the appetizer:

Learn about the world's most popular beverage in The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, including these excerpts and recipes: Tea Facts; Brewing Hot Tea; White Tea Snow Sorbet; and Savory Chinese Marbled Eggs (Cha Ye Dan).



Brewing Hot Tea
Excerpt from The Story of Tea

by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

Pouring tea
Korean tea service


Brewing leaf tea requires minimal equipment and a modicum of attention. Preparing tea is not difficult; it should be a pleasurable moment of your day.

Millions of people the world over make tea under the most primitive of conditions, so there is no need to complicate it. Allow the leaves to circulate freely in the cup or teapot. We advise our customers to never "contain" bulky spring green tea, oolongs, white tea, or tippy black teas in a tea ball. Tea balls are fine for CTC or very finely cut orthodox tea leaves, but using them for larger leaf will do one of two things. First, using a tea ball might force you to break the leaves into pieces, negating the care with which they have been handled all the way from the tea garden to your kitchen counter. Second, your tea ball might not hold the proper amount of tea because it is too small; or, if the tea ball is large enough, it will displace so much water that the brewing proportions will be wrong. So, while there are many clever filtering and straining devices on the market that will assist you in removing the leaves from your brewed tea, tea balls are not among our recommended choices for this task.

Various cultures have developed creative and legitimate techniques for removing the spent leaves from brewed tea. Five time-tested options are outlined below:

  • 1. The two-pot method. Steep the tea in one teapot and pour the brewed tea off into a second pot for serving, straining as necessary. This is by far the easiest, most flexible method for brewing any quantity of any style of tea. An added bonus is that you get to use two teapots from your collection every time rather than just one!
  • 2. A traditional, single teapot. Select an appropriately sized teapot, brew the precise quantity of tea that you need, and then steep more if you need it. The English style of this teapot most often has a ceramic "web" or "cage" built into the base of the spout so that the leaves cannot enter the spout. If there is no such cage, there are simple and fancy strainers alike that one can hold between the spout tip and cup to filter errant leaves. Chinese Yixing teapots also have this cage built into the spout base, but this teapot is traditionally used for brewing oolongs. The Japanese tea-brewing rule of thumb is: The better the tea, the smaller the teapot. If you are brewing Indian chai, chaiwalla-style, then the water, milk, tea, and spices will all be brought to a simmer in the same pot. The single-teapot method, whichever type of tea you brew, in whatever style of teapot you use, produces a fixed quantity of fresh tea every time, as you only brew what you will drink at that moment.
  • 3. Leaf-containing device. Use a device for containing the leaves, such as a bamboo, twenty-three-carat gold, or stainless-steel basket, a paper tea filter, or a cloth "sock," or use a teapot with a built-in infuser of glass, nylon, ceramic, or stainless steel. Using this method, you can remove the leaves from the brewing water at precisely the steeping time that you prefer and then discard or reinfuse them, depending on the tea leaf being used. Unless all you drink is a small-leaf black tea the utensil that you never want to be tempted with is a tea-ball. This old-fashioned, egg-shaped perforated metal or stainless mesh tea leaf container usually hangs from a chain into the teapot or cup to theoretically infuse the tea. These and most of their variations, while aesthetically pleasing and "cute" are far too small to contain enough tea to properly infuse any tea other than a finely cut black tea and other small leaf teas. Remember, you want the brewing water to circulate around and infuse the leaf, replicating the open pot method but with the convenience of easy elimination of the spent leaf.
  • 4. A tea glass. Brew the tea in the vessel from which you will drink. A modern rendition of the classic gaiwan, the Chinese have many such tea glasses, ranging from a simple mason-type jar to an elegant stainless-steel cylinder to hold the green tea. These have a filter screen at the top to keep the leaves from coming out of the jar, keeping them in the container for further steeping. Chinese tea drinkers will steep the same leaves many times during the course of the day and refresh them as needed. This is an excellent way to drink green tea.
  • 5. Make a concentrate. From Turkish tea to the Russian samovar to the 1970's "sun tea" to institutional iced-tea preparations to present-day chai concentrates, making an essence and then diluting it to taste is a practical method of brewing tea. This concentrate can be prepared using either hot or cold water.

Steeping Time

If you have one pot
And can make your tea in it
That will do quite well.
How much does he lack himself
Who must have a lot of things.
     —Sen Rikyu

Now that you have the brewing equipment assembled, fresh water at the proper temperature, and the measure of your favorite tea (or perhaps a new selection) prepared, what is the correct steeping time? We encourage the reinfusion of some types of tea. This is standard with green, oolong, and white tea and pu-erh, plus a few others, such as many of the presentation teas and jasmines. We have been experimenting with the extremely tippy black tea subvarietals from Yunnan and super-large-leaf clonals from northern India that brew wonderfully for a second infusion, but you must infuse them properly and not brew a long first infusion.

This ability to reinfuse is because of a combination of the short brewing time and the tippy nature of the leaf being used. The ability to infuse oolongs multiple times results from the fact that oolongs are traditionally brewed that way, and the process of partial oxidation in the manufacture of oolongs requires the use of a larger, more mature leaf that yields a more flavor-packed leaf that demands reinfusion (see "Oolong Tea, Defined" in chapter 3 of the book for more information). When you know that you will be infusing multiple times, the brew time is kept short, from sixty seconds to slightly more than two minutes per infusion. Some teas that can be brewed multiple times can also be brewed once (or twice) for a longer, more traditional period of time. See table below, for guidelines on correct steeping times for teas by type.


Steeping Time for Brewing Tea, by Type

Tea Chart
Brew Times
Tea Type Time
Black tea 3-5 minutes (one steeping only)
Oolong tea 90 seconds to 2 minutes (several steepings)
Green tea 2-3 minutes (several steepings)
Spring (or new) green tea 90 seconds to 2 minutes (several steepings)
White tea 90 seconds to 2 minutes (several steepings)
Pu-erh tea 2-5 minutes (many steepings)
  • from:
  • The Story of Tea:
    A Cultural History and Drinking Guide
  • by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss
  • Ten Speed Press 2007
  • $29.95; hardcover; 432 pages; Full color
  • ISBN-10: 1580087450
  • ISBN-13: 978-1580087452
  • Reprinted by permission.

Buy The Story of Tea


The Story of Tea:
A Cultural History and Drinking Guide


This page created March 2008

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