A Coffee Lover’s Guide to Tea

I never had much respect for tea. I enjoyed the beverage, but it didn’t hold my interest like coffee. That all changed in September 2007. I went to a tea shop in Seattle and tried several teas. Not the boring Earl Grey or the herbal crap, but real high quality loose leaf tea. I got to drink different types of tea brewed at the exact right temperature for the optimal brewing time. And in the span of an hour, I gained a new found respect for tea.

What I realized at that tea shop was the tea journey is very similar to the coffee journey. The majority of the coffee consumed is either poor quality, made incorrectly or both. The same is equally true for tea. Most of what passes for tea is bland. Just like with coffee, I decided right then and there that I would source high quality teas and learn to brew them correctly. No more bagged tea. No more boiling water. No more over-steeping.

tea steep

I went to tea tastings. I took tea classes. I went to tea festivals. And I brewed a lot of different teas. Most of the teas I tried I never knew existed before. Coffee will always be my first love, but I decided that I wanted to take that journey with tea. The same journey I began with coffee many years before.

Within 6 months, I was a tea aficionado. Tea went from blah to aah!

If I haven’t sold you on why you’d want to invest time and effort into quality tea, let me say that good tea always tastes better than OK coffee. Tea is far less perishable than coffee and in most cases less expensive. This article will be geared towards the coffee drinker that wishes to get up to speed quickly on tea.

Types of Tea

All tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant. What makes teas different is level of oxidation and fermentation. Oxidation in simple terms is the browning of the leafs. Green teas are not oxidized, whereas black teas are full oxidized. Oolong teas are partially oxidized and can vary from level low oxidation to high oxidation. Pu-erh teas are fermented and aged. They can be a few years old or decades old.

When you read about tea, note that many books and websites use the term fermentation in place of oxidation. It can be confusing. For our sake, fermented applies only to Pu-erh teas.

Here is a list of the basic tea types. This is an overview. Entire books have been devoted to cataloging the different varietals of tea.

  1. White Tea – White tea is made from the first buds picked and has a light color.
  2. Green Tea – This is tea that is pan fried or steamed to prevent oxidation.
  3. Oolong Tea – Oolong teas are partially oxidized teas. They could be lightly or darkly oxidized. They might even be roasted. Some are aged. This where you’ll find many tea lovers. Some of the finest and most expensive tea plants in the world are used to make oolong tea.
  4. Black Tea – Black tea is fully oxidized tea.
  5. Pu-erh Tea – Another area of outstanding teas are the pu-erh (pu’er) which are divided into two groups raw (green) and cooked (black). Raw pu-erh is fermented green tea. Cooked is fermented black tea. The tea might be one year old or decades old. I once had pu-erh tea that was 40 years old.
  6. Herbal – Herbal tea is not really tea. You might like it, but it is not tea.

I’ve noticed that tea people think coffee drinkers will prefer black tea the most, but my observation is coffee aficionados most like oolong and pu-erh. Black tea doesn’t hold our interest compared to black coffee. The unique flavors found in oolong and pu-erh are more enticing. My personal favorites are raw pu-erh, lighter oolongs and a handful of green teas.

pu-erh-tea

Pu-erh tea from The Tao of Tea.

Gear

Before we get into brewing tea, I want to cover the gear we will need. Coffee drinkers tend to view making their beverage in a scientific way. We measure and time everything. Some tea people do this, but not nearly as much. They like using fancy tea pots and appreciate traditional tea ceremonies. None of which, in my opinion, makes the tea taste any better. Nice for special occasions, but for our purposes not necessary.

Tea is all about water temperature, steep time and dose. Everything else we are going to ignore.

To make an excellent tea, you will need.

  1. In mug tea infuser or tea pot with filter.
  2. Temperature controlled kettle.
  3. Timer
  4. Digital scale (optional)

With coffee, we are brewing with a narrow range of temperatures just off boil. Teas have a much wider range of brewing temperatures. The less oxidized a tea is, the more sensitive it is to water temperature. A black tea will be fine with water just off boil, but a Japanese sencha wants water at 155° F. You could screw around with a thermometer in a regular kettle or pot, but we don’t need to do that anymore. Bonavita makes a kettle you can program to the exact degree you need. This is a godsend for making excellent tea and the goose-neck makes it ideal for coffee pour overs such as the Kalita Wave and the AeroPress.

Bonavita 1-Liter Variable Temperature Digital Electric Gooseneck Kettle
Bonavita 1-Liter Variable Temperature Digital Electric Gooseneck Kettle

That is all the gear you will need. You don’t need the drip tray or the special gong fu pots.

How to Make Tea

With coffee the brewing variations are determined more by the equipment than the bean. That is not true with tea. Each tea type has its own brewing recommendation and they vary by water temperature and steep time. If you do a search on times and temperatures for brewing tea you will get wildly different recommendations. Most are advising temperatures that are too high for green or lighter oolongs.

Many teas can be steeped multiple times. Oolong and pu-erh teas will usually taste better on subsequent steeps. Teas that may cost more are often the ones that can hold up to many steeps. Here are my general guidelines for tea temperatures and first steep times. Start here and adjust to your own tastes. Good tea shops will include specific instructions for each tea on the bag.

TeaTemperatureSteep Time
White Tea170-185° F2 minutes
Green Tea155-180° F1.5 - 2 minutes
Oolong Tea170-195° F2 - 3 minutes
Black Tea200-212° F3 minutes
Pu-erh Tea200-212° F2 - 5 minutes

When you brew a second, third or greater pot of tea with the same leaves, you may gradually start extending the brew time or increasing the temperature.

Dosage is something coffee drinkers can get very specific about. In several of the tutorials on this site, I advise using a gram scale to get the brewing ratio optimized. Measuring by volume in coffee can be a little inexact. Measuring by volume in tea is even more problematic.

Look at the two teas below. The Japanese kukicha is flat, whereas the Taiwanese oolong is more airy. There are other teas that are rolled into balls and some that are packed into cakes. A tablespoon of each will yield different amounts of tea. A digital scale solves the dose problem.

japanese-green-tea

oolong-tea

Our go to brewing ratio for coffee is 17 to 1. That means 17 parts water for every 1 part coffee. For tea it is much higher. I’ve seen ranges from 50 to 1 up to 80 to 1. When you are dealing with ranges this wide, it speaks to the fact tea doses are somewhat forgiving. If you are set on nailing down an optimal ratio, get a digital scale that has 0.1 gram precision.

Smart Weigh Digital Pro Pocket Scale with Back-Lit LCD Display, Tare, Hold and PCS Features 2000 x 0.1g Capacity (2 Lids Included)
Smart Weigh Digital Pro Pocket Scale with Back-Lit LCD Display, Tare, Hold and PCS Features 2000 x 0.1g Capacity (2 Lids Included)

It is my opinion that dose is the least important variable when it comes to making great tea. Sourcing excellent tea, using filtered water, getting the temperature right and not over-steeping are far more important. Ratios are more important for coffee. Even though I use my scale religiously for coffee, I usually just follow the volume dosing instructions provided by the tea vendor.

kukicha

Kukicha brewing instructions from Adagio Tea. 

Sourcing Good Tea

I’ve been to many tea shops and they seem to fall into two camps. The most common are the ones that specialize in black and herbals teas. Think British. The other group are the Asian tea shops that focus on green, oolong and Pu-erh teas. I strongly prefer the Asian shops. They tend to have the teas I am more interested in trying.

Just like how the coffee drinker seeks out single origin coffee from a region, be cognizant of the labels used in tea shops. A generic label such as “Oolong tea” is suspicious, whereas “2014 Spring Alishan” is transparent and more informative.

Mail order is a great option. Here are three places that I have purchased excellent tea from.

  1. Phoenix Tea
  2. Floating Leaves
  3. Adagio Tea

Phoenix and Floating Leaves are out of the Seattle area. I’ve been to both places and learned a lot about tea from each of them. I’ve also purchased some excellent tea from Adagio.

Take the Journey!

My fellow coffee drinkers, I invite you to take the tea journey. I’m not saying it will be better than coffee. It probably won’t be, but it will be pretty awesome and very enjoyable. If you are going to have a backup beverage, tea is great option. Just use the tips in this article and you’ll be ahead of most tea drinkers.

Jo Sencha Green Tea

Resources

Bonavita 1-Liter Variable Temperature Digital Electric Gooseneck Kettle – A kettle that allows you to dial in the exact temperature will greatly accelerate your learning curve with tea. The Gooseneck will also be an asset for your coffee pour overs.

FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Extra-Fine Tea Infuser with Lid – Don’t mess around with the alligator style or caged tea filter. Oolong teas are often rolled into balls that can’t unroll unless they have room. The in-mug style of filter lets the tea expand fully. Plus they are easier to fill and cleanup.

Full disclosure: INeedCoffee is an affiliate for Adagio. Your purchases that start from our link help fund our site. 

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Michael Allen Smith

Michael Allen Smith fell in love with coffee while attending college. Shortly after graduating college, he found himself in the Tampa Bay area far away from the good coffee he had at The Ohio State University. That is when he starting home roasting coffee. Less than a year later in April 1999, he launched the coffee website INeedCoffee.com. INeedCoffee.com has been going strong ever since with hundreds of articles and tutorials submitted by over one hundred contributors.

In 2007, Michael moved to America's coffee capitol Seattle, Washington. He has visited close to two hundred different coffee places in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver and met many of the top roasters and baristas in the country. Since 2009, Michael has been the Organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, which is a Meetup group of over 600 coffee enthusiants. Besides the social aspect of the group, the Coffee Club of Seattle partners with local coffee professionals for educational events such as coffee cuppings, brewing demonstrations and roasting tours.

Unrelated to coffee, Michael has a personal blog at CriticalMAS.com which covers several topics including fitness, cooking and finance.

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