Nowadays, boiling tea is often seen as a way to spoil perfectly good tea leaves. However, if done right, this method of brewing tea deserves much more credit than it gets.
Boiling tea leaves is the most ancient method of making tea.
Back in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), when tea culture was gradually at its rise, tea leaves were boiled for prolonged periods. Sometimes they were cooked together with different spices. Different kinds of herbs, roots, fruits, and even chili and scallions weren’t uncommon accompaniments to tea leaves.
In ancient times the tea boiled was often first compressed and then ground to a powder. To make the tea a pot of water with a pinch of salt (to make the water smoother) would be brought to a boil. The powdered tea would then be dropped in and continued to boil for some time. The resulting liquid would be thick and smooth, with frothy foam on top. Much similar to present-day matcha!
It is important to note that in these times, tea was truly minimally processed. Tea leaves weren’t processed using the methods we know of today — firing, rolling, and the like. Back then, tea leaves were quickly sun-dried and just that. This made it impossible for the tea leaf to just steep in a pot of hot water, and for its flavor to indeed be extracted. That’s why boiling was crucial. Thanks to modern-day tea processing techniques, we can get the best taste of tea from short and concentrated 5-second infusions. However, it was a journey to come to this point.
The Legend Of Boiling Tea
Although this is but a legend, it holds a warm place in the heart of many tea enthusiasts around the world.
It starts with Shennong, the Chinese God of agriculture and Chinese medicine.
While sitting in the wilderness meditating, with a slowly boiling water kettle by his side, a single leaf dropped from a nearby tea bush and landed in his pot. Shennong’s senses were keen. He immediately realized the faint aroma coming from his kettle of a tea leaf being brewed. He felt the medicinal scent and knew it would be good for the body to drink this new brew. One sip was enough to taste the delicate aroma and feel its healing powers. Thus, the first tea was brewed.
Which Teas Are Good For Boiling?
Both sheng and shou pu-erh are great for boiling.
- Hei Cha
- Aged White Tea
- Any unprocessed tea
Boiling Tea Ceremony
Although this method requires boiling the tea leaves instead of flash-brewing them, we believe it is important to take a ceremonial approach to any tea session you are about to have. Treat the experience as you would with gongfu cha. For this reason, it is best to have a portable heat source. Although stove-top also works fine, as long as you are willing to stay in your kitchen for the duration of the tea ritual. Furthermore, it would help if you prepared an extra tea kettle/thermos with already hot boiled water for adding into the vessel where the tea will be boiled.
- Warm-up the teaware by rinsing it with hot water
- Pour enough water to fill your brewing vessel 2/3 of the way (you may wish to use less water if you have a large kettle)
- Turn on the heat
- Once the water is coming to a boil, add a small pinch of salt (optional)
- Flash-rinse the tea leaves with cold water
- Using a spoon or tea pick, stir the boiling water creating a whirlpool
- Add the tea leaves into the whirlpool. This will help the leaves sink to the bottom and evenly brew (the amount of tea leaves will depend on your brewing vessel, follow instructions for western-style brewing)
- Boil for about a minute and quickly pour in your teacup, using a strainer to catch the tea leaves
- Continue doing this, gradually increasing the brewing time and adding water along the way
Tea boiling ceremonies last as long as gong fu tea ceremonies, and often even longer. Usually, they can last up to 3 hours. As the boiling method gradually extracts more from the tea leaves, it is possible to enjoy them for a longer time. The tea reaches its best taste after about an hour of the tea ceremony. Especially so in the case of hei cha and pu-erh, this is when the tea becomes exceptionally sweet and smooth.
Boiling Spent Leaves
Using the tea leaves to their fullest extent is one of the best ways to honor a tea. Pouring tea to the last drop is one way. But how about when the tea leaves have already been spent and are faint in flavor? The tea leaves still hold plenty of nutrients even after they have already been brewed many times and lost most of their flavor.
Although you can try experimenting with reboiling many different tea types, the best ones to reboil are aged teas or teas of high value.
To boil spent leaves use a pot that does not readily absorb flavors unless you are willing to dedicate it specifically to boiling teas.
- After finishing a tea session, save your leaves, ideally in an airtight container, by making sure there is no tea liquid left. (Try not to save the tea leaves for more than 24 hours)
- Wake the tea leaves up by soaking them in cool drinking water for about an hour
- Strain the tea leaves and pour out the water
- Bring water in your tea kettle to a boil
- Drop a pinch of salt for pu-erh or hei cha, but not oolongs
- Drop in the tea leaves
- Boil for about 3 minutes
- Pour the tea and enjoy
- For subsequent boils, increase the boiling time according to personal taste, until you feel the tea has lived its full cycle
Other Methods of Boiling Tea
Aside from boiling Chinese teas, there are also certain cultures around the world that have adapted boiling tea leaves into their daily lives.
Some of the more famous ones are:
- Tibetan Tea
The Tibetan style of making tea has been around for centuries since the infamous Tea Horse Trade Route was in its prime. To make Tibetan tea, pu-erh (or sometimes black tea) leaves are boiled together with yak butter and salt. This results in a rich, creamy, nutritious, warming, and energetic beverage that helps survive the cold mountain weather.
- Chai Tea
Chai Tea is drunk primarily in India, although variations exist. Indian black tea leaves are boiled with milk, a variety of spices, and often copious amounts of sugar. The beverage is both comforting and delicious.
- Moroccan Tea
Strong Chinese Gunpowder green tea (or sometimes black tea) is boiled together with fresh mint leaves and large amounts of sugar. The tea is rich, energizing, and aromatic. In fact, Morocco is one of the top importers of Chinese green tea.
In this way, each country has adopted the ancient Chinese methods of boiling tea, adapting the ingredients which are abundant in the region.