Boiling Water for Tea; Why You Really Shouldn’t

I try to get my friends to drink Tea a lot. I love everything about it and I want to spread the love (even if I can be a bit of a Tea Snob). I can talk for hours about the therapeutic mental effects of drinking a cup of Tea, or the health benefits; I can even talk for hours concerning the different types of Tea available and enjoy musing over what blends friends would love.

But while I prefer Loose Leaf Teas myself, Tea Bags have their merits. They are convenient, often much cheaper to purchase, and do not require all the bangs and whistles like a Teapot in order to use. For those I try to spread the love to, Tea Bags are more than likely what they wull pick up first if I manage to convince them. Some, however, aren’t willing to make that leap- especially if they’ve had a negative prior experience with Tea.

Two retorts that I often hear the most from those that aren’t so friendly to Tea is that A. Tea is often too bitter for them, or B. It’s not strong enough for them; both of these problems can often be easily by how they prepare their tea.

The biggest mistake people make when it comes to bagged Teas is, honestly, how the water is prepared. Almost everyone suggests that you boil it, and when searching online that’s most of what you’ll run into concerning the instructions. But truth is that it’s so much more complicated than that- and yet it is simple at the same time: If you’re making tea from tea bags, boiled water should never come anywhere near your tea.

Each Tea has it’s own unique “performance ratio”. That is, that every single type of Tea has its own unique combination of Temperature and Steeping Time that will produce the best flavor for that particular type; Green Teas often do better at Temperatures less than or just over 100° F, for a period of time ranging between 2 – 4 minutes. Black Teas, on the other hand, do better at temperatures nearer to and even exceeding 200° F for 4 – 6 minutes. Even then, depending on the specific type of Tea, the Temperatures and Times differ from Butterfly of Taiwan all the way to Pu-Ehr, and Oolong.

With Loose Leaf Teas, these instructions are normally clearly printed on the packaging for the Tea and it’s important that you try to follow them. But for Tea Bags, that is rarely the case. Stash and Twinings (two of the most popular and widely available producers- least here in the US) are good about printing these instructions even if they are not very detailed. Others, however, aren’t always so good. But even if they do print the instructions on the side, I have rarely ever had any delectable results with boiled water when it comes to them; there is a big reason why you should rarely ever boil water when it comes to Bagged Teas, if I’m being completely honest.

Have you ever broken a tea bag and seen the floaty bits that just look like coffee grounds? The tea used in tea bags is very rarely just bagged Lose Leaf and most companies grind their tea and ingredients to about the same consistence as Coffee Grounds. This is done because- as a convenience product- bagged teas are mean to be a sort of “quick brew”; you stick the bag in the cup, poor some water over it, wait a minute, and presto: A cup of tea for you to enjoy in less time and effort it would take you to properly brew fresh Loose Leaf teas.

But this also means that a lot of people are brewing teabags how they would brew Loose Leafs Teas and, unfortunately, that method just does not work well with tea bags.

The smaller the material, the less heat needed to extract the flavoring from it. While a couple Teaspoons of a Loose Leaf Black Tea in a Teapot of boiled water might survive, a Tea Bag (even of the exact blend of Tea) just wouldn’t. You’re often actually ruining the flavor of your tea and increasing the amount of tannins that are released.

Tannin is an astringent biomolecule that is found in Carmelia Sinensis, the type of plant that Tea is made from. It is the compound that gives Tea its bitter flavor and while it’s not so bad when brewed properly, an overabundance of it (such as the amounts released by adding too hot of water to your Tea Bag) can make that bitterness unbearable- resulting a bitter tea with little to no flavor.

So before you boil that water for your tea bag, stop. Instead, place your sugar or honey in the bottom of the cup, run your hot water from the faucet at about medium (but hotter than simply “luke warm”), and fill your cup to the desired level.

What I’m about to tell you to do next would have the people at the Smithsonian Institute (who tell you not to do this in an article hosted on their website) crying out in upset- but trust me on this one: The hot water from your faucet just isn’t going to be hot enough to extract the flavor, but boiled water is usually too hot, so next pop your cup in the microwave and nuke it for just a minute depending on your microwave’s intensity. Personally I prefer not to go over a minute as I’ve found it produces just the right temperature that’s neither too hot nor too cool for Bagged Tea. You might, however, need to adjust your time limit depending on how high powered a Microwave you have.

Once it’s dinged itself into oblivion and your water is finished, remove your cup, stir, and allow the cup to rest for a few seconds- then simply drop in your Tea Bag. Allow it to sit and steep for a bit before removing the Tea Bag instead of leaving it set in the cup like a Hipster photo op waiting to happen while you sip; add milk and more sugar as desired, and enjoy!

Try to avoid using coffee pots or electric kettles to brew your Tea, too. The water’s often too hot for small single cup batches, and the result is similar to (if not worse than) the bitter teas produced by using boiled water in conjunction with bagged teas. If you’re stuck using an Electric Kettle or Coffee Pot, there are a couple things you can do, though.

First, use a wider cup so that the water cools faster. Second, allow the cup to set with water sans Tea Bag until it reaches about a mid temperature that’s still warm enough to brew the Tea. If you’re careful and pay close attention, you can even train yourself to recognize the sounds in a Kettle when boiling point is reached, and remove the kettle before that point. That, however, can take a well trained ear.

The result is a decently brewed cup of Tea with good flavoring at a nice hot temperature- without the mass release of bitter Tannins and loss of flavor that boiled water often causes with bagged Teas. And if the Tea still isn’t strong enough for your taste, instead of increasing the water temperature or leaving the bag in longer add a second Tea Bag to the cup- or try switching to fuller bodied and more flavorful Loose Leaf Teas.

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6 thoughts on “Boiling Water for Tea; Why You Really Shouldn’t

  1. I always keep my ear peeled for the sound of hot expanding metal of my tea kettle. I also have a candy thermometer which comes in handy for temperatures when steeping bagged teas. I’m a bagged tea sucker for convenience but when I have company it is always loose leaf! Amazing post!

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    1. Mostly I do drink Loose Leaf myself, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy for it- and when those times come up I barely have the energy to keep an eye on the kettle (and I don’t have a candy thermometer anymore). The Microwave trick really does make some people angry, but it’s far simpler when you’re out of energy. Now, though, we have a Keureg machine and I can pop the Loose Leaf in there instead and it is usually about the right temperature for most Teas without over steeping them or making them Tannic. I did the same with a candy thermometer for years until I learned to tell the water temperature by the amount of bubbles in the water. ‘Course, it helps to have a glass kettle when doing it that way!

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      1. Oh I used to have one. I had an ex that took it with him when he moved. Such a sad day. Do you have an opinion on blooming teas? I was thinking about getting the gift set for someone for Christmas but have never tried them myself. Have you?

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        1. I’ve only tried one. They definitely require a glass Teapot for them to be of any legitimate interest (I was lucky and found one for $1.00 at a yard sale, complete with a tealight warmer to set it on). The one experience I had wasn’t very positive, however, because the package and brewing instructions were all completely in Chinese, no English translations. As a result, I am almost positive that I didn’t prepare it correctly, so it didn’t bloom as well as it should have. I’m sure with proper instructions, though, they’re far more lovely than the one I had.

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