"Washing tea" (or rinsing tea) is a well-known expression for everyone who enjoys drinking loose leaf tea in a traditional way – f.ex. Gong Fu Cha style. We call "washing/ rinsing" the act of pouring out the very first brew of tea. Its purpose is to literally "wash" the tea leaves.
Washing tea has become an essential step in the tea ritual. Some people go to the extent of "washing" even the most gentle and delicate teas, like green tea. What good does it bring, though? And is it really necessary? Let's find out what stands behind the custom of washing tea.
What does "washing tea" wash away?
For those who support tea washing, part of the reasoning is that they believe tea will inevitably be exposed to dust or various microorganisms during the production process. People think that washing tea can also remove chemical residues on tea leaves – like pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.
Is washing done for purposes other than hygiene?
On the other hand, some aged and compressed teas require some initial effort to open up and release their flavor fully. Pressing shrinks the space between the tea leaves and squeezes them tightly. Over time, the leaves become hard and stiff, tightly bound to one another.
Furthermore, their transformation slows down and withdraws in the innermost parts of the leaf and withdrawn in the innermost parts of the leaf cells. This combination makes the aged teas very resistant to brewing. They release their bouquet of taste and aroma slowly in the course of a dozen or even more brews.
Under these conditions, the very first brew will obviously never achieve the same drinking standard as the later ones. Its main objective is to "heat up" the tea. During the first brew, the water will slowly infuse every nook and crevice between the tightly compressed leaves. It will, in turn, allow them to expand and start to release the inner substances in the next brewings.
On whether we should wash tea
In recent years, the issue of food safety and hygiene has become increasingly prominent. Furthermore, the problem of pesticide residues and heavy metals is of significant concern to everyone who wants to enjoy a healthy lifestyle.
During the production process, tea might get exposed to various pollutants. Chemical agents can be deposited on the leaf surface. Dust and various microorganisms can contaminate the leaves during different processing stages. That applies specifically to tea produced outside industrial facilities, where the production environment and sanitary measures are not standardized and are harder to observe and control.
Should we drink the first tea brew?
Whether we should drink the very first tea brew depends on the specific situation and the type of tea.
Washing tea: industrially produced tea
Let's observe the situation in tea's home country – China. According to reports, in the first three quarters of 2018-2021, market supervision departments at all levels across the country conducted random inspections of more than 200,000 batches of tea and related products. They achieved a passing rate of 99.04%. Those numbers indicate that virtually all tea on the Chinese market is safe for consumption. China is the biggest exporter among tea-producing countries. This data reassures the tea-drinking audience that all standardized tea coming from China is generally safe to consume.
The safety net: national standards
At present, there are more than 100 national standards for tea in China – the biggest tea source in the world. Among them, the hygiene and safety indicators – such as pesticide residues, are rigorous. Some enterprises apply their own safety standards that are even stricter than national standards. Therefore, as long as the tea adheres to national or industry standards, it should guarantee its safety. From a hygiene point of view, you can skip washing these teas.
Of course, each country has its own standards that might differ. Furthermore, there might be differences in the tracked substances and the minimal allowed concentration for each specific substance. If you're a frequent drinker of teas from particular countries, we suggest getting familiar with their standards.
Washing tea: "Nong cha – 农茶" – farmers' produced tea
Many tea lovers skip the big brands – instead, they source their teas directly from the farmers that produce them. There are various advantages to this approach.
1. It can be a great way to sustain small and middle businesses that have a harder time reaching the market and competing with big brands' huge marketing budgets and exposure.
2. Tea production is an art in itself. Often, families have their own insider secrets, passed from generation to another. They ensure a unique flavor and can shape the identity of the locally produced tea. Thus, masters zealously keep their secrets. Buying tea directly from the producer can give you access to a small-batch, boutique type of tea and traditional craft that cannot be found anywhere else, especially in the mechanized, utilitarian production of modern days.
However, there are things to watch for too.
There are no compulsory standards for privately produced tea. Additionally, there is no objective control over the surroundings where the processing of tea takes place. For some tea types, some of the processing stages (like rolling and resting for pu-erh tea f.ex.) require increased control and attention to the surroundings to keep the tea leaves clean and pure. That's why it is essential to buy teas from shops that know the farmers they source from and trust their word and integrity.
Six tea types and washing tea
In particular, top tea like high-end single-bud green tea and black tea can only be brewed two or three times.
Pu'er and Wulong (Oolong) have specific production processes. For example, wulong goes through repeated rolling. Pu'er, on the other hand, is usually pressed tightly. The tea leaves have not been fully infiltrated during the first brew. Therefore, they cannot open up and stretch out enough. Thus, the tea soup cannot reveal its full potency.
What is inside the first brew?
Substances such as tea polyphenols, tea pigments, and most of the amino acids are highly water-soluble and will quickly leach in the first brew. Washing tea actually washes out these nutrients.
The first brew of tea leaves will often produce broken particles, similar to powder, and much foam. Many people regard it as a harmful substance, scrape it away with a lid or dump it directly, and consider it yet another reason for washing tea.
Does powder in tea soup mean the tea is dirty?
In the process of packaging and disassembly of tea leaves, it is easy to produce a broken powder. If the tea leaves have been processed according to the standards, they will naturally be drier. Thus, the lower the moisture content, the more easily leaves will break.
According to China's national standard, the moisture content in dry tea should be no more than 6%. If it is below 5%, leaves will break easily. Furthermore, some premium tea types are very delicate and fragile. Such examples include Biluochun for green tea, Jin Jun Mei for black (red) tea, etc. All these teas are easy to break and produce the so-called "broken powder", falsely considered a sign of pollution.
During the brewing process, the broken tea leaves will only impact the appearance, with no other adverse effects. There is no need to remove it deliberately. Therefore, other than the better look of the tea soup, we cannot consider this a valid reason for washing the tea.
Is foaming a reason for washing tea?
The foam in the tea comes from another important ingredient in the tea - tea saponin. Tea saponin has anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. In combination with tea polyphenols and other substances, it has a good effect on the mucus of internal organs, especially the digestive tract, such as oral ulcers, gastric ulcers, intestinal ulcers, etc.
Tea saponin belongs to saponin substances. They have strong water solubility and foaming properties. When we brew the tea for the very first time, the tea saponin will quickly precipitate. If we pour the water from a high point, a large amount of foam will form on the surface of the tea soup.
In fact, as early as Lu Yu's "The Book of Tea", there has been a discussion on tea soup. Lu Yu saw the tea foam as the cream of the crop. He divides the foam into three grades. He calls the thinner part Mo (沫), the thicker Bo (饽), and the most tender one is Hua (花 – flower).
Here is a quote of Lu Yu description of the tea foam: "The thinnest ones are frothy, the thicker ones are lathery, and the finest ones are like jujube flowers floating on the pool."
On the difference between "washing" and "waking up" the tea
Aged White and aged Pu-erh teas go through a kind of processing that keeps the leaf cells relatively intact. Additionally, the long-term storage slows down the internal metabolical processes and further decreases internal moisture in tea leaves. Therefore, it is necessary to use hot water at high temperatures to restore the tea's essence and internal properties.
Therefore, the first brew's objective is to "wake up" the tea and bring it back to its "brewable" state.
To sum it up:
- all tea produced according to national standards does not need washing in terms of hygiene.
- Washing, however, is recommended for tea made outside a standardized tea factory.
- Fresh tea leaves, such as Chinese Black tea and Green tea, need to be neither washed nor awakened.
- Oolong, Dark, and Pu-erh tea need washing.
- Aged up to 10 years compressed tea leaves usually need to be woken up once.
- 10+ years aged Pu'er and the likes may even need to be woken up twice.