The Logic and Nonsense of Tea Infusion Period Instructions

“Put 1 teaspoon of xxx tea in a suitable vessel or teapot and pour over with boiling hot water and leave for ca. 3 minutes before drinking”. Who doesn’t know them, the omnipresent 1- or 2-sentence instructions commonly given by suppliers on tea packages, usually centered around, or even being more or less reduced to a statement on how many minutes to infused the particular tea in that package.

Glass Teapot — a suitable vessel? (ETS image)
Glass Teapot — a suitable vessel? (ETS image)

While most undiscerning consumers will readily (and happily) follow such instructions, being convinced that such procedure will adequately serve the purpose of making “no mistakes” when preparing their tea, those passionate tea drinkers having advanced to some degree of higher order in regard to tea preparation already, will at some point start to use such instructions with due care, if not omit even reading them at all. This, however, is by no means due to some kind of arguable arrogance, such as the idea of “already knowing”, but much rather the result of the insight that such (short) instructions, from a certain perspective, are actually pure nonsense.

Let’s first have a look at where they might make sense at all: you’ve heard that drinking tea is actually healthy, you’ve witnessed people making statements regarding the great and unprecedented taste of tea and/or a particular tea or category of teas, and you might even have had the occasion to realize that quite some people see much more that just a beverage, even more than just a healthy beverage in tea, weaving a huge sphere and/or a whole world of its own around tea, and centering a considerable part of their lifes around it. This has triggered your curiosity, so you have just been to a supermarket, or even to a dedicated tea shop and bought yourself some tea, or even several teas. Now, let’s assume that you bought tea at all, and not some kind of tisane instead, which would by no means be a crime, but still to a significant degree disqualify your shopping from being covered by this article.

“Put 1 teaspoon of xxx tea in a suitable vessel and pour over with boiling hot water and leave for about 3 minutes before drinking”, and there you go… actually, very helpful to know that you should leave to infuse the tea for some time at all, and definitely similarly helpful to learn that you should not leave the tea to infuse for too long, because otherwise you would achieve either no tea taste at all and/or a terrible, basically inedible liquid respectively. This, however, is where the limitations of this concept have been reached.

How much exactly is “1 teaspoon”? Could be somewhere between 2 and 5 grams of tea! What on earth will be a “suitable vessel or teapot”? In each single case of tea, the answer to this question will significantly differ… A tea egg? A clay teapot? A glass vessel? An iron kettle? Or maybe the ceramic flower pot, from which you took the already withered roses earlier today?

How hot is “boiling hot water”? The 80°C your water will have after having been boiling and then being carried over from your cooking stove to the kitchen table, before being “poured over”? Or the 70°C it will have adding a break of another half minute, which you will need to fill the tea into the vessel, because you are realizing only now that you haven’t been doing this before? Or the 90°C your water will have when reaching the boiling point? Or the 100°C it will have when having been boiling for a short while on a proper stove? Or whatever more or less than any of those for what reason ever? Then: how long is “about three minutes”? Anything beyond two minutes? Or two and a half minutes? Or exactly 3 minutes? Or 3 and a half minutes? Or anything less than 4 minutes? And should you include the minute it will take to bring the teapot (or whatever vessel you choose) from the kitchen to the sofa suite in the living space area where your test persons are waiting to participate in your experiment?

These are ridiculous questions? Gradual differences of lesser or no importance? Okay, maybe, if you wish so, but then welcome to my world and that of hundreds of thousands of tea lovers, who do know better! With tea, in fact any even minor deviation in dosage, in material of the used vessel, in water temperature, in infusion period, and even in water quality, hardness and other features, will make a major difference for those appreciating it, which are those who love tea, and even for those less passionate, it can make the difference between something you will love to drink and something completely inedible.

As for your social living room experiment, serving some nicely chilled Coca Cola will be a much safer success after all, and if you really want to know about how to prepare that particular tea, or any other particular tea, for that matter, there are 2 basic options available: one is to search online for your tea and work yourself through the A4-pages long websites, and the other one is to use the “Put 1 teaspoon of xxx tea in a suitable vessel or teapot and pour over with boiling hot water and leave for ca. 3 minutes before drinking” statement as a mere starting point of your long and extensive, basically infinite journey through the multi-layered and complex world of that one particular tea!

No, no, no, I didn’t mean to say you are stupid, unless I would have meant to say that we all are! In fact, all I meant was to make a joke, admittedly at your expense, but the fact that you have reached the end of this article not only shows that you are sharing my sort of humor, but also that you are indeed all set to start reading and acting upon those instructions now!

See also:
The Value of Tea Company Steeping Instructions

See more of Thomas Kasper’s articles here.

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6 thoughts on “The Logic and Nonsense of Tea Infusion Period Instructions

  1. Pingback: Tea Themes on Our Blog | Tea Blog

  2. Thomas, I’m going to virtually disagree with everything you said there.

    Firstly, unless otherwise stated, the idea is to boil a kettle and pour it on the leaves. So, given that it’s obvious when a kettle is boiling, once you’ve switched it off, you lose a few degrees. Every time. As did the person who wrote the instructions… they didn’t magically transport water at exactly 100 degrees into their cup. The only variance here is height above sea level, as water boils as a lower temperature at a higher altitude.

    Next, a teaspoon. A metric teaspoon is a standard capacity. Given that all countries in the world use metric (except three*) it’s relatively easy to get a standard metric teaspoon (5ml) and also a standard metric cup (250ml). Many instructions specify a metric cup of water, or 200ml, or 8oz, or whatever.

    And three minutes is, well, three minutes.

    Finally, the premise that you need to make it exactly the way the instructions say in order to make the best cup is unsound. Variations in a million other factors-just take water quality and time of day for example- may need to be compensated for. If you take milk and/or sugar you may like it stronger. Your aunt might be visiting and she asks for it “quite weak, dear”.

    The instructions are as exact as they can be, by being as vague as they can be. You have to make some effort yourself.

    *The only non-metric countries are Myanmar, Liberia and the USA

    1. A.C. Cargill

      And special strainers… no, wait, no strainers, just drink the leaves with the liquid… no, I think it’s… sigh!

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