Brewing tea is both an art and a science. There are many different ways to brew it, but there are a few general tips that can help you along the path to a perfect cup of tea.
High quality tea begins with good water. Whenever possible use filtered water free of chlorine and minerals. Water should always be drawn fresh and cold. Never begin with warm water, and never re-boil water.
Temperature and Steeping
The temperature of the water can greatly affect the outcome of the tea. Have you ever noticed that green tea can taste really bitter and unpleasant? It doesn't have to taste that way. The traditional method of bringing water to a rolling boil then immediately pouring it over tea is one of the contributing factors to that.
Steeping time is another factor that causes bitterness. Tea should not steep for too long. Steeping tea longer does not necessarily make the flavor stronger, it will only make it more unpleasant. Here are some suggestions for steeping temperatures and times.
Black/Red Tea - 190°-200°F for 3-4 minutes
Green Tea - 150°-170°F for 2-3 minutes
Oolong Tea - 180°-200°F for 5-6 minutes
White Tea - 170°F for 5-7 minutes
Herbal tea - 180°-200°F for 3-6 minutes
Unless you carry a thermometer around in your pocket, these temperatures may not be easy to gauge. If you heat water in an open pan, watch the water and look for these signs:
160°-170°F - Steady steam just begins to rise
170°-180°F – Large bubbles appear and break at surface
190°-205°F – String of pearls – a line of small bubbles rise to the top
Generally, 1 teaspoon of leaves can be used to make an 8 ounce cup of tea. A 16oz pot requires about 1 1/2 teaspoons of leaves.
The more casual method
While in China I was surprised by the taxi drivers who had large jars of green tea with them all the time. The jars were nearly half full of leaves, and I learned that they began the day with a jar of tea, then added hot water and more leaves as needed all day. Previously I always believed that loose leaf tea, especially green tea, needed to be quickly and carefully brewed. I learned that although precision produces a very refined cup, throwing some leaves in a cup and pouring hot water over it works well for every day drinking!
For this method, the best way is to make a relatively strong cup of tea, infuse it with water that is a little under boiling (around 160°F), then let it steep for a few minutes. It helps to drink the first cup fairly quickly so it does not get bitter, but only drink it down to no less than 1 inch above the level of the tea leaves. At that point, pour more water in it and drink the next cup at a leisurely pace. When you are out and about, you cannot control the temperature of the water, so the existing water in the bottom of the cup cools the boiling water available at coffee shops to a more reasonable temperature for the delicate tea leaves. Luckily these days coffee shops are easy to come by and they are equipped with taps on the coffee machine that produce an abundance of hot water. Though people at coffee shops look at me strangely when I hand them a mason jar with what looks like grass that I pulled out of a field, they still usually smile and refill it anyway.
Though I prefer my tea unsweetened, in Tibet, my brothers-in-law used to drink their tea with rocks of sugar the diameter of nickels accompanying the tea leaves in the bottom of their cup. Every time hot water was poured into the cup it would melt off a little more of the sugar, giving a fairly evenly sweetened tea for hours and hours. Rock sugar can be hard to come by here, but check your local Asian store for them. Its an effective and fun way of sweetening your tea.
These are general guidelines that are commonly used for tea brewing, and some of my own tips. However, these may not work for you, and they will not work for every tea. My best advice is to experiment. Pick a tea you really like, and each morning brew it with a slightly different temperature and amount of tea. Steep it for different amounts of time. See what works for you.