Steeping tea

I realise that my last post where I describe the preparation of Tieguanyin was probably confusing (my readership of two lodged their complaints!) so I’m going to try to clear things up today. The preparation of tea is called steeping and involves soaking the tea leaves in water to extract the flavour.

Yellow teapot

Traditional style teapot used here in Ireland

Here in Ireland (and in all Western countries that I have been to) steeping involves putting tea leaves (or tea bag) into a large teapot and then adding in boiling water. The tea is served from the teapot into cups after around two minutes if you like ‘weak’ tea and or after several minutes if you like ‘strong’ tea. After about five minutes, the tea leaves and the liquid need to be separated or it will over-steep and becomes bitter. If this happens, it is usually addressed by either adding more water to dilute or starting over and making a ‘fresh pot’. I’ve seen variations on this process where people add the tea leaves, add the water and then heat up the teapot on a gas hob. The teabag-in-a-cup is a another variation – the teabag  is put in the cup, water is added and the teabag is removed and discarded once the tea looks strong enough.  There are lots of variations but the basic process is consistent – the flavour of the tea is extracted by steeping the tea once (i.e single steeping).

Yixing Clay Teapot [Source]

Yixing clay teapot [Source]

However, in China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, there is a different way to prepare good quality tea that involves several short steepings rather than one long steeping. To do this we add the tea to the teapot (usually a very small teapot) and add the water but instead of steeping for ~five minutes, we steep for maybe 30 seconds (it depends on the tea). After the 30 seconds, we separate completely the leaves and the water by pouring off all the tea from the tea pot into cups. It may seem like a short time at first but don’t worry, it works. When we are ready for more tea, we re-steep the tea by adding water to the teapot again (with the same leaves). This time we will wait a little longer – maybe 40 seconds before pouring off all the tea. This is the second steeping and will taste and look different to the first steeping. We can repeat this several times, increasing the duration of steeping each time. During each steeping the water opens the leaf a little more and the colour, smell and taste of the tea will vary. Eventually, it will start to loose taste and colour and then we know to stop. Using this method we get smaller cups of tea but more of them with a variety of flavours and the tea does not over-steep. It is not unusual for a good quality Pu-erh to have ten steepings and it can go to 20 steepings or more.

Brew basket

Brew basket

The re-steeping technique does not need a teapot. The same result can be achieved if we put a brew basket in a cup, add the leaves and water and then wait thirty seconds before removing the brew basket. When we are finished drinking the first cup we put brew basket back in the cup, add water again and wait say 40 seconds for the second steeping. Again, this can continue for multiple steepings, increasing the duration with each steeping.

I hope that helps to clear up the difference between single-steeping and re-steeping. When I post about individual teas I’ll describe the steeping preparation that I’ve used, including timings. I have deliberately left out factors like water-type, temperature, rinsing, utensils and volume of tea. I’ll come back to those in future posts.With all that said, tea is meant to be enjoyed so don’t feel under pressure to prepare your tea a certain way. Experiment and see what you think!

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5 Responses to Steeping tea

  1. JC says:

    So now I know how to call this, “steeping”. Cool. Quick question for you: are you saying that the same technique (“steeping”) is used by Chinese and Japanese tea drinkers or are there any variations on the method (in the same way you describe a number of variations on the “Western style”)? Looking forward to hear how to prepare my tea Gangnam style… 😉

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comment and question. I’m pretty sure that Gangnam style refers to South Korea rather than Japan! In any case, there are plenty of variations on the preparation of tea. Different countries and different regions have their own approach but preparation of something like a loose leaf Japanese or Korean Green tea will involve multiple steepings similar to what I described above. The famous traditional Japanese tea ceremony involves a powdered green tea called matcha and the process is quite different. I might do a future post on the various tea ceremonies…

  2. H. Frances says:

    As a non-tea drinker ( and resultant tea break outcast) I finally understand the method behind tea making! I always wondered why, when I made tea for one particular friend (i.e. left a tea bag sitting in a cup while I rooted around for milk) she’d grimace and run to the bin with her barely used tea bag! Next time i’ll ask her if she wants me to re-steep …she won’t know what’s hit her!

    • admin says:

      Hi there! I’m afraid that because of the grade of tea used and the manufacturing process for tea in most tea bags, multiple steepings doesn’t apply :-(. You’ll have to knock her socks off and offer her a loose leaf!

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