The other day I tried a highly oxidized oolong (almost a black tea, really) and saw that the vendor’s instructions said to do a quick rinse first. That usually involves letting the leaves steep for a short period (they recommended 30 seconds) and then dumping out that liquid before doing a real first steep. Thankfully, we ignored this. And quite frankly we’re wondering why and how this practice got started.
Rinsing and washing seem to be synonymous. Heat some water. Pour it over tea leaves in your steeping vessel. Let them sit for about 10-30 seconds, depending on the tea. Drain off the liquid. This is supposed to “wake up” the leaves and get them ready for steeping, possibly resulting in a more flavorful brew. We have often found that skipping this instead gives us an amazing first steep. That oolong had a first steep that was amazingly complex, with various flavors coming through. The liquid was quite pale but don’t let that fool you. There was a nutty, slightly smoky (peat-like) aroma in the cup, with a smoky, slightly cocoa-ish flavor, and a thick feel in the mouth. The second infusion, with a more peachy color, had a flavor that was smokier and less cocoa-ish. The third steeping was very smoky but pleasant in both aroma and flavor, with a trace of that cocoa-ishness remaining. We would have missed that cocoa quality if we’d done that initial rinse/wash.
But wait, there are legitimate reasons to rinse/wash your tea leaves. We need to take a closer look at the leaves, in fact, very close — that is, at the cellular level.
After tea leaves are harvested, they undergo a series of processing steps. The overall goal is to remove most of the moisture. The leaf cells start out as an exterior wall of cellulose filled with water and some other chemicals:
- Inorganic components: potassium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, iron, sulfur, aluminum, sodium, silicon, zinc, and copper.
- Nitrogen compounds: amino acids like theanine (unique to tea) and the alkaloid caffeine.
- Carbohydrates: mostly pectins, plus minute amounts of sugars and starches.
- Other items: pigments derived from chlorophyll and flavons, and vitamins B and C.
- Enzymes and Polyphenols: polyphenol oxidase, Peroxidase, Catechin, Epicatechin, Epicatechin gallate, Epigallocatechin gallate, Gallocatechin, and Epigallocatechin.
Much of this remains in the tea leaf cells once most of the moisture (as much as 93%) is removed. Rinsing the leaves puts moisture back in and loosens up the cell walls to let some of these chemicals out.
Rinsing/washing does this. After this process, you can steep the tea normally. The leaves are now “awake” — they have soaked up enough water to make them more pliable and able to take in more water and release those various chemicals named above. Each steeping means that more of these chemicals are released, thus changing the flavor of the liquid.
Those among us who want to get every drop possible from our tea leaves will probably skip this step and go straight for a first steep as a way of “waking up” their tea leaves. Just remember that this first steep may not be representative of the normal flavor profile for the tea you’re having.
As always, which you use is up to you, even if a tea vendor recommends a rinsing. Love it!
See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.
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