Ultimately, the only rule when brewing tea is: ‘If you like it, it’s very nice’. But if you're serious about tea the following are 'the' critical factors for successfully brewing fine whole leaf Chinese tea.
Tea type: The tea type influences the type of infusing vessel, quantity of tea used and brewing times.
Water quality: In all cases, water quality is critical. Spring water from the same area that the tea is grown is best, but this may be hard to come by. Use filtered water if possible and always freshly drawn. Over-boiled water can taste flat. A pH of just over 7 is recommended.
Water temperature: Different teas require a variety of water temperatures to release their flavours to most advantage. Generally, white and green teas need to be brewed with much cooler water (70 - 80°C) than oolong, black and puerh teas, which can stand higher temperatures. The Chinese use the following ranking for water temperatures based on the size and appearance of the bubbles in the water (it works pretty well too):
Shrimp eyes 70°C/158°F - 80°C/176°F
Crab eyes 80°C/176°F - 85°C/185°F
Fish eyes 85°C/185°F - 90°C/194°F
Rope of Pearls 90°C/194°F - 95°C/203°F
Raging torrent 95°C/203°F - 100°C/212°F
Old man water 100°C/212°F (over-boiled, ‘flat’ water)
Brewing vessel: Tea can be brewed in a cup or glass (most common for green or oolong teas), gaiwan (a type of special lidded cup), an infuser such as a Piao i, or a Yixing, glass or ceramic teapot. Glass infusers allow you to appreciate the beauty of the unfurling tea leaves.
Length and number of infusions: Some green and black teas can be infused slowly in a cup, and refilled with fresh water when required. Others, especially fine oolongs and puerhs, need repeated quick infusions.
Proportion of tea to water: Obviously, a high proportion of tea to water warrants a shorter infusion time and vice versa.
At Canton we constantly argue among ourselves about the best way to brew particular teas. Ultimately, the only rule is: ‘If you like it, it’s very nice’. The best way to enjoy brewing tea is to experiment with different combinations of elements to find the way you like it best. Discovery is part of the fun! Meanwhile, here’s a quick rough guide to the most common ways to brew the major tea types:
- White tea: The Chinese are most likely to use a small ceramic teapot or gaiwan for white tea. Most importantly use cool water (70-80°C) for Yin Zhen (Silver Needle).
- Green tea: A few strands in a tall glass is the way they like to serve this tea in China, topping up regularly with cool water. Alternatively, use a gaiwan or glass or ceramic teapot.
- Jasmine tea: The key here is to go easy on the quantity as Jasmine can be an intense flavour and can overwhelm the palate. Our Jasmine Pearls for example need to be brewed cool with no more than six or seven pearls per serving.
- Oolong tea: Some greener (ie more lightly oxidised) oolongs such as Iron Buddha (Tie Guan Yin) can be brewed very successfully in a cup or even jam jar – this is the preferred method for Beijing office workers and taxi drivers. Others, especially Dan Congs, need careful handling and brewing in a gaiwan in a series of rapid infusions to bring out the full complexity of the flavours.
- Black tea: Among the easiest to brew, as they will stand a variety of water temperatures but most like it hot. A small teapot, infuser or gaiwan is the most useful here.
- Puerh tea: For brewing puerh, a small teapot – preferably a Yixing (Zi Sha) clay pot – is considered essential. The clay of the Yixing takes on the flavour of the tea and adds its own character to the infusions over time. A high proportion of tea to water (up to a third of the Yixing’s capacity), boiling water, and a series of very short infusions are recommended. The brewing of puerh is a subject of immense controversy and debate among the uber-geek puerh communities on the web. Enter this twilight world if you dare!