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As co-owner and tea sommelier at Tavalon, a New York City-based purveyor of teas, Chris Cason’s mission is to “help create a new American tea tradition.” Here’s what he recommends.
1. Look for fresh tea at a tearoom or a market with high turnover, because the oils that give teas their flavor break down over time. Opt for loose tea rather than tea bags. “Loose tea just tastes better,” says Cason. “Tea leaves need room to expand, in order to release their flavors.” A typical square tea bag is too small, he explains, but larger ones shaped like pyramids give the leaves more room to bloom. Look for brands that list the region where the tea comes from, says Cason, “so at least you know you’re not getting everything but the kitchen sink.”
2. Start with spring or filtered tap water, which “have an ideal mineral content,” says Cason. Mineral water contains too many minerals that can create off-flavors when they come in contact with compounds in the tea leaves, and mineral-free distilled water produces a flat-tasting brew.
3. Turn up (or down) the heat. Use boiling water (212°F) to brew black, herbal and darker-colored oolong teas. But use cooler water (170° to 180°F) to brew green, white and lighter oolongs teas. “The water should be steaming with little bubbles forming at the bottom of the kettle,” says Cason. Brewing them with boiling water can release too many compounds that give color and complexity to the tea but in high doses produce astringent flavors, says Cason.
4. Use just enough tea. Use 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons per cup of water when brewing teas with bigger leaves or flowers, like green tea or chamomile, and 1 teaspoon per cup for teas with denser, compact leaves such as most black teas.
5. Steep long enough to release flavors, but not so long that tannins and other bitter-tasting compounds dominate. “Generally, black teas and darker oolongs should steep for 3 to 5 minutes,” says Cason. “Green, white and lighter oolong teas are much more delicate, so you’ll only need 2 to 3 minutes.” Herbal tisanes and infusions have fewer tannins, so there’s less risk of oversteeping.