Up your tea game with a few easy changes
Most often, the things that set truly high quality teas apart are subtle in nature.
Subtle aromas, feelings and flavours need to be coaxed out delicately and paid attention to, and common brewing methods in the west often fall short in allowing these subtleties to express themselves. You could say they are ‘easy to miss’.
I’ve prepared three simple but highly effective tips to instantly improve your tea game.
Each of these tips will improve your tea, no matter what method of brewing you use.
Tip 1: Use better quality water
The essence of tea, at its most basic level, is just leaves and water. In this equation water makes up 99% or more of your total cup of tea.
If you have already invested in buying high grade tea leaves, all that remains is to improve the other 99% of your cup.
We do that by using higher quality water.
There is an old saying in China, that goes something like:
“If you brew poor quality leaves in good water, you will improve the tea,
If you use poor water with good quality tea, you will ruin the tea.”
I whole-heartedly agree.
What makes ‘good quality water’?
The only water I truly avoid is municipal tap water, especially if I am in the US or UK. The water often has a very strong flavour to it which negates the lighter and deeper notes and fragrance of the tea.
My preferred water for tea is fresh and clean mountain spring water. The image above shows me brewing green tea in mountain spring water that we are fortunate to have coming from our taps in Dali. But I realise not everyone has that opportunity.
Try using bottled water, either Reverse Osmosis (RO) or Spring Water. If you’d rather not use plastic, you could try filtering your regular water before brewing.
If you are unsure about the difference between tap water, filtered water, bottled water and spring water, just try them out. Grab a couple of bottles next time you are out, and brew a cup of tea with the bottled water next to a cup of tea with regular tap water.
Look for differences in taste, fragrance, feeling and energy.
And at the end of the day… choose one you like best.
Tip 2: Use a good kettle
Since we are being mindful of the quality of leaves we are brewing, and the quality of water we are using, it makes sense to consider the effect of the kettle we brew the water in.
Plastic kettles and aluminium kettles can have a very noticeable effect and leave a strong taste and smell on the water. Again, this negates the high end fragrances and deeper flavours of high quality tea.
The picture to the right is a stainless steel kettle that I am currently using in Chiang Mai. At home I use a glass kettle.
Both stainless steel and glass kettles leave little trace of the kettle itself on the water after it is heated, which is what we are aiming for. The cleaner and purer the water we use when we brew the tea, the more of the tea’s subtle aromas and flavours we will coax out of it, and the more enjoyable our tea experience will be.
How do I know if my kettle is good or not?
If you are unsure about the quality of the kettle your are using, there are two steps to take:
Step 1: Check out your kettle in detail
Is it plastic? Because if you are boiling hot water in plastic you are probably consuming a small amount of plastic each time you drink, which is not healthy. You might notice some ‘wear and tear’ on the inside of an older plastic kettle. That’s where the plastic has been eroded by the hot water, and there’s a high chance that you and your family have consumed that plastic.
Please don’t do that anymore! Switch to stainless steel or glass ASAP, for your enjoyment of tea, but also for the sake of your health and wellbeing.
If the kettle is not plastic, what kind of metal is it? Check the bottom, sides and box or instruction leaflet if you still have it. An aluminium or non-stainless steel kettle is likely to leave a bad taste in the water and is best avoided.
Step 2: Give it a smell
Do you notice any aroma coming from your kettle when it is empty? My stainless steel and glass kettles have zero or very minimum odour when they are empty.
The plastic kettle in my hotel room smells like a highly chlorinated swimming pool.
If you notice any kind of odour, remember it, then smell your water before you brew it. Is the odour present in the water?
Now use that water in the kettle, and smell the water after it has been boiled (being very careful not to scald your nose on the steam). Is there a trace of the odour?
If so, you are using a less than ideal kettle. The odour is being passed on to your tea and you are losing many of the factors that make high-end tea so pleasurable to drink.
Aim for a kettle with no odour. It doesn’t have to be expensive. The goal is to create a situation for our tea to express itself fully when brewed. We do that with clean and ‘odour free’ water, passing on the results and enjoyment to you.
Note: As you dig deeper into the world of tea, you will find other kettles made from stone, iron and even silver. These are excellent. If you have one then go forth and enjoy beautifully prepared, well-balanced water! But they are expensive, and not essential to our learning at this stage. I just wanted to mention them as a point of reference to come back to later.
Tip 3: Don’t let your water boil over
This final tip is a simple, but important one.
When you boil your water over (meaning the water has been raised to a full rolling boil, and then cooled back down) you lose a lot of energy and vibrancy in your tea.
Effectively you have ‘killed’ your water, and we find that the tea is less alive when brewing with this water. You can experiment for yourself.
It’s best to watch your water as it is being heated, and let it raise to a temperature of 90˚ – 98˚ Celcius and switching off the kettle before it boils over. If you have a kettle with a temperature control – even better – just keep it below 100˚ at all times.
You will know the water is about ready, because bubbles will first appear on the bottom of the kettle. Once the bubbles begin to rise up to the surface, you can switch off the kettle.
As you become more experienced, you can allow the heat to get closer and closer to a rolling boil before removing the water from the heat.
Over to you!
Experiment for yourself and see how using fresh water, in a clean, odourless kettle, that has never been boiled over 100˚ C improves your tea making.