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.
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.
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.
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.