How to Brew Black Tea

After I discovered the Shangri-La Diet (2000), I started drinking lots of tea. Tea has smell without calories, which complemented the calories without smell of the diet. Mostly I drink black tea — more complexity than green or oolong tea. Until recently, I made it the usual (Western) way. 1. Add hot water to tea. 2. Wait 3-4 minutes. 3. Add cream and sweetener. 4. Drink. 5. Throw away tea.

Now I do this: 1. Rinse tea with hot water, discard rinse water. 2. Add hot water. 3. Wait short time (e.g., 30 seconds). 4. Taste the results in a certain way. 5. Drink. 6. Reinfuse tea for longer time (e.g., 45 seconds). And so on. From 2.5 g of tea leaves I make 3 cups of tea (200 ml each), with infusion times of 35, 55 and 90 seconds. I drink the first two cups straight (no additions), then add sweetener (xylitol), salt and cream to the third cup. It’s like three different sorts of tea. The first cup is a little sweet, the second cup is slightly bitter with more complexity, the third cup has bitterness, complexity, fat (cream) and sweetness. I use a Polder timer that, at the end of the interval, resets to the length of the interval. For example, if you time 30 seconds, it ends up reset to 30 seconds. This makes it easy to remember the length of the last infusion.

What interests me is Step #4: “Taste the results in a certain way.” After brewing the tea, I pour a little of it into a small glass. I have four of them. I pour the tea from #1 to #2 to #3 to #4. This greatly cools it, making it much easier to assess the taste. If you drink the tea before cooling, the heat is distracting. As soon as I started doing this, it was easy to see that short infusion times (e.g., 30 seconds) gave better results than long infusion times (e.g., 3 minutes) and that the tea could be used several times. I could easily distinguish between a brewing time of 30 seconds and 40 seconds.

Without Step #4, you (or at least me) are in very bad shape. Soon after brewing, the tea is too hot to taste clearly. The heat is distracting. Within a few sips, however, taste adaptation is so strong you cannot taste it clearly either. This is why I drank tea for 13 years without understanding what is going on.

With the particular black tea I am drinking now, the first 30 seconds or so of infusion releases a slightly-sweet tasting chemical. If I cold-brew tea, this is what it will taste like. After that comes more complexity but also more bitterness. All in all, I like more bitterness (not too much) and complexity, so I reduced the amount of tea from 2.5 g to 2.0 g and increased the first infusion time to 60 seconds. That produced better results.

For many years, in other words, (a) I brewed it wrong then added cream and sweetener to fix my mistake and (b) due to poor feedback I had no idea what I was doing. Does that remind you of anything?

11 Responses to “How to Brew Black Tea”

  1. peter spero (@guaif1) Says:

    years ago i read that it is unhealthy to steep tea for longer than 4 minutes because of the increase in oxalates, which can produce kidney stones. i couldn’t find anything directly on point, but there a ncbi article, here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23532418, Effect of different brewing times on soluble oxalate content of loose-packed black teas and tea bags.

    in addition, one article claims that “the majority of flavonoids (the health benefits of tea) are infused from the tealeaves to the brewed tea after about 4 minutes of brewing.” it also mentions the potential of kidney stone from oxalates. http://toxicfoodie.org/tag/black-tea/

    i suppose if i looked longer i’d find more, but i can’s spare the time right now.

    i rinse my green tea once to reduce the acidity (rinsing it reduces the number of P-H drops i add to the tea) , but try to brew it for no more than 4 minutes.

  2. Al Says:

    yeah. my career.

  3. TVG Says:

    I’d be careful drinking a lot of tea. Tea contains heavy metals that can accumulate to high amounts given how easy it is to drink large quantities of tea.

    See here and keep in mind the clearance time of heavy metals can be a month+: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jt/2013/370460/

  4. Sidney Phillips Says:

    I’d be careful drinking any variety of tea. Tea has been proven to be anti-androgenic. I looked into this after realizing I wasn’t losing any weight despite drinking 3-4 cups of Japanese matcha. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3739374/

    Also, any tea from China, organic or not, has been proven to have high levels of aluminum. Don’t have the time for the cite, but it’s out there. If you are going to drink green tea, make sure its from Japan. Adding some tamarind to the tea will reduce the fluoride. However, with the radiation accident ove there I’m not sure I’d even drink Japanese green tea now.

    I switched over from drinking green tea to yerba mate. As far as I can tell, mate doesn’t have the high levels of aluminum, fluoride, and lead that green tea has. Perhaps its because mate is cultivated in south america. Here is a good white paper on yerba mate: http://amambay.de/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Heck-Mejia-Yerba-Mate-Tea.pdf

  5. Ripken Holt Says:

    Do you drink coffee as well Seth? What are your thoughts on the bulletproof coffee recipe Dave Asprey has?

    Seth: No, I don’t drink coffee. I support adding butter to coffee, of course.

  6. Adam Says:

    Everyone always goes on about heavy metals in tea. I drank all kinds of tea for three and a half years, all day long almost every day. I was tested because one of my coworkers kept warning me and I started to get paranoid. Everything came back clean.

    Seth: thanks!

  7. Allan Folz Says:

    A friend got kidney stones from drinking too much green tea. Though, he drank quite a lot. I think a pint or a quart a day, and no other water. Not sure how long they took to develop. He was a young guy, in his early-40′s at the time, to have kidney stones.

  8. john Says:

    If I was a Chinese anthropologist at a Chinese university, I would find American food habits worthy of several PhD candidatures, including new export products potential .
    1. A want to take a beverage and if it did not hit a conditioned bliss point, add sugar until bliss point hit. If slightly astringent, add a mammalian calf food until it tastes like mammalian calf food.
    2. If taking tea , don’t examine the thousand years of knowledge and the billion plus people that it has succoured, find what can generate a concern and cause FDA approval and quality control import permits to be established and then create a patentable genetically modified plant so that leaves have not one atom of heavy metals .

  9. gwern Says:

    > Until recently, I made it the usual (Western) way. 1. Add hot water to tea. 2. Wait 3-4 minutes. 3. Add cream and sweetener. 4. Drink. 5. Throw away tea.

    What tea expert did you learn this from? Was this endorsed by any tea textbook you read?

    > Now I do this: 1. Rinse tea with hot water, discard rinse water. 2. Add hot water. 3. Wait short time (e.g., 30 seconds). 4. Taste the results in a certain way. 5. Drink. 6. Reinfuse tea for longer time (e.g., 45 seconds). And so on.

    This sounds similar to the Chinese gongfu style beloved of tea conoisseurs & experts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gongfu_tea_ceremony#Brewing), dating back who knows how many centuries (but not as far back as the _Classic of Tea_, according to this paraphrase http://www.teanamu.com/2010/10/lu-yu-classic-of-tea-chapter-5/ ).

    > For many years, in other words, (a) I brewed it wrong then added cream and sweetener to fix my mistake and (b) due to poor feedback I had no idea what I was doing. Does that remind you of anything?

    I dunno, this seems like a pretty clear cut case of laymen Doing It Wrong compared to the experts (when all your blog posts are trying to argue the opposite).

    Seth: I am unaware of any expert advocating Step #4. That is the important step.

  10. Adam Says:

    FWIW the black tea I drank earlier today said “Steep for at least 4 minutes” in the instructions. I promptly ignored the instructions.

  11. Bill Says:

    Wonder if the acne I get from black tea is just from bad brewing. I would leave the bag in for a long time, like an hour. These comments suggest that would result in high oxalate, which the interwebs suggests can cause acne and mouth sores.