In this article, in three parts, I will introduce first the basics to know for the preparation of Japanese tea, especially sencha, then more specific unusual brewing experience with boiling water, and finally, a most sensitive, close-to-the-leaves visual method.
Let’s start with the prerequisites, which seem obvious, but still deserve to be remembered. Before you even think about how to make a cup of tea to get a good result, you must:
1. Use a quality tea!
2. Use water that does not come to spoil the quality of the leaves. Without going into the details of tea water, say preferably a low mineralized water, but above all water that is not a carrier of parasites odor (chlorine, etc.).
3. Use accessories that are suitable (teapot, or other). Accessories must be properly maintained, wash after each use with boiling water. Next, do not close the lid until the pot is not completely dry, etc. It is also preferable to use a pot whose volume is not too larger than the volume of water used. etc.
I. The basic principles
Once conditions above are met, how to prepare tea?
- What amount of leaves/water ?
- What temperature for water?
- How long?
are the three key issues. This is here the classical explanation that we, Japanese Tea Instructor, are supposed to teach.
Each tea is different, one tastes and preferences too, the moments and moods too … well, there is no magic recipe.
However, for each major Japanese tea category, we can state a basic brewing method, but I would describe not rule, but basic, starting point to experiment and come up with something that suits us at a given time.
So let’s go for sencha, by far the most common Japanese teas:
– 3g / pers. (A little more in the case of a single person)
(4-5g when brewing one cup ; 6 for two cups, 8 for three cups)
– 70-80 ml of water
– 70 ° C (increase for subsequent infusions)
– 30s – 2min (the more the leaves are thin, broken, the more the infusion time may be short)
With this method, if one is not mistaken too much on the steeping time, in general we obtain a satisfactory result, sometimes excellent, but often it will bring its small modifications to adapt to the tea, and obtain the most to your taste liquor. For this, there are simple principles to understand. Here they are presented schematically by each parameter.
A. Water temperature
Whether to retain only one thing is this: the molecules responsible for the tea mellowness / umami (amino acids such as theanine) diffuse into the water almost equally regardless of the water temperature, while those that are responsible for the astringency (tannins such as catechin) begin to infuse significantly only from 70 °C, and rapidly above 80 °C. So, the more water is hot, the more the tea get astringent, conversely, the more water is lukewarm, tepid, the more tea is mellow.
That’s the base. But you have to think a little bit further. If such water is used at 50 ° C, will not have a bit of astringency, only sweetness, certainly, but also so much less aromas diffused in water and much less taste.
*** If a low-temperature water is used, the loss in taste must be offset by a long brewing time and / or a larger amount of leaves. The result is a strong, mellow tea, often with a very long finish.
*** With very hot water, one must lower the brewing time and / or the amount of leaves. The result is a dense and rich tea taste, and balance of sweetness and sharp astringency. A refreshing liquor. And also fragrance is enhanced.
In the details, many combinations are possible. We have three parameters that combine.
Following is just a different way of approaching things but finally say the same thing.
B. Leaves quantity
Here it is very simple, the more leaves quantity is important (ie the less water is used), the more the tea will be strong.
*** A lot of leaves are used. To avoid a too strong brew, too saturated with flavor, will brewing time and / or temperature of the water must be lower. Usually, basic infusion time is kept, or even longer, and much lower temperature water is used. This is what is done to the highest quality teas, to enhance mellowness.
*** Few leaves are used. To avoid to get an insipid tea, increase the infusion time and / or increase the temperature of the water.
You can still return the problem.
C. Brewing time
As the quantity of leaves, this variable affects the strength of the taste of the tea. The longer we wait, the more the tea will be strong.
*** Shorter brewing time. We must use a lot of leaves and / or hot water.
*** Longer infusion time. We use less leaves and / or a less hot water, the latter solution is often the most obvious.
– The infusion time also has a very important influence on subsequent infusions. The longer is the brew, the more leaves lose their potential.
That’s why we raise the temperature over the infusions (at this stage, the amount of leaves is a variable that cannot be changed anymore). In the case of Japanese tea, once the leaves opened, taste spreads quickly, so increasing the infusion time on the second, is not appropriate, and indeed often poured immediately. By contrast, the third infusion need, in addition to the hotter water, longer steeping time.
In short, if we think that the second infusion lacking in flavor, it can sometimes be a good idea to think about reducing the time of the first brew.
– The way in which water is poured on the leaves, as well as the way in which pours the tea also greatly influences the result.
Where the focus of the softness, it will be well advised to poor gently water on the leaves. In this way, leaves are not too stimulated by the movement of the water, and open only very little. Indeed, mellowness is found in the surface of leaves, while astringency are trapped deep in the leaves.
While you let the tea brew, stay patient, do not shake the pot.
Then comes the moment when the tea is poured into the cups. A soft and slow pouring method, prevent a too rapid opening of the leaves, thus favoring a clean tea. However, a quick pour, or better yet, inclining the pot several times, will give a stronger liquor, but also more astringent.
II. Experiments with boiling water
Now I would like to present some methods of infusions that are not basics method. These are very interesting extremes method with boiling water which break some ideas about sencha.
95 °C / 100 ml / 1 g / 3 min
This is the “very few leaves” pattern, compensated by very hot water and a very long time to brew.
The result is amazing, very light but not tasteless liquor, with a kind of deepness. It is a very refreshing tea, and easy to drink.
95 °C / 40 ml / 3 g / 5-10 s
Here, we are more adventurous, very few boiling water, for a short steeping time ! Result: First, an amazing sweet fragrance. Then the liquor is quite strong, but well-balanced and remains again very easy to drink.
We see as many things can be trying, though for beginners, I would first advise to experiment around the base.
Also, it should be noted that for this type of “extreme” parameters, a minimum quality is required, and that very broken fukamushi sencha is not adapted.
III. A general method base on leaves opening
The above “Quantities of leaves / water ; water temperature ; steeping time” principle is the classic speech, a recipe not so difficult to understand, but some still put off some, particularly because of the issue of water temperature. In fact, with this type of recipe, the more difficult to judge is not so much the temperature (cooling down water is actually simple and fast), but definitely the brewing time. Indeed, for the same water / leaf ratio with the same temperature, depending on the condition of tea leaves used (big whole leaves or very broken leaves with much powder, etc), the brewing time in order to obtain a well-balanced taste could vary from simple to triple.
Here again for sencha (which also work for tamaryokucha, kama-iri, may be less for gyokuro) a method that still provides a good tea without having to practice all kinds of parameter variations.
Keep in mind “the more water is hot, the more the tea will be astringent”, but first let’s think about what is one of the stronger particularity of Japanese tea : the famous ”umami” mellowness. It is most concentrated at the surface of the leaves, and as you go into their heart, that is, the more they open, the more you have astringency.
We could simply control the brewing time according to the opening of leaves. As the leaves opening speed is faster if the water is warmer, no need to worry about the exact temperature of the water. Depending on the temperature of the water used, the timing of the opening of the leaves will tell us when pouring. Just need eyes !
Here more concretely how to proceed with the first brew.
Leaves / water parameters are classics for a cup, 4-5g of leaves and 70-80ml.
(** For two cups, we will 140-160ml of water, and in this case, will be sufficient 6g, 8g in the case of three cups, no change for these basics)
For water, I would say it is a little each according to his method and equipment. I boil water and then poured into a thermos. After that, if we can judge by eye the amount of water for a cup, we may pour directly into the pot, if not, use a cup to dose.
(No warm the teapot).
Ideally, it is best to use a very large open teapot to observe the opening of the leaves.
The timing for the first infusion is when the leaves are opened to around 20-25%.
With good timing you get a successful first liquor so that others should go like clockwork … yes, yes, you’ll see.
So for the second infusion, what to do? The leaves are already a little open and lost most of their sweetness, we must fill that void with other flavors, so warmer infusion.
I say a “warmer infusion”, not “hotter water”. The water that we will pour will be at the same temperature as that used during the first infusion, the important thing is the temperature in the teapot. Here, tea leaves are still warm from the first infusion, so using the same water, the infusion will be a little warmer.
Here, the timing is very simple: you pour hot water into the pot and then you pour the tea into the cup immediately.
At this level, a few seconds brew only and leaves are clearly more open already.
For the third brew, we must wait a little more. This time the timing is a little trickier. Just before the leaves are all fully open, say 3/4 open.
(** using or not an intermediate container, pouring hot water from a higher or lower point, put the cover or not, etc., are all things possible to obtain a higher or lower temperature in the teapot)
Finally, the fourth infusion a little longer yet.
The leaves will be fully open.
Depending on the timing of successive infusions, it is of course possible to go for 5 infusions, especially with a high-quality tea.
Also, it is quite possible to start with a first infusion with cold water (you will see that it may be about 5 minutes for the leaves to open 20%)
My explanations above might be a bit obscure, but here are the two only points to do:
1. Check how the leaves open
2. Have for each successive infusion a higher temperature in the teapot.
and that’s it.
This method does not promise to make the best of each teas, but never miss an infusion. However, it limits:
– Difficult to apply to teas that are too powdery like some fukamushi.
– Suitable when you make all infusions over a short period of time.
Finally, with this method, we understand very well the interaction between the different parameters explained in the first part of this long article.
For example, with the same tea, one can imagine different timing for the first infusion based on the same leaves opening level:
– Iced water → teapot : 5 min are necessary
– Kettle → thermos → cup → teapot: 1 min 30 sec
– Kettle → thermos tea → teapot : 1 min
– kettle → teapot: 10 s (one of my extreme example in the second part)
One last point just in case: To avoid unpleasant aromas, it is important to let the leaves open up themselves, so do not shake the pot! (Except perhaps a little in the case of an infusion with cold water when the leaves are floating on the surface).