There’s a buzz around that people are steeping their teas too long, resulting in bitter tea “liquor” that they blame on the tea maker. So I thought a little experiment was in order, having observed that some of the tea samples I’ve been trying taste better or worse depending on how long they are steeped.

First, my hubby pointed out that there are a number of factors that can affect how your tea tastes, not just time. I agree. Together, we came up with these:

  • The tea quality and type (white, green, black)
  • The place of origin of the tea (India, China, Sri Lanka, etc.)
  • The size of the tea pieces (full leaf, broken leaf, fannings, dust)
  • The amount of tea you use per 6 ounces of water (generally, 1 tsp)
  • The water quality and temperature
  • The length of time steeped
  • If you’re using a teabag, whether you squeeze the bag (I don’t recommend it)

You may think of other factors. Also consider your goal in steeping tea in the first place. Do you want a good, strong “cuppa” or a weaker but not bitter cupful? If you prefer milk and sweetener in your tea, you may want the former. If you have a more refined palate, are lactose intolerant, or just don’t want dairy, you will want the latter. That’s definitely a personal choice and outside of the scope of this experiment, as my chemist friends would say.

What’s within the scope of this experiment is finding out how the taste and other tea qualities change after different steeping times. I used 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, and 5 minutes (I can’t think of any tea that wouldn’t be bitter after being steeped longer than this).

Dry Tea

The Method:
For the sake these proceedings, I used a particular tea and kept all preparation steps equal, as follows:

  • The tea — Assam (from a local market)
  • Piece size —what the manufacturer calls “nuggets” (looks a bit like “Grape Nuts” pieces, as you can see in the photo above)
  • Place of origin — Assam district of India, from a slightly different Camellia Sinensis (tea plant) varietal called Camellia Sinensis assamica
  • The water —Bottled (so contains none of the chlorine or chloramines that are mandated by the EPA for our municipal water supply), heated to a nice rolling boil (lots of “dragon eye” bubbles)
  • Steeping time —2 to 5 minutes (see photo of full teacups below)
  • Procedure — Placed 2 heaping teaspoons of tea loose in teapot, boiled 2 cups of water, poured water into teapot, steeped with lid on teapot, poured through strainer into cup

My row of handleless teacups stood at attention, waiting for the brew. Hubby did the pouring honors as each steep time was reached. He also helped with the aroma and taste testing.

Row of Empty Teacups

The Results:

  • 2 minutes — Light aroma, malty, somewhat bitter, rather weaker for Assam than I am used to (not surprising since I like curry spicy enough to peel paint, as the saying goes)
  • 3 minutes —Aroma a bit stronger, flavor stronger, attacks the front of the tongue with an initial hit of bitterness that quickly dissipates, tastes more “tea-like” than at 2 minutes
  • 4 minutes —Even stronger aroma and flavor, bitterness fills mouth and lasts, would definitely need sweetener at this point
  • 5 minutes — Strongest aroma, very strong flavor, bitterness overwhelming (made me pucker like taking a suck off a lemon wedge), ready for milk (or cream) and sweetener, more like the Assam I am accustomed to drinking

The color, shown in the photo, varied little, going from a rich brown to a little darker brown. From left to right: 2 minutes steeping time, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, and 5 minutes.

Assam Tea in Handless Cups

The enhanced cupful I prepared from the 5-minute brew was full of that rich Assam goodness I have come to appreciate through the years. However, I have to agree with Bruce the “Teaman” that you won’t want to steep longer than 2 minutes if you want to drink this tea plain (or possibly with a little sweetener to round off that bitter twinge).

Note: For the sake of brevity, this article does not attempt to address all tea varietals out there.

Check out A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill, for more advice on living the “tea life.”

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