Learning how to brew black tea is not about being fussy. In fact, there is no ONE right or wrong way to do it! However, by following a few guidelines you can enjoy black teas to their fullest and appreciate all the subtleties and nuances they have to offer.
This tutorial is for black tea. (For a description of different types of tea, see What You Should Know About Black Tea.) Although all black teas have some things in common, there are many variables — type of tea, leaf size, harvesting season, etc. — and therefore there is no ONE standard for how to brew black tea. Consider this a guide, but ultimately trust your own palate. Experiment and see what tastes best to you.
As a general rule of thumb, use 2 to 3 grams of tea leaves per 6 ounces of water. Measuring by weight is preferable because tea leaves come in different sizes. If you want to measure by volume, start with 1 rounded teaspoon. For larger leaf sizes, you may want to use up to 1 to 2 tablespoons. Again, experiment to see what works for you.
The water you use is perhaps just as important as the tea leaves. Whether it's tap, filtered, or spring water, it should taste good. Avoid distilled water, which can taste flat. Start with fresh, cold water that has not been previously boiled.
As a general rule of thumb, let the water come just to a rolling boil. Depending on which expert you consult, the ideal temperature can range from 190° to 212°F, which you can measure using a thermometer, or simply eyeball it. Heating the water to the optimal temperature will bring out the right balance of tannins. If the water temperature is too low, it may not extract the full range of flavors. If the temperature is too high, the tea will be too tannic and taste bitter.
The Steeping Time
As a general rule of thumb, steep the tea from 3 to 5 minutes. The exact amount of time will depend on the particular tea leaves, the cut of the leaves, and your personal preference for a stronger or milder brew. You may wish to taste the tea at the 3-minute mark and then every 30 seconds to discover your sweet spot. Take notes for future reference.
→ Tip: To make a strong tea, use more tea leaves rather than more time, which will make the tea bitter.
Infusers and Strainers
Keep in mind that you want room for the tea leaves to unfold and release their flavors. Tea leaves can expand 3 to 5 times in size. For this reason, a roomier basket-style infuser or filter (made of glass, metal, or cloth) is usually preferable to the ball-style of infuser.
You can also brew the tea leaves directly in the pot or cup and strain them out as you pour.
How to Brew Black Tea
Makes 1 cup (multiply as desired)
What You Need
6 ounces water, plus more if pre-warming the pot or cup
2 to 3 grams or 1 rounded teaspoon loose leaf black tea
Optional: milk, lemon, sugar, honey, fruit preserves (Russian tradition)
Kettle to boil water
Scale or measuring spoon
Filter or strainer
Tea cup for serving
Spoon for stirring milk, sugar, lemon (optional)
- Heat the water. Place the water in a tea kettle and heat it just to a rolling boil, or between 200° and 212°F.
- Pre-warm the teapot or cup (optional). Pour a small amount of boiling water into the pot or cup. When the pot or cup is warm, pour out the water.
- Measure the tea leaves. Using a scale, measure 2 to 3 grams of tea leaves. Alternatively, measure 1 rounded teaspoon of tea leaves.
- Place the leaves in the teapot or cup. Place the tea leaves in the pot or cup, either directly or in an infuser.
- Pour the water. Pour the water over the tea leaves.
- Cover the teapot or cup. Place the lid on the teapot or, if using a cup, cover it with a lid or a small saucer.
- Keep it cozy (optional). Cover the teapot or cup with a tea cozy or a thick towel to retain heat.
- Steep the tea. Set a timer for 3 to 5 minutes. You may wish to taste the tea at 3 minutes and then every 30 seconds until it is to your liking.
- Stop the infusion. As soon as the tea is ready, remove the leaves by lifting out the infuser or pouring the tea through a strainer.
- Add milk, lemon, or sweetener (optional). If using milk, heat it gradually by adding the milk to the cup first, then pouring in the tea. Avoid combining milk and lemon, or the milk may curdle.
- Reusing tea leaves. Whole tea leaves can often be steeped 2 to 3 times. Increase the steep time with each infusion.
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(Image credits: Emily Han)