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Mastering Tea Through Understanding its Elements

Posted by Misha Gulko on

Understanding the intricate process of tea infusion and extraction is a powerful tool for any tea enthusiast. It's the key to mastering the craft of brewing tea and controlling the taste and aroma of your cup. Crafting a good cup of tea involves understanding the subtle interplay of various factors contributing to its flavor and aroma. In this blog post, we'll go through the techniques and variables that shape tea's flavor, helping to create the perfect cup every time.

We'll break tea into its core elements and delve into the pivotal roles played by water temperature, infusion time, and the leaf-to-water ratio, which are fundamental in manipulating the flavor profile of your brew. Whether working with a delicate Green Tea or a robust Black Tea, mastering these elements will enable you to extract the most pleasing flavors and aromas consistently. This article aims to provide knowledge to make the most out of any tea, adapting methods to suit different types, qualities, and personal preferences. 

Are you ready to embark on a flavorful journey of refining your brewing techniques? Let's do it together!


The Three Key Elements of Tea

Let's delve deeper into what shapes a tea's character. This chapter explores the trifecta of compounds primarily responsible for a tea's sensory attributes: Caffeine, L-theanine, and Catechins. Understanding these elements is crucial for tea tasting and brewing skills.


• Caffeine

Caffeine is an alkaloid, a well-known energizer found in coffee and tea. While its bitter taste might be off-putting for some, in high-quality teas, this bitterness morphs into what is referred to in Chinese as Hui Gan (回甘) – returned sweetness. This intriguing phenomenon describes the delightful sweet aftertaste that follows the initial bitterness, offering a complex and rewarding flavor experience.


• L-theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid unique to tea that plays a calming role, reducing stress and enhancing relaxation without causing drowsiness. It imparts sweet and umami flavors to the tea, enriching its complexity and softening the edge of caffeine's bitterness.


• Catechins

Catechins are the antioxidants that give tea its astringent quality. Far from being an undesirable trait, the astringency contributes to the tea's body and texture, providing a crisp finish that balances the smoothness of L-theanine.

For a skillful brew, these elements must harmonize, none overpowering the others. The goal is to achieve a balance where the tea is neither bland nor unpleasant but rich, layered, and energizing in a gentle way. This balance is what makes each sip memorable.


Understanding Tea's Key Elements


Controlling Water Temperature

Understanding and mastering the temperature of your water is crucial in the quest to perfect the art of tea infusion. Let's see how the correct water temperature can dramatically alter the taste and quality of your tea by effectively extracting different compounds.

L-theanine, known for its calming effects as well as umami and sweet flavors of tea, extracts best at lower temperatures. To optimize the release of L-theanine, aim for a water temperature of around 175ºF (80ºC). Gentler heat helps preserve the delicate flavors of the tea without introducing bitterness.

On the other hand, both caffeine and catechins, which contribute to the tea's stimulating effects and astringent qualities, require hotter conditions. Boiling water at 212ºF (100ºC) is ideal for extracting these components effectively. Caffeine infuses quickly, adding a refreshing bitterness, while catechins (antioxidants) impart a robust body and complexity to the brew.

By manipulating the water temperature, you have the power to tailor your cup of tea to your taste preferences and desired effects. Lower temperatures can yield a smoother, sweeter cup, ideal for relaxation and enjoyment. In contrast, higher temperatures create a vibrant, invigorating tea suited for an energizing start to the day. Understanding this tool empowers you to craft a cup of good tea and your physical well-being.


Controlling Brewing Time

Continuing our exploration of the tools that shape the quality of our tea, let's focus on infusion time – the duration your tea spends steeping in water. The infusion length affects the flavor's intensity and dictates the balance of compounds extracted from the tea leaves.

L-theanine is quick to release into the water. In Western-style brewing, you can extract most of the L-theanine within the first three minutes. If you seek a soothing, calming cup of tea without the overt bitterness, make sure not to over-brew!

Caffeine, on the other hand, diffuses more gradually into the water. When using boiling water, around 80% of the available caffeine content is typically extracted within the first five to six minutes. This staggered release allows caffeine's stimulant and bitter qualities to permeate the tea, providing the revitalizing energy many seek from their brew.

Catechins, with their astringent flavor, are the slowest to extract. These compounds continue to infuse as long as the leaves remain in the water, potentially leading to a tea that becomes increasingly bitter and astringent over time. This is why managing infusion time is critical to avoiding an overpoweringly bitter cup. The longer the leaves steep, the more pronounced the astringency from catechins becomes, which can overshadow the delicate balance achieved with the other elements.


Leaf-to-Water Ratio

Another crucial variable in tea brewing is the leaf-to-water ratio. This ratio significantly influences the strength and depth of your tea, affecting how the flavors and aromas unfold in your cup.

The leaf-to-water ratio is about how much tea leaves you use relative to the volume of water. A higher ratio means more leaves per cup, leading to a richer and more intense flavor profile. Conversely, using fewer leaves results in a lighter, more subtle taste. This adjustment allows you to "dial in" the intensity of your tea, making it as robust or mild as you prefer.

How to evaluate the leaf-to-water ratio: Start with a standard measurement:


For Western brewing: 1g:50ml

For Gong Fu Cha: 1g:20ml

For "Grandpa" brewing: 1g:300ml


From here, you can adjust based on personal taste and the specific type of tea you're brewing. For instance, delicate Green Teas might benefit from a slightly lower ratio to avoid overwhelming bitterness. In comparison, bold Black Teas or Ripe Pu-erh tea could stand up well to a higher ratio without becoming too harsh.


Do: Experiment with different ratios to find what best suits your taste for various types of tea. Adjusting the amount of tea can drastically change your experience, allowing you to enjoy a custom cup tailored to your liking.
Don't: Overload your infuser or teapot with too much tea without adjusting the brewing time or temperature accordingly, as this could lead to an unexpectedly strong or bitter brew.

Understanding and manipulating the leaf-to-water ratio allows to fine-tune tea's flavor intensity and mouthfeel, making each cup a personalized experience.


Understanding the Six Types of Tea

As we delve deeper, it is crucial to understand the distinct types that span the spectrum of oxidation, from the delicate Greens to the robust Pu-erh. 

The level of oxidation not only dictates color and taste but also influences the chemical composition. Non-oxidized tea (Green Tea) retains higher amounts of L-theanine and catechins, contributing to its fresh, vegetal flavors and pronounced sharpness. As oxidation progresses, these compounds undergo a significant transformation. Catechins evolve into theaflavins and then further into thearubigins in black teas and theabrownins in pu-erh and hei cha. 

These new compounds are less bitter and astringent compared to their predecessors. The result is a tea that offers a richer, more rounded flavor profile, reducing the sharp astringency while enhancing body and smoothness. This transformative journey from leaf to cup highlights the intricate dance of chemistry that defines the brewing process. 


Green Tea 

This type is the least oxidized (non-oxidized), retaining a vibrant green hue and a high concentration of L-theanine as well as catechins. These compounds give Green Tea its characteristic fresh, vegetal flavor and a sharp, astringent edge. The quick heat treatment halts oxidation, preserving its natural qualities.


White Tea

Slightly more oxidized, White Tea offers a gentler flavor profile. It's processed minimally, allowing a natural and gradual oxidation as it ages. This tea is celebrated for its subtle sweetness and silky texture, with an increasing sweetness and roundness over time.


Yellow Tea

Yellow Tea is similar to Green Tea but with a controlled oxidation process (闷黄 – Men Huang) that imparts a smoother, less grassy taste. This mild oxidation helps develop its soothing, mellow characteristics.


Oolong Tea 

A diverse category, Oolong can vary from lightly to heavily oxidized. Oolong Teas's oxidation spectrum can be observed in the leaf color and tasted in the depth of flavor – ranging from vibrant floral notes to rich, fruity tones.


Black Tea (called Red in Asia)

Fully oxidized, Black Tea offers a deep, dark color and robust flavor. The oxidation process transforms the sharp tannins of Green Tea into theaflavins and thearubigins, providing a malty, sweet richness without the intense bitterness and astringency of its less oxidized counterparts.


Pu-erh and Hei Cha 

This category includes Raw (Sheng) and Ripe (Shou) types. Raw Pu-erh starts lightly oxidized, and enzyme activity slowly continues over time through natural aging. Ripe Pu-erh and Hei Cha undergo a fermentation process (渥堆 – Wo Dui) to speed up this maturation, resulting in a deep, earthy flavor profile. In Pu-erh teas and Hei Cha, instead of catechins, we find theabrownins. 

By understanding these types, you can better appreciate how oxidation impacts the sensory qualities of tea, shaping taste. Each type offers a unique flavor created by oxidation's transformative power.


Evaluating Tea Leaf


Application of the Tools

Having mastered the key tools of tea infusion—water temperature, infusion time, and leaf-to-water ratio—we can now apply these principles across various tea brewing scenarios to avoid common pitfalls that might lead to an overly astringent brew. Understanding and adapting to these situations will enhance every cup of tea you make.


Low-Grade Tea

Teas of lower quality pose a particular challenge due to their high ratio of tea catechins to amino acids, leading to pronounced bitterness and astringency. To counter this, it is advisable to brew with water temperatures below 175ºF (80ºC). This cooler temperature inhibits the extraction of excessive catechins while allowing for the gentle release of flavors. Similarly, keeping the infusion time to three minutes or less can prevent the overwhelming bitterness from over-extraction, maintaining a more balanced flavor profile.


Tea Type Variations

Different tea types demand specific adjustments in the brewing process. For instance, Green Tea, with its minimal oxidation, benefits from a short brewing time at about 175ºF (80ºC) to maintain its delicate flavor balance. In contrast, Ripe Pu-erh Tea, characterized by extensive post-fermentation and reduced catechins, allows for longer steeping at boiling temperatures without losing its desired flavors. Oolong Teas, which vary from lightly to heavily oxidized, should have infusion settings adjusted according to their oxidation level. Lighter oolongs thrive with lower temperatures (around 195ºF) to preserve their subtle aromas, whereas darker, more oxidized oolongs can withstand slightly higher temperatures (205ºF), enhancing their richer flavors.

By carefully tailoring your approach to the specific type of tea and its characteristics, you can achieve the perfect balance of flavors, ensuring a satisfying tea experience every time.


Safety Measures

In the intricate art of tea brewing, carefully evaluating tea leaves before brewing is a crucial step that sets the stage for optimal extraction. For example, certain teas, like Japanese Green Teas, often undergo production techniques (such as prolonged steaming) that lead to broken leaves and finer particles. Broken leaves have increased surface area that comes in contact with water, meaning that the tea's components can be extracted much more rapidly than whole-leaf teas, which can lead to a bitter and unpleasant taste. This should be taken into consideration.

Similarly, when it comes to tea bags, which usually contain solely small particles known as "tea dust," a quick infusion of no more than a minute, preferably less, is advisable to extract the essential flavors without tipping into bitterness. The finer the particles, the quicker the release of tannins and caffeine.

Starting with conservative brewing parameters can be beneficial when brewing unfamiliar teas, especially in the Gong Fu Cha style. Using slightly cooler water and a shorter steeping time for the first infusion provides a safety net against over-extraction. It's far easier to extend the brewing time or increase the water temperature in subsequent steeps than to mitigate the effects of a tea that has been steeped too long initially. This careful, measured approach allows the brewer to gradually explore and enhance the tea's flavor profile, ensuring a balanced and enjoyable cup every time.


Personal Preferences

As we wrap up our exploration of tea infusion and extraction, it's important to underscore that while we've provided structured guidelines, the ultimate judge of a perfect cup of tea is personal taste. Everyone's palate is unique and influenced by personal experiences, which can affect one's sensitivity to flavors, such as bitterness and astringency.

When brewing tea, especially for others, it's crucial to be mindful of these individual preferences. Some may savor a bolder, more robust tea that emphasizes the refreshing bite of catechins, while others might prefer a gentler, more subdued experience that highlights the soothing sweetness of L-theanine. This flexibility in adjusting your brewing techniques to cater to different tastes makes tea brewing both an art and a science.

By listening to feedback and observing the reactions of those you share your tea with, you can refine your approach, ensuring each cup is not just a beverage but an experience tailored to the moment and the company. This attentiveness and adaptability not only enhance the enjoyment of the tea but also deepen the connections between those sharing the brew.

The journey through understanding and mastering tea infusion is ongoing. Each pot of tea offers an opportunity to apply your knowledge and experiment with variables. Enjoy the rich tapestry of flavors that tea has to offer. Keep exploring, keep tasting, and let each cup bring a new understanding and appreciation of this ever-evolving art.