A Tea Addict's Journal

Stretching a tea

March 7, 2008 · 4 Comments

One question I sometimes get is — how do you drink 15 or 20 infusions of a tea?

On one level, that’s a volume question. How do I fit that much tea in my stomach?

If I give the impression that I drink them all in one go, I suppose I must revise that impression and point out that no, for the most part, anything after 6 or 7 infusions would normally be consumed over the course of a few, if not many, hours.

The other, bigger, problem, is that of the tea itself. I think in those cases, the first thing to note is that when I say 15 infusions, the last cup is usually much weaker than the first cup. Sometimes, the last cup is not much more than sweet water. However, even sweet water are not all created equal. Some are flavourful, full of character sweet water, sometimes even giving you some reaction along the throat when swalloing. Other times, it’s just flat, boring, sweet water. In some ways, I think these last cups tell you a lot about the tea you’re drinking — it puts certain information on display that might not be obvious early on. What separates a good tea from a great tea is partly its ability to be pushed very hard for very long — invariably, teas that will still come out with a meaningful cup 15 infusions later is likely to be the better one. In aged teas, those are the ones that are more prized because of their changing character throughout a session.

What I think sometimes is missing in many reviews I’ve seen is an indication of how far the tea was pushed. The 7th or 8th or 9th infusion can be 5, 10, 20 minutes, or half an hour…. or two hours, even. Whatever works for that particular tea in that particular volume/tea ratio. I think over time, one gets a better sense of what is appropriate. I’m not sure if people simply give up, or don’t want to talk about it anymore because it’s less interesting, or anything else. It helps that some forms of tea (such as the aged oolongs I drink these days) are devoid of any bitterness and so easier to experiment than others, but just like today in my session with DH here drinking some tea, when a tea is pushed hard with a long steep in boiling water, even after 10+ infusions, it can come back to life with something else, something that you never noticed was there in any of the earlier cups. Those are always good moments.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // March 7, 2008 at 7:26 pm | Reply

    So, do you keep your tea warm during a 5 min infusion, or do you drink it tepid? For me, a tea is over when it cannot produce a pleasingly concentrated brew at a decent drinking temperature (don’t ask me what this is, ’cause I haven’t measured it) without additional heating, except maybe pouring the rinse water over the pot. This usually means a Max 2 min. infusion. I’m sure there are things to be learned by steeping until there’s really nothing left, but I haven’t been doing that, and I wonder if you heat the tea in some way?

  • MarshalN // March 7, 2008 at 11:23 pm | Reply

    Yes, sometimes I drink it tepid. I don’t think it’s just because I want to learn something about the tea either, but I do genuinely find it enjoyable. If it’s 5 minutes though, in a yixing pot, I usually find it still pours out relatively hot — maybe not hot hot, so that I need to let it cool to drink, but warm enough so that it’s definitely not a cold cup of tea.

  • lewperin // March 8, 2008 at 3:48 pm | Reply

    I think there are teas whose “sweet water”, after many steeps, is the best part of the experience. For me this is often true with cooked Pu’er. And isn’t there a tea proverb that goes “Good tea does not fear the cold”?

    Besides, you can get the temperature higher on late, long steeps by doing them in quick succession, so the hydrated leaves from steep N don’t cool down before steep N+1 begins. Sometimes I’ll even do a rinse between late steeps to maximize the temperature in the gaiwan at the start of a steep.

  • Anonymous // March 8, 2008 at 5:18 pm | Reply

    @lewperin – 

    LP – I like that suggestion of pouring the next steep immediately after the last one to conserve heat in later infusions. It’s a skillful solution.

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