Thursday, June 20, 2013

Making A Good Cup Using A Tea Bag

Tea bags often get a bad reputation for making a poor quality cup. Yet, most of us began our tea obsession with a grocery store bought box of bags and all but the most persnickety of loose leaf users still use them, at least occasionally. It is my view that too often the problem is with the preparation more than with the bag. With beginners the problem is inexperience. With the experienced, it is often a lack of attention to detail they would give to their loose leaf.

So what can you do to improve your brewing success? These tips are based on a western mug brewing technique of one bag for one cup.

1.) Size your cup appropriately.
A lot of people grab a 12-ounce mug or worse a 16-ounce tumbler and then blame the tea for being weak and flavorless. If that is your experience, your cup is too big. Most tea bags will work with an 8-ounce cup but some need a 5 or 6-ounce cup. If the company does not list the cup size in the instructions, you will have to figure it out yourself. Determining what size cup should be used depends mostly on how much tea the vendor put in the bag.

Sorry but math is required until you get a feel for this.

Look on the box for a Net Wt in grams. Divide the number by the number of bags in the box. The result will tell you how much tea is in each bag. As an example, if the Net Wt is 40g and there are 20 bags in the box, then there is 2g of tea in each bag. (40g/20 = 2g) This is a common amount of tea in many US tea bags. It will generally work fine with an 8-ounce cup.

If the box is 30g and contains 18 bags, then there is only 1.67g of leaf in the bag and you should try a 6-ounce cup. Some bags have as little as 1.33g. Try using a 5-ounce cup here.

2.) Use good tasting water.
This may seem overly obvious but if the water doesn’t taste good it won’t make good tea. If you don’t like the taste of your tap water, use bottled spring water. Do not use distilled water, as it will produce a flat cup.

3.) Heat your water to the proper temperature.
Read the brewing instructions on the box. A novel idea I know, but I am amazed how many people never bother looking. As a starting point most black and herbal teas will steep well using at or just below boiling water. Do not over boil or it will lower the oxygen level in the water. Do not use boiling water for green or white tea. Bring the water to heavy steaming and turn it off. Some people bring the water to a boil and then let it sit for one minute. I am too impatient to wait.

I personally do not like heating the water in the microwave. I think it makes for flat tea. I prefer a stove top or electric kettle. Feel free to disagree on this point.

Do Not heat the water with the bag in it. I repeat, Do Not heat the water with the bag in it.

4.) Steep for the appropriate time – remove the bag.
Once again check the box for the recommended brewing time. Just because the water quickly changes color does not mean the flavor has reached its full potential. That takes time. Usually the time will be listed as a range, like 3-5 minutes or 2-4 minutes. If you have no instructions, 3 minutes is a good average time. If you like a weaker cup, check it earlier. When the time is up remove the bag. Leaving it in can result in bitterness. It can also cause a burning sensation in your stomach if you are sensitive to it like me. The exception is herbal tea, which may require a much longer steep time – read the box.

5.) Experiment
I hope these tips help improve your cup. Remember they are just a starting point. If you aren’t completely satisfied with the results, change one of the steps at a time and try again. Use a different cup, or different temperature. Change the steep time. Note the difference. Next time change something else. Soon you will find your sweet spot.

A final comment: Proper technique will bring out the very best possible cup from your tea but technique has its limits. If you start with bad tea the best you can hope for is a bad cup. Using better quality leaf to start with offers more room for error and will deliver a more complex cup.

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