I’ll discuss a bit about how I brew tea, after an introduction. My name is John Bickel, and I’m American, but I live in Thailand now, for the last nine years. Exposure to different tea traditions led me to an unusual level of interest in tea. I write a blog about the subject (Tea in the Ancient World), and help run a Facebook tea group (International Tea Talk). There’s a lot one might say about tea, about types, how to brew, health benefits or concerns, ceremonial aspects, storage, and about gear, but I’ll focus on brewing.
There are two main categories of brewing approaches, although there are others. Masala chai, spiced teas, are typically simmered over a long period of time, but this isn’t one of those two main methods, not commonly practiced in places like China, Japan, and Taiwan, or in Western countries. Gongfu cha (literally “tea technique”) and Western brewing are the main approaches. Both relate to varying proportion of tea to water and adjusting infusion time related to that. I use both, depending on the tea, and what I feel like drinking, and how much free time I have. This blog post goes into how to cut the process as short as possible, how to brew loose tea with a fast breakfast.
Gongfu cha is the approach favored by tea enthusiasts. A relatively high proportion of tea to water (eg. five grams of tea for 100 ml of water) is steeped for a short time, using a gaiwan (a cup with a lid) or small clay pot. This approach can brew the same leaves ten or more times, for as little as a few seconds or as long as a minute, depending on the tea and personal preferences. Some types of tea turn out much better made this way, for example Dan Cong oolongs or sheng pu’er (compressed tea, more or less designed to benefit from aging). One benefit is that astringency can be limited by the short infusion times. Using many infusions also allows for experiencing the transition of tea characteristics; the aspects will change across infusions. The main trade-off is the time required.
The brewing process used most is generally referred to as “Western style.” This uses one teaspoon of tea per each cup of water (roughly) in a larger teapot for a few minutes time (3-5). The leaves might be brewed a second or third time depending on different factors. With the proportion of the tea to water as the main difference tea could be brewed Western style in a large gaiwan, or by a process much closer to Gongfu style in an English-style porcelain teapot, or by either in a French Press. One main advantage is ease and convenience. One or many cups of tea can be prepared in five minutes or less, the brewing time, using minimal gear. Any variation needs to control the main brewing inputs to get the most out of teas: temperature, proportion, and infusion time.
I’ll mention a few other factors here. The basics aren’t so hard to master, but a review of some other good sources would spell those out in short order.
Temperature: Hot water is fine for black tea, although some people advocate not using full boiling point temperature. Green tea works better brewed slightly cooler, in the range of 75 C and 170 F (although recommendations do vary), with oolong in the middle.
Gear: Beyond using a gaiwan / clay pot and English-style porcelain pot for the two approaches many other alternatives would still be fine. Specialized brewing equipment—similar to a coffee maker—with timers and water heating function is at one extreme, an infuser basket that goes in a mug is at the other.
Tea quality: There is a divide between CTC (commercial processed tea) and orthodox tea (more hand-made) that is hard to summarize. In the most general terms ground up tea is not as good as whole-leaf processed tea, but quality varies for different reasons. Regional tea sources are another main factor; tea varies according to both how it is made and where it is grown.
Good luck with your own exploration of nicer loose teas.