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I'm a fan of modernist cooking, and its emphasis on precise measurements and consistency. I'm curious how to apply this to tea preparation - in particular, several things:

  • It seems to be well established that different types of tea should be prepared at different temperatures - black tea and fruit infusions with boiling water, green tea at 80 degrees centigrade, and so forth. Where/when was this established? How do we know it's optimal for each tea?
  • Likewise, durations to steep tea seem fairly well established. Is there any research on this? People seem a bit fuzzier on this than on temperatures, with some variation.
  • There's a lot of variance on the amount of tea leaves per litre of tea, varying between 2 grams per cup (8 grams per litre) and 15 grams per litre! Obviously, this depends on how finely cut the tea is, too. Is there any way I can determine this more objectively than just trying different amounts and tasting?
  • There seem to be several theories on how best to prepare iced tea. Some suggest using more tea and steeping for longer, some suggest preparing it cold, and so forth. Has anyone determined objectively which are better?

I realize this my come across as rather pedantic, but given the huge variation in preparation suggestions, I'm interested in trying to figure out which work best. Most of the questions above could be answered to some degree, too, with an explanation of what it is - chemically - that makes one batch of tea better or worse, providing a foundation for making these sort of decisions.

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I just checked On Food and Cooking (amzn.to/fcwQGL), and while there are quite a few pages on tea history and styles, there isn't a ton of info about ideal infusion technique. I'm know that Modernist Cuisine (amzn.to/f3qFWR) has a very in-depth chapter on coffee technique but I haven't heard whether it covers tea in detail. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Dec 19 '10 at 6:22
    
@Michael Good point about Modernist Cuisine. Coffee tends to get a lot of attention on this front because it's hard to get right, while it's pretty easy to get an acceptable cup of tea. Still, I'm confident there's lots of room for improvement here. –  Nick Johnson Dec 19 '10 at 9:20
    
I'm not sure if there's an "objectively best" way to prepare tea (since some people like different flavors). I'm interested to see what people have to say about this though. –  Brendan Long Dec 19 '10 at 22:53
    
Go visit a good chinese tea merchant! –  lamwaiman1988 May 31 '11 at 17:14

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

There is an ISO standard for tea preparation.

To quote the summary:

  • The pot should be white porcelain or glazed earthenware and have a partly serrated edge. It should have a lid that fits loosely inside the pot.
  • If a large pot is used, it should hold a maximum of 310 ml (±8 ml) and must weigh 200 g (±10 g).
  • If a small pot is used, it should hold a maximum of 150 ml (±4 ml) and must weigh 118 g (±10 g).
  • 2 grams of tea (measured to ±2% accuracy) per 100 ml boiling water is placed into the pot.
  • Freshly boiling water is poured into the pot to within 4-6 mm of the brim. Allow 20 seconds for water to cool.
  • The water should be similar to the drinking water where the tea will be consumed
  • Brewing time is six minutes.
  • The brewed tea is then poured into a white porcelain or glazed earthenware bowl.
  • If a large bowl is used, it must have a capacity of 380 ml and weigh 200 g (±20 g)
  • If a small bowl is used, it must have a capacity of 200 ml and weigh 105 g (±20 g)
  • If the test involves milk, then it can be added before or after pouring the infused tea.
  • Milk added after the pouring of tea is best tasted when the liquid is between 65 - 80 °C.
  • 5 ml of milk for the large bowl, or 2.5 ml for the small bowl, is used.
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2  
Also of note from the same article is the Royal Society of Chemistry's How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea. –  justkt Dec 20 '10 at 14:46
    
@justkt: I actually like the RSC's version better because it attempts to explain a few of the directives. –  Aaronut Dec 20 '10 at 17:54
    
I can't believe I wasn't following this process, and still managed to make tea! I'll have to get a white porcelain or glazed pot with a partly serrated edge.... –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 20 '10 at 17:55
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Hm, it's close-but-not-quite: "This standard is not meant to define the proper method for brewing tea, but rather how to document tea brewing procedure so sensory comparisons can be made." - so this would be an excellent resource for anyone wanting to make the sort of experiments whose results I'm interested in. :) –  Nick Johnson Dec 21 '10 at 5:31
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Let's emphasize that this ISO standard is for professional tasting, not a way to make the better tasting tea. Notably, the long brewing time will underline the bitterness (that pros learn to put aside). –  Manur May 31 '11 at 16:29

The making of tea is a balance between three factors that affect how the flavours of the leaves are infused into the water: time, temperature, and the ratio of leaf surface area to water.

Generally, more of any one of those parameters is balanced by less of the others. The temperature,however, has a specific minimum requirement, below which certain things simply won't occur. This is why black tea must be made with the water starting at the boiling point, and not at 70 degrees.

As for precision, the problem is mostly defining the result, not the conditions. How do you define a good cup of tea in a way that is measurable and repeatable?

Practically speaking, I find that the different traditions in each tea-drinking culture are a very good starting point to work from. After that, you can adjust and experiment all you want. Remember that traditions can vary from "one for each cup and one for the pot" to the intricacies of a full Japanese tea ceremony.

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I'd venture that most of these standardizations came by tasting, tea brewing existing in its current form since at least 3 centuries. Try to brew a fine Japanese green (like a Gyokuro) with boiling water, and the bitterness will kill the pleasure. Similarly, try to prepare a rolled Taiwanese Oolong at 70°C, the leaves will never open up completely and the taste will be bland compared to the traditional way.

I should also emphasize that old tea making countries have different methods of preparation : in China, the Gong Fu Cha is quite radical for a western tea lover, and in Japan the Kyusu or the matcha bowl are also unheard of.

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