A Tea Addict's Journal

Practical tea brewing advice

January 28, 2014 · 18 Comments

On this eve of the Lunar New Year, I thought I can offer some advice gleaned from over 15 years of tea drinking.

1) Use a vessel of suitable size — This means that if you’re drinking by yourself, don’t use a 300ml teapot unless you’re trying to make weak tea. Likewise, if you have a lot of people over (for holidays, for example) using that 100ml favourite of yours is really not a great idea. If you are short on wares, err on the side of small. You can always double up infusions and serve them together to fill volume, but it’s harder to deal with a large quantity of tea for a small number of people.

2) When rinsing, do not steep too long — I read in forums and other places sometimes of when people say things like “1 minute rinse”. I don’t know about you, but a 1 minute steep is no longer a rinse. Rinses are fast – 10-15 seconds at most. 1 minute, plus time to pour in and pour out water, really means more like 1 minute 30 seconds. That’s an eternity and you lose a lot of the “stuff” you should get from your tea. Don’t do it. Teas are never that dirty.

3) When brewing compressed puerh, break up the pieces — in the Western tea drinking culture I sometimes see a certain obsession with having whole pieces. I think this is partly because a lot of people drink mostly samples, so they like to see whole chunks, somehow, and oftentimes said chunks are thrown into the pot/gaiwan as a whole thing. This is not going to be good for your tea drinking experience – large chunks have a relatively small surface area for water-contact, and this is especially problematic when it’s compressed tightly. If you rinse it the water only touches the surface, and oftentimes the cores of those chunks might still be dry after one or two infusions. The proper way to do it is to break it up – yes, even if it means breaking some of the leaves. Chunks in the pot/gaiwan should be smallish, no more than about 1cm in diameter or so. If the tea is loosely compressed you can have bigger pieces. Ideally, it should actually be a mixture of chunks and loose leaves (from the same tea, of course). Remember, they all came from the same cake. As long as you’re not only brewing with fannings, it’s fine.

4) Adjust brewing time according to what your tongue tells you — a pretty common problem for novices is to ponder how long the infusions should be. Once you have thrown in the leaves, you’re stuck with your leaf/water ratio, so the only thing you can really adjust are 1) water temp and 2) time in steeping. The easier to adjust among those two is time, so you should adjust that accordingly. Is the tea way bitter/strong? Then be quick about pouring in and out. Is the tea getting weak? Lengthen the time of steeping. That’s not what the vendor recommended? Ignore the vendor. Do not ever automatically add time every infusion, as is often dispensed as advice for newer drinkers. It’s not a great idea.

5) Keep the water hot — aside from green teas, most teas should be brewed with water that’s kept very hot. That’s how you get the most “stuff” out of your tea, and gives you the most depth in flavour. If the brew is coming out too strong, you either added too much leaves or left the water in too long (or, possibly, the tea is just bad). Yes, you can get a really sweet, pleasant, and non-offensive brew by keeping the water to 60C. But you can just as well argue for cold-brewing aged oolongs overnight in the fridge. You can do it, but it’s really not the best use of the leaves. Leave the cold brewing for the cheap teas (where hot water can bring out some nasty bitterness if the tea is truly bad) and keep your water hot. Otherwise, you’re wasting perfectly good leaves.

6) Grandpa the tea when you’re finished — if you really liked the tea, one way to keep drinking it is to grandpa it.

On that note, may the year of the horse be one filled with good teas!

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18 responses so far ↓

  • ira // January 28, 2014 at 9:58 am | Reply

    Happy new year!

  • Darius Wilkins // January 28, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Reply

    I always add time. It’s not really necessary for good tea, especially spring tea, but it does a lot to make the session feel smooth to me–the tea drops off right when I start really lengthening the time in the pot.

    I also brew with less tea to water than many people do. I think a very strong brew is 8g/120ml, where some people just aren’t living until they stuff 12g/120ml or more. I don’t really like doing that because the advantages of getting that body (in flavor terms) do not outweigh the loss of subtlety in flavor/aftertaste. Then there is the fact that I have to conserve.

    • MarshalN // January 29, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Reply

      Some teas have a steep dropoff, while others have a lot of lasting power. If you add too much time before it needs it you sometimes make a very strong brew.

  • David // January 28, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Reply

    I use high amounts of tea with quick infusions. I cannot see the point of weak, insipid tea. As for the rinse (or wash) why on earth would anyone do a 1 minute rinse?! 2 to 5 seconds is enough.

    By the way MarshalN, I did email you regarding aging Pu-Erh in a dry country. I know you would probably get a lot of emails and cannot answer them all.

  • hwhudson3 // January 28, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Reply

    I always use the Grandpa style! Your style techniques are spot on! Someday I hope to have a more sophisticated set-up but I have enjoyed many teas this way. I’m glad you named and identified this style. Happy New Year!

  • Max // January 28, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Reply

    I think that whether or add time or not with each steep is largely a function of water to leaf ratio、don’t you? I’ve found if you use a lot of leaf with less water, you’re going to want to keep (or even decrease) the initial steep time, but less leaf with more water will by and large benefit from increasing the steep time with every iteration. But you are right, it’s not as simple as “always increase”. 新年快楽!

  • huskybaseball67 // January 29, 2014 at 2:12 am | Reply

    Thank you for creating such a great blog!!! Finally, what I am looking for! Based on your extensive knowledge, and years of tea drinking, what are the top 5 teas that you would recommend for someone dealing w terrible allergy/sinus issues? Are there any brands, or distributors that you would recommend buying/buying from too?


    • MarshalN // January 29, 2014 at 6:32 am | Reply

      Um, I don’t think there’s any one tea that’s particularly good for any of those things. As for vendors, it sort of depends on what kind of tea you’re looking for in the first place.

  • Leaf // January 30, 2014 at 10:16 am | Reply

    That is a fantastic post! I love reading your tips and tricks about tea and wares and this one is especially helpful. Thanks for writing and sharing them!

    I was wondering if you would agree to a French translation? It would be posted on the “Forum des Amateurs de Thé” (Tea Fans Forum: http://forumdesamateursdethe.fr/index.php ), and of course I would link back to your blog and this post specifically.

    I’m asking because I’m pretty sure a lot of people there would find this helpful too, whether they be beginners or more seasoned tea drinkers, but most of them don’t speak or read English easily… So, if it’s not too inconvenient, please tell me? 🙂

  • Joe // February 4, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Reply

    First time reader. Love your comments and honest simplicity. Thanks

  • Von Monstro // February 8, 2014 at 7:56 am | Reply

    I’ve been drinking tea for years now, but I’m fairly new to more serious tea drinking. I’m pleased to see that regarding most of your tips, they’re things I have done naturally. I often find that people are misinformed or advise doing things that they don’t realize even they stopped doing as they improved, so I try to learn by doing as much as I learn by listening when it comes to less factual learning like experiencing tea. When it comes to brewing parameters, I tend to try what other people say just to get a basic idea before I adjust it myself. One definitely shouldn’t be afraid to do what feels right and experiment. Considering I live in the states, I find it somewhat difficult to find very serious tea drinkers with which to share experiences and I also find it dodgy trying to acquire anything above average or fairly good tea, but your blog is a very good resource, especially for what I can do in the future to learn more. I hope I can find more good ways to learn a lot about tea, as it’s very unclear what would be helpful at this point other than trying whatever teas and teaware I can acquire. I hope to be able to share a lot of tea wisdom someday.

    For clarification, around what do you consider “very hot” water, as described in #5?

    • MarshalN // February 8, 2014 at 8:50 am | Reply

      Yeah, finding someone to talk to is very useful – it does help, sometimes, to get ideas sorted out.

      Very hot means the hottest you can get the water to – whatever that is for your equipment/altitude.

  • Nate // February 18, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Reply

    I found your blog when looking for information on the new yixing teapot I bought myself over the weekend; I’ve been enjoying reading this and older entries. Thanks for writing about your experience in sorting out myths and bad advice from things that have practical importance. For one thing, you convinced me to get over my initial zeal to only use my teapot for jade tieguanyin (my favorite tea) and content myself with using it for light oolongs.

    One question about #2: you wrote “teas are not that dirty”. I’m curious if “rinsing” tea has anything to do with actual cleaning – every time I read a reference to this, it goes against my intuition, which is just that a quick initial infusion helps get the leaves wet enough for a more normal second infusion. Any thoughts?

    Also: thanks for your post about grandpa-style tea. I experience a sharp pang whenever I try to toss my tieguanyin leaves after brewing because, quite frankly, I haven’t yet managed to perform enough gongfu-style infusions to get to the point where they’re still not making good tea. So last night I dropped them in a giant mug, poured in some hot water, and enjoyed still more delicious tea during my go lesson.

    • MarshalN // February 19, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Reply

      There’s no good reason to have to gongfu everything. If you’re in a hurry that’s usually not a good idea anyway.

      With your question – the rinsing mostly does help with the brewing, but I think for some teas (older puerh for example) it does have a bit of “clean the surface” work to do – and also to clean the off flavours a little that may have accumulated.

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