Tea, Taste, and Temperature

One day my breakfast sausage had grown cold on my plate while I was staring out the dining room window at robins, jays, etc., splashing in the birdbath. When I returned to my breakfast and took a bite of the sausage, my mind registered the difference in taste that the change in temperature made and got me thinking about tea and how its taste is affected by temperature, both when steeping and in the cup.

Centigrade thermometer to help you get the water temperature right
Centigrade thermometer to help you get the water temperature right

When steeping tea, water temperature and steeping time varies by tea type. There is a bit of disagreement on what those settings should be. Generally, this is what I’ve seen from various sources:

Black teas — Steeping times ranging from 3 to 6 minutes in water heated to from 190-212°F (90-100° C).

Green teas — Steeping times ranging from 45 seconds to 3 minutes in water heated to from 160-180°F (70-82° C).

Pu-erh teas — Steeping times ranging from 1 to 10 minutes in water heated to from 200-212°F (93-100° C).

Oolong teas — Steeping times ranging from 1 to 10 minutes in water heated to from 185-212°F (85-100° C).

White teas — Steeping times ranging from 1 to 5 minutes in water heated to from 158-180°F (68-82° C).

These water temperatures are supposed to bring out the best flavor from the tea leaves. Too hot, and the more delicate teas can get cooked, not steeped. Too cool, and the teas, especially blacks, will not steep fully and thus not impart their full flavors into the water.

Sometimes when sipping a tea freshly steeped and hot, it doesn’t yield its full flavors. So, I have learned to let the cup sit a minute or so, enough to let it cool a bit, and then sip again. The flavors are usually more evident then. During a tasting, I have often had to rush to set up the tea for the photo, but it still ends up cooling a bit more than I would prefer. A sip or two reveals a taste quite different from when the tea was warmer. Sometimes that’s good, but other times…

Bitter notes and downright strange flavors can come out when a tea cools too much in the cup. Sometimes a tea that is perfectly scrumptious when warm but not too hot takes on a totally disgusting taste that assaults your palate when too cool. You have a couple of choices here: gently reheat the tea, or stick it in the refrigerator overnight (or if you are in a hurry, add some ice) and see how it tastes then.

Generally, the hotter the water is when you start steeping and the shorter the steep time, the hotter your tea will be when the steep is done. Pretty obvious, but sometimes even the obvious needs to be said. That means that an oolong can be hotter when you take that first sip than a black tea is. Plus, if you’re like me and add milk to your strong black teas without heating that milk first, the tea is slightly cooled. That’s good for your tastebuds because the tea is at a temperature that your tongue can take and can therefore get the flavors from, making that first cupful a truly “golden pour.”

Play with your tea a bit and see if letting the liquid cool a slight bit before sipping makes the tea flavors “pop” in your mouth when you finally drink it. Enjoy!

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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