It’s all in the Steep
There’s a saying at the tea shop “Good tea comes to those who wait.” Now one could argue that it’s a reference to the not- so-speedy experience of having a cup hand blended to order at Homegrown Herb and Tea (Customers know coming in a hurry doesn’t get them a darn thing any faster!), but it also honors the sacred and essential practice of steeping tea properly.
To steep means to allow herbs or tea submerged and covered in hot water time to infuse for the purpose of extracting the volatile oils responsible for flavor and medicinal action. It is the verb that turns a dry plant and a hot cup of water into a yummy, therapeutic beverage. But steeping methods and times vary quite bit depending upon what it is you are steeping, and your intention, whether flavor or medicinal action, may be for either a delicate or strong brew. So while there are some general suggestions, it is really between you, your pallet and your herb.
Bringing water to a full boil before pouring it over your herbal blend and then covering for a full 3-5 minutes is ideal for extracting the best flavor and medicinal action of an herbal blend. Most herbs have little tannic quality and have no caffeine, so a long steep is not necessarily going to create an overly bitter, strong infusion. The long steep also has the additional benefit of extracting as much of the medicinal or active constituents of the plant as possible, which is of course best when drinking a blend for acute medicinal purpose. When a blend emphasizes roots, seeds and berries (the Herban Cowboy, for example) it can be appropriate to actually simmer the herbs for 2-3 minutes before allowing an additional couple of minutes to steep covered in your cup or tea pot. Roots and berries love to be steeped over and over again so that second and third cup often tastes just as potent as the first.
Black, green and white
The unique aging and fermentation processes of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, is responsible for the thousands of varieties of black, green and white tea. Due to their strong tannic qualities, these teas do not require as long a steep as the herbal tisane or infusion, and depending on the variety are often best steeped at lower temperatures.
Being the hardy result of extra oxidization, black teas can withstand boiling water or anything above 185 degrees, and typically needs no more than a 2-3 minutes before drinking.
Green tea is more gently oxidized and should be steeped at no more than 180 degrees for no more than two minutes. This will avoid that singed, overly vegetal flavor we have all experienced at the local coffee shop when we get a green tea that just doesn’t taste very good.
The most delicate of the three, white tea is best brewed between 165 and 180 degrees, and for no longer than two minutes. I find too long a steep for white tea makes it extremely bitter, drying and unpalatable, while gentle temperature and proper steep time make a clean, healthy tasting brew. Learning proper steep and brew methods for your favorite blend is key to getting optimal enjoyment and therapy out of your tea. Most people eventually graduate to getting their tea loose, which on top of being a more economical and environmental way to go, allows the tea maker to practice their own individual preferences for strength and brew time. The more involved you are in the art of making tea, the more meaningful the ritual of drinking it becomes. I like to think of a new life being born in every cup, which it really is in a way – you’re bringing a dry, dead plant to life with fire and water. Now isn’t such great alchemy worth waiting for?