Brewing parameters

This question comes up again and again in the course of talking tea over the internet…. what’s your brewing parameters?

The same question, I find, is much less common in the Chinese online scene for tea. Either people all know it and don’t need to ask, or people don’t care.

I think the reason people keep asking this question is because of the belief that there’s an optimal brewing parameter for a particular tea, where the extraction of soluable things from the tea will be optimal (just right, not too bitter, etc). It might be 5/5/10/20/30/60, or it might be 5/5/5/5/5/5/5/10. I don’t know. Whatever it is, there’s a certain sense that there’s a “right” answer.

As my readers generally know, I am against timing infusions. I think if we start timing infusions, then one must also time the number of elapsed seconds between infusions — whether that is 10 seconds, a minute, or five. Leaves that have been infused three or four times will continue to cook in your pot/gaiwan until the next time you pour water in. As Dogma said to me, the water that you pour in does basically two things — bring the temperature up a little (it’s likely still very hot in the pot/gaiwan without the water) and it carries all the dissolved stuff out with it when you pour. The actual amount of time it spends in the pot/gaiwan isn’t that important.

For example, today when I made a rather commonplace wet stored loose puerh, I think my infusion parameters, as judged by time spent with water in the pot, runs something like 3/3/5/5/5/5/10/10/20. I guess I should tell you how big (in ml) my pot is, but I have no clue. Nor do I use a scale. I can tell you that my pot was about 1/3 full of dry leaves when I poured the wash in.

But that’s not the whole story. I spent considerably more time (proportionately) drinking the tea earlier than later. There was probably a minute or two of rest time in between infusions 4 and 5 (or was it 5 and 6?). Some infusions come out weaker than others. How do I account for all of these things?

I don’t, however, think I brewed this the “optimal” way, nor do I think there is an optimal way. I like my teas this way, because …. I find they come out just fine. I use similar parameters for almost all teas, unless they happen to be green or white, which I almost never drink these days anyway. So, the short answer is…. that’s how I brew my tea, and it applies to almost everything I post about here, which, oddly enough, seems to work remarkably well.

Scary thought, isn’t it?


Comments

Brewing parameters — 6 Comments

  1. I think the obsession with parameters is more a function of our lack of experience.  I am probably typical in having learned almost everything from reading the internet.  I have never watched one of my tea friends brew tea (except a couple of YouTubes), never had the opportunity to learn by watching someone who knows more than me, and never visited a tea shop where the clerk knew much about tea. 

    On the other hand, I have had some awful cups of tea because I brewed something too long, too hot, too cold, too little tea, or too much tea.  Having some basic guidelines at the outset is a good way to avoid disaster.  Also, like a lot of new US tea consumers, I regularly indulge in a wide variety of teas that require radically different techniques.

    OK, OK, having made my excuses for obsessing over measurements, I agree that maybe it is finally time I should take the training wheels off.  Thanks for encouraging me to think a little more openly. 

  2. Salsero: I think you’re definitely right that many American tea drinkers have never met anybody else who’s into it, and I think much of the fear of brewing a tea comes from those bad experiences…. too bitter, too strong, too weak.

    Which is why I always tell people to shorten their brewing time. I keep harping on this issue because I feel like sometimes that’s all newer drinkers think about — and they get the wrong impression of what makes a good cup. Tea is really very simple.

  3. Thanks so much for getting into this subject!

    I agree that it’s quite possible to get pointlessly obsessed with precision in steep timing. And I’m glad – though hardly surprised – to see that you recognize that thinking hard about what goes on in the brewing vessel is useful nonetheless.

    But here

    As Dogma said to me, the water that you pour in does basically two things — bring the temperature up a little (it’s likely still very hot in the pot/gaiwan without the water) and it carries all the dissolved stuff out with it when you pour. The actual amount of time it spends in the pot/gaiwan isn’t that important.

    I think you go too far. I don’t think Dogma’s heating/flushing theory of tea steeping quite justifies your conclusion. Think of a tea that gets harsh if you push it too hard: say a Dancong or a Darjeeling. Say it’s been steeped a couple or three times and the gaiwan is steaming with the lid on. You have two choices: (1) wait three minutes and give it a quick steep – let’s not worry about exactly how quick – or (2) pour boiling water into the gaiwan and let it steep for three minutes. The first would yield a good cup, depending on the quality of the leaf; the second would be so harsh I wouldn’t want to drink it.

    I use similar parameters for almost all teas, unless they happen to be green or white, which I almost never drink these days anyway.

    For a while I’ve been brewing all non-green teas pretty much the same, too. But lately I’ve been starting to change this. I’ve been drinking a lot of shu Pu’er, and I find that with these teas I tend to enjoy the first one or two quick steeps a lot and then get bored waiting for the next 6 or 8 to go by; then, when all the “mud” is out, it gets interesting again as the dried-fruit notes are no longer hidden by the strong tastes and aromas. So I’m playing with relatively long steeps for shu Pu’er after the first one or two. I get fewer cups out of the leaf, but maybe more pleasure on the whole. There’s really no penalty to this in my mind, because shu doesn’t get harsh no matter how you push it. I would never do this with most other teas.

  4. I don’t think I’d say the amount of time the water spends in the tea is unimportant, but I did say it’s not THAT important. One of the reasons, I think, is that for the most part we’re dealing with steepings of seconds, and not minutes. Whether it’s 10s or 15s…. chances are the differences are slight, at best.

    3 minutes, then of course you’re going to get something drastically different. But I didn’t have three minutes in mind.

    As for shu puerh — I would agree with you that there are nice things about the end of the tea, the tail, so to speak, that lingers on and on. That’s what I like about my aged oolongs — they linger on and on and on, and they rarely get nasty unless it’s sour. Many teas are actually very nice when they’re weak and brewed out…. but it takes some patience (like waiting around for an hour for a cup) to enjoy them.

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