How to brew the perfect cup of tea

Arlene Bachanov

Tea comes from the Camellia sinensis shrub, which is native to China and India. Green, black, white and oolong tea all come from the same plant. The difference is in how much the leaves are processed.

According to Chris Brown, who conducts tastings and classes at the British Tea Garden and Rooftop Cafe in Tecumseh, Mich., it’s all about oxidation, which can be thought of as similar to what happens to a banana when it’s exposed to air. Black tea is highly oxidized, while green tea is less processed, and white tea, which uses only the newest leaves, is even less so.

Brown said that a general rule to get the best cup of tea is to steep black tea for three to five minutes, green tea for one to three minutes, and white tea for as long as eight minutes. And there are tricks to brewing the perfect tea.

“You should start with filtered, fresh water every time — don’t reboil water,” she said.

Tea should also be made differently depending on its type.

“People brew green tea like they do black tea and wonder why it tastes awful,” said Brown. Black tea should use water that’s been brought to a full boil but not for long, because over-boiling takes the oxygen out of the water. On the other hand, green and white tea should use water that’s only been brought to a “preboil,” which means that it’s steaming or, at most, that bubbles have just formed at the bottom of the pot.

Herbal teas and rooibos tea, a South African tea that is quickly becoming popular, are, like with black tea, generally best with boiling water, according to Brown.

Incidentally, herbal and rooibos teas aren’t really tea at all because they don’t use actual tea leaves. Herbal teas consist of whatever the herb or fruit happens to be — peppermint, for example — while rooibos tea, also called red tea, comes from the rooibos bush.

Here’s another helpful hint from Brown: If you’re brewing tea in a pot, warm the pot up first by putting warm water in it. Then dump that water out and make your tea.

And, said Phyllis Wilkerson, co-owner of the new Governor Croswell Tea Room in Adrian, Mich., the secret to stronger tea isn’t what you might think.

“Don’t brew longer to get stronger,” she said. “It will get bitter. If you want stronger tea, add more tea.”

Both the British Tea Garden and the Governor Croswell Tea Room can lend a hand to novice tea drinkers. Among the questions the staffs at both restaurants would ask are: caffeinated, decaf or don’t you care? What flavors do you like — spicy, fruity, minty or just plain tea? How strong do you like your tea?

Wilkerson said people who don’t know the first thing about tea often like her shop’s cinnamon orange spice variety.

“Even people that don’t like tea like it,” she said, and so it would be one of the first suggestions she would make to a tea newcomer.

What foods you’re going to pair your tea with can also make a difference.

“Different food brings out different flavors (in the tea),” said Brown. “Teas can taste different after you eat versus before. It’s a lot like with wine.”

Finally, there’s the question of bagged vs. loose. Buying loose tea, rather than teabags, allows for “a higher quality and a fuller taste,” said Brown. “And there’s a lot more variety in loose tea. You can mix and match.”

Sometimes, that mixing and matching even includes adding flavors like chocolate or caramel, which allows a tea drinker to indulge in a sweet treat without the calories of a dessert.