When starting out making tea, it can be a bit overwhelming at times. Most shops you buy from will have detailed instructions on how to make the “perfect” cup of tea. This can be especially helpful with a Japanese green that likes lower temperature water. If you don’t know that, you might throw boiling water on your Sencha, have a terrible infusion and then swear off Japanese tea altogether.
The more you make tea of all shapes, sizes and types, the more you get comfortable with how each individual tea session requires slight changes in method. Think of it like cooking without a recipe. When you first try to make a recipe from a cookbook, you follow it as close as possible, right? You want to make sure you do justice to the original. After you make the same recipe a few times, you might start making changes, adding ingredients or omitting them. A few more times and you’re working off-book and using the skills you’ve practiced many times in order to make the dish feel like it is your own creation.
Tea is not too different than this. We are using practiced skills to make adjustments the final tea in our cup. As we are basically only working with two ingredients, leaf and water, it might not seem like there is much variance possible. There are certainly less factors for change than in a 15 ingredient lasagna but there is still plenty that can be affected with the limited factors that exist. Another “ingredient” that you might overlook at first is time.
Tea, Time and Temperature are the three T’s of tea. Tea refers to the amount of leaf used. Time refers to the length the water is in contact with leaves and Temperature of course is how hot the water is. This seems simple on paper (or screen) and then starts to get more complicated when you change the tea or the brewing vessel. The process is still simple if you remember that all you are doing is adding water to leaves. With a large vessel you need more tea, more water or both. When you do this you have to adjust time accordingly. If you have too much leaf for the size of your vessel then you can’t steep it short enough and conversely if you have too little, you can never make it strong enough.
I caution people to not measure tea, even when they are just starting out. Unless I sell them the teaware they will use every single time, I can’t be sure what amount to use for the vessel they choose. I would be giving poor advice if I told them definitively to use a certain weight or “1 rounded tablespoon per 8oz of water”. These measurements don’t factor for size of vessel or time brewed, it’s only a starting point. It becomes a crutch that is hard to give up. That being said, as long as there is not too much or too little tea in the brewing vessel, there is a way to make any amount of tea taste good. I can’t tell you specifically what that way is; you have to know your tea and teaware in order to make appropriate adjustments. For competition and taste testing, there is a specific method applied: 3gr of tea for 3mins for green/white/yellow spectrum and 3gr 6mins for oolong/black/hong. I don’t know if this is done with Mao Cha/puer
As far as water temp goes, starting with a boil is always a good idea. From there you will be able to make any tea. For oolong, black/hong, and puer you can use water that is just off the boil. The tea will never be 100c unless you add the tea to your kettle, likely 98c is the max brew temp. From there anything down to 90c should get you the most from the flavors of the leaf. As for any tea brewing, hotter water = shorter infusion. If your first infusion is at 98c and your next is 93c, you might add 10 seconds to your infusion but maybe not even that much.
For lighter oxidation teas, 85c and below is what you should shoot for. The buds of the leaf you find in these have some delicate flavors that would be overwhelmed by hotter water. Some smaller, more delicate leaves like a Bi Luo Chun or many Japanese greens would benefit from water closer to 70c.
That being said, there is an important factor to consider: Better quality tea is not as picky about brewing temp and time. If a tea is especially hard to brew, it might not be very good. This can be said for teas that were once good but have changed for the worst over time due to storage conditions. You might even find a few fresh Liu An Gua Pian leaves thrown in a glass or bowl with water off the boil is perfect.
There is a lot of experimentation to be had when making tea. Part of the fun is finding out what you like. To go back to the cooking analogy, becoming a Chef is a lot like becoming a ‘Teamaster’. If you are a line cook or sous chef, you might have a great amount of skill in the kitchen following a recipe or technique to cook a dish a certain way but you aren’t quite ready to work off recipe and create your own menu. The Chef has acquired skills to create dishes all their own, making adjustments and adaptations through years of hard work and experience. For a ‘Teamaster’ it’s seeing a tea they’ve never made before and knowing how to get the best flavor from it, or making familiar tea in unfamiliar teaware. The muscle memory is enough to make the tea good.
Whatever or whoever a ‘Teamaster’ is to you, know that they are still a student of tea, always drinking, learning and experiencing tea.
“Tea cannot be learned from a book, only from the heart” - Sochi