for brewing gong fu style – enjoying many small cups over multiple infusions in one brewing session.

Li XIangxi brews tea at her family's Tongmu home and workshop

 

Finding the Balance: Leaf-to-Water Ratio

 

The most common question we get about brewing loose leaf tea is: how much tea should I use? The only way to answer this question is with another question: how much water are you using, and how much tea do you want to brew at a time?

The question is all about the ratio of tea leaves you use to the amount of water you’re brewing in. For example, if you are brewing in a giant tea pot, but you only want to brew for a few seconds, then you are going to need a lot of tea leaves! On the other hand, if you only have a few grams of your favorite tea left and you want to get a lot of steepings out of them, then you’ll want to brew in a very small vessel.

In general, if you use more leaves in less water, you will need less time to brew to reach the same brew strength, and the shorter your steepings can be. If you use less leaves in more water, you’ll need to brew for a longer period of time to reach the same level of infusion.

This is the main difference between Western brewing styles and gongfu brewing. Western brewing calls for a lower leaf to water ratio, and so requires a longer steep time. Gongfu brewing calls for a much higher leaf to water ratio, and therefore only requires a short steep time.

autumnreservelaoshanbilochun-5454_large

Western brewing may seem more economical, because it lets you brew a large amount of tea in one session and use less tea leaves. Indeed, if your goal is to cozy up with a big mug of tea and don’t plan on resteeping many times, this method could be the way to go. However, gongfu brewing allows for multiple resteeps. This means it’s great for sipping and tasting, and turns your brewing session into an activity to fill an hour or an afternoon. The difference in flavor you get between each steeping this way is also fascinating, and often reveals more complexity and nuance in a cup of tea than you get in a big mug.

It all depends on your goal. If you’re an impatient person, you may choose to use a high leaf-to-water ratio in order to benefit from super short brewing times. On the other hand, if you are just getting starting with gongfu brewing and want the flexibility of a little more time, you can always use less leaves and brew for a little longer each time.

rainy-day-1224_largex2

 

Timing is Everything: Steep Time

 

As a general rule, the longer you brew your tea, the more flavor you get.

The longer you brew, the more time the chemical reaction of infusion has to take place. When you remove the leaves from the water (or the water from the leaves!), you stop the chemical reaction and fix the current concentration of tea. The more time you allow for infusion, the more concentrated your final brew will be.

In general, we almost always recommend shorter brewing times. The reason for this is very simple. When getting to know a new tea and brewing it for the first time, it is almost always best to err on the lighter side. If your brew is lighter than you’d like, it is easy enough to increase the steeping time on your next infusion (or – if you’re using a brew basket – you can always put the brew basket back in for a few more seconds). However, if your first brew is too strong, it is much more difficult to correct.

We also often recommend gongfu brewing and shorter steeping times in order to enjoy more of what your teas have to offer. The more time a tea spends brewing, the less aromatic it will be. This is in part due to the volatility of aromatic compounds in tea and their tendency to “burn off.” It is also due to the more intense and potent flavor making it difficult for the senses to pick up the more diverse aromatics.

Different teas are at their peak at different levels of balance between aromatic and flavorful.

Much depends on personal preference. This is why we always recommend experimenting, listening to your tea, and remaining flexible in your brewing style.

 

Try it Yourself!

 

The next time you brew your tea, think about your goals, and you can adjust each of the three variables accordingly.

Higher leaf to water ratios make for stronger brews, as do higher water temperatures and longer steep times. Lower leaf to water ratios make brews that are more mellow, as do lower water temperatures and shorter steeping times.

If your tea is too bitter or strong, try a lower water temperature, a shorter steeping time, or a lower leaf to water ratio.

If you tea is too mellow or weak, try a hotter water temperature, a longer steeping time, or a higher leaf to water ratio.

For gongfu brewing in a gaiwan or small tea pot, we recommend using 5-7g of leaf in 5-6 oz of water, and brewing for just a few seconds (5-10 seconds). For more delicate teas, like flat pressed green tea or budset tea, use a cooler water temperature. For all others, use just off boiling water. Enjoy multiple steepings over many infusions, increasing the brewing time each time by a few seconds or to taste.

If you’re brewing Western style in a mug, for example, we recommend using about 4g of leaf in 6-8 oz of water, and brewing for 30-45 seconds. You’ll get less infusions from the same leaves and you’ll need to brew longer with each infusion, but you’ll get to enjoy more tea each time you brew.

No matter what style you use to brew your tea, you can always adjust each of the three variables to find your ideal brew.

a cup of Laoshan Black

 
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