At the conclusion of my lectures, I am often asked, “Can I heat my tea water in a microwave?”
The straight answer is “yes.”
However, my question to the inquirer is, “Will the use of a microwave add to your sense of ritual?”
Most tea professionals will forego a microwave in favor of a proper kettle for heating water evenly to the correct temperature.
Lu Yu was the first tea master to deal with questions about tea-making. He didn’t have microwaves or electric pots to deal with, but he did face a society that needed a bit of guidance in making tea properly.
The crude tea practices he encountered in 8th century China included crushing tea in a mortar and making it into a cake before boiling it together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, milk, spices – and sometimes onions!
In his celebrated work, The Cha Ching (Holy Scripture of Tea), China’s beloved tea sage gave tea preparation instructions that transformed tea-making from a utilitarian chore into a hallowed ritual.
With the tea novice and the spirit of Lu Yu in mind, here are seven simple steps to set you on the right path to making good tea.
you need a teapot & kettle
1. Tea kettles and teapots are not the same. This may sound too basic, but I mention it because new tea students often don’t realize they need both utensils. And, a microwave does not replace a tea kettle! You can only control water temperature with a stovetop or electric kettle.
tea & coffee are not the same
2. Coffee makers are not designed to make tea. Tea takes time to steep and coffee makers often do not hold the leaves in the water long enough – or at the right temperature – to allow the leaves to rehydrate.
Be aware that the oils in coffee will contaminate a vessel after one use and forever negate the possibility of making good tea in that container.
start a teapot collection
3. Expand your teapot collection to include a variety of sizes and materials. Don’t restrict your search to just English or traditional Western teapots. Asian iron and clay pots hold heat well and are the pots of choice for making green, oolong, and white teas. When not in use, display them throughout your home and see how many conversations they spark.
make friends with a tea supplier or Two
4. Develop a relationship with one or more tea suppliers. Just like parents who want to talk about their children, tea merchants are eager to share the pedigrees of their teas. They yearn to share brewing techniques, water temperatures, and tasting notes with you.
fresh tea is vital
5. Be sure your tea is fresh. Ask your merchant how long the tea has been shelved. If it’s been on the shelf for more than nine months, leave it for someone else. Buy in small quantities and buy often.
proper tea storage
6. Store your tea at home in an air-tight container. Tea is like a sponge. It should be kept away from odors, heat, moisture, and light. Don’t store tea in the freezer and store only green teas in the refrigerator.
water temperature varies
7. Water temperature is key to brewing great tea. When it comes to water temperature, it is easy to remember “the darker the tea, the hotter the water.”
General guidelines are as follows: white tea – 165° F, green tea – 175° F, oolongs – 200° F, black teas and herbals – 210° F. It’s always good practice to warm the teapot by adding a small amount of hot water before steeping the tea leaves. Be sure to discard that water after 30 seconds, then add the tea leaves and pour in the water.
Tea making should become a ritual for any serious tea student. Like any discipline, it demands consistent practice and attention to detail. When you have mastered these necessary steps, tea-making will flow easily from your spirit and infuse you and your guests with serenity.
This article first appeared in TeaTime magazine. Bruce Richardson and Jane Pettigrew are authors of the award-winning tea reference book THE NEW TEA COMPANION