Who knew that the secret to the perfect cup of tea is all about science? And if that doesn’t sound fun, stick with us, because it’s as easy as one, two, three, and it’s really going to completely change your experience with your usual cup of tea.
We sat down with the expert on tea, Henrietta Lovell (known as the Tea-Lady), who owns Rare Tea Company. The London-based company ethically sources handcrafted teas directly from farmers all over the world, and then works with tiny tea shops, companies, hotels, and (nbd!) Michelin-starred restaurants (like Noma and Eleven Madison Park to name a few…) to find the best teas that works for them.
Lovell told us the tiny little tricks to making the best cup of tea, and how something as simple as water can ruin the entire pot. It’s tea time, folks!
It’s All About Ratios
A general rule of ratio is a heaped teaspoon of tea to one cup of water, per person. “Pour water over tea,” explains Lovell. “And then you have your leaf to water ratio exactly balanced, which is really important. If you were making a cake, would you just use some eggs, and some flour, and would you just do it at some temperature for some time? No. You would control those things. Same with tea. You control the leaf to water ratio, temperature and infusion time."
Use fresh, filtered cold water. Yep, fresh and cold is important. “Use fresh water because you need the oxygen molecules to dissolve the wonderful flavors in the tea. And only boil enough water that you need to use so you don’t waste.”
Use loose leaf tea, a tea strainer and a tea pot, whenever possible. “Those tea pyramids are not made of silk, they are made of nylon and bleach and glue. So please don’t use them. And the paper ones are glue and bleach. And it is not recommended that you use a tea ball strainer for any of our teas since the leaves and tips need room to expand. It is much more effective to use a tea pot and a strainer.”
It’s quicker and easier to control the temperature of water in an electric kettle. “Everybody in Britain using electric kettles. We drink six cups a day, we can’t wait all day for it to boil each time. And it’s temperature regulated.”
Too Hot/Too Cold
Oh, boy, the right temperature is very important. “The water should below boiling, because the amino acids (the tea’s flavor!) dissolve at the lower temperatures than the tannins (the tea’s bitterness!)."
For black and oolong teas use water around 185 degrees. For herbal infusions use 212 degrees, and 194 degrees for chamomile.
Too Long, My Friend
“The idea that you have to wait three or four minutes for tea to brew is because you’ve just been putting some tea into some water to get any flavor out, and you have to wait a long time,” says Lovell. “But that’s wrong. If you’d like a soft infusion, you only have to wait 60 to 90 seconds. And then after that, you are extracting tannins (the bitter flavor!). If you think you want it stronger, add more tea to the pot, do not extend the brew time. Because all you’ll be making it more bitter, not stronger.”
The Rare Tea Company's Brew Guide:
White tea is the purest and most delicate of all teas. It needs longer brewing time than other teas. Please allow to steep for one to three minutes.
Green teas should be brewed one to two minutes for the first brew. If you are going to make iced tea or to sweeten the green tea with sugar you may want to let it steep a little longer to bring out the more robust tannic flavors.
The best results are achieved by making it in small quantities with a high leaf to water ratio and quick, 30 second infusions. The number of infusions depends on your own taste but oolong is often re-infused over six times revealing different subtleties of flavor each time.
Black tea steeping times really differ with preference. If you want to drink the tea on its own without milk, 45 to 60 seconds is ideal, but if you want to build the strong tannic flavors, leave it longer for two to three minutes.
Dry It Out
After the 60 to 90 seconds of brewing, take the tea leaves out of the water and let it dry entirely. “It’s absolutely crucial that there is no water left in the tea leaves because it would still be cooking if it’s in any water. Straining the tea completely between infusions will prevent the leaves from becoming bitter.”
Round Two, Three, Four …
You liked the first cup, but the good news is the second cup will be even better (if you follow the above tips and properly dry out the leaves). “The second cup is better because the water is penetrating even deeper into the leaves. The second cup will always be more delicious. You can even do it a third or fourth time. The flavor changes with each infusion, too. For example, with a jasmine tea, when you start it’ll be rather sweet. But then it’ll be more floral. Then fruity. And then dry and mineral. In China is is widely believed that the second or third brew of fine tea is the best.”
After these tips, try the tea without milk and sugar first, if possible. “The tannins are the bitter flavors that make your mouth dry. And the tannin molecules attach to your mouth and make it dry. That's why you add milk and sugar to it. Milky tea is like milk chocolate, it’s nice but you kill a lot of the subtle flavors.”
If you’re feeling inspired by the Tea-Lady and want to indulge in your Anglophile side, the Rare Tea Company has partnered with famed British heritage fragrance brand Penhaligon's on two tea collaborations: "Countess Dorothea Vanilla Tea"—a black tea with ground vanilla pods from India, and "Monsieur Beauregard Jasmine Tea"—a jasmine tea from an ancient tea field in China. In usual Rare Tea fashion, the teas are bespoke blends hand picked, hand dried and hand crafted (a surprisingly rare thing in the tea world when most are made by machines and dangerous, cheap labor). Both are available in late September online and in Penhaligon’s stores.
Keep calm and tea on.
Related reading for the tea-obsessed:
8 Teas That Will Help You Fall Asleep Instantly
20 unique matcha recipes to try
a tea-based cocktail that's delightfully seasonal