Brew Facts and Terminology

            Darjeeling Tea Field                         Photo by Jack Strand

At Strand Tea Company we field a lot of questions regarding tea terminology, brewing and general tea-drinking guidelines. In an effort to answer the most frequently asked questions while providing a larger context for them, we’ve assembled these FAQ’s.


What is the difference between regular and herbal tea?

When people refer to "regular tea" they typically mean Black, Oolong, Green, or White tea made from the leaf of the plant, camellia sinensis, grown principally in China, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Africa and other subtropical mountainous areas around the world.

According to legend and ancient literature, "tea" was first discovered by the Chinese Healer, Shen Nung, about 2737 B.C. when a leaf from the wild camelia sinensis plant fell into boiling water. By about 725 B.C. Ch'a, tea in Chinese, was a part of daily life in many parts of China. In 805 A.D. tea was introduced to Japan, and in 1610 tea reached Europe via Dutch traders. At the St. Louis World Fair in 1904 iced tea was invented and in 1908 a tea merchant in New York inadvertently made the first tea bag.

Herbal teas, properly called "herbal tisanes", are brewed from the roots, stems, bark, leaves and flowers of other plants, many of which taste good and/or have reported health benefits. Herbal teas are at least as old as "regular" tea, and have been an important part of cultural experience. Most modern medicines are distilled from herbal plants, or copied from nature in the form of synthetic compounds.

How does water temperature and length of steeping time affect tea?

Each type of tea has its own character and responds best to different water temperatures and length of time brewed. If brewed differently than recommended, the flavor may be underdeveloped or too strong. A strong tannic quality can emerge if over-steeped, which ruins a good cup of tea. To obtain a stronger brew, add more tea, but use the same water temperature and brewing time as you otherwise would.

General Water Temperature Guidance:

Black Teas and Herbals - Most all use boiling water. Some black teas - use 'off boil' at about 205-207 degrees*
Oolong Teas: We prefer 'off boil' for most of them.
Green and White Teas: Never ever use boiling water! Use 170-180 degrees.**

*'Off Boil is easily achieved by letting the water boil, then take it off the heat and let stand for 30 seconds or so until the rolling boil calms down.

**170-180 degrees can be achieved as water is heating up. Look for the 'strings of pearls' a Chinese lyrical term for tiny strings of bubbles starting on the bottom of the water boiler/tea kettle and rising all the way to the top.

Is there caffeine in tea? How does it compare with coffee?

Caffeine is an element of tea, and other plants, which acts as a central nervous system stimulant and promotes digestion. All types of tea contain caffeine, however the amount of caffeine varies according to the way in which the tea leaves are processed. Green tea contains the least caffeine, Black tea the most, and Oolong falls in the middle range. A cup of Green tea (6 oz) contains 8 mg of caffeine. A cup of Oolong tea contains 12.50 mg of caffeine. A cup of Black tea ranges from 25 - 110, depending on the variety. Coffee generally contains 60 - 120 mg of caffeine.

Caffeine in tea metabolizes differently in our bodies than caffeine in coffee. Caffeine from coffee is quickly absorbed, thus producing an immediate cardiovascular response, whereas caffeine from tea is more slowly metabolized, probably due to other compounds in the beverage which are thought to slow down the absorption rate. Caffeine is water soluble and released from tea leaves in the very first part of the brewing process. To remove most of the caffeine from tea, brew the tea as normal, then pour off the liquid, add new hot water to the wet leaves, and brew for the usual amount of time. The flavor of any second steeping is less than that of a first steeping.

How does water quality affect tea?

Water is the major constituent of tea and greatly affects tea quality. This fact was well known even in ancient China where tea masters sought water from specific mountain springs to brew their tea. In Europe, tea was blended, in part, to adjust to regional water qualities. To achieve the best taste from tea, use spring water or filtered water.

Explain the differences between Black, Green, and Oolong tea. Why are they so different?

There are actually White, Green, Oolong, Black teas. All tea comes from the plant camellia sinensis -the difference between the types of tea relates to the way in which the leaves are processed.

White teas are fairly rare, and often used for special occasions or ceremony. New tea leaves are plucked from the plant and allowed to wither and dry in the shade. They produce a pale, delicate infusion the color of straw.

Green teas are considered non-oxidized, as the leaves are "withered", or dried until limp and pliable, in the shade then heated until fully dry to prevent their natural oils from interacting with air. The heat source can be the sun, a warm air source, or "pan fried" in a wok or hot roasting pan. In China, a few teas are steamed as well. The leaves are rolled after they become moist, and then re-heated or left to dry. Green teas, high in antioxidants, taste fresh and grassy and must be brewed in cooler water for a limited amount of time in order to achieve the best flavor.

Oolong teas are known as "semi-oxidized". Leaves are plucked and immediately processed through placement in direct sunlight. They are then lightly bruised through shaking in a bamboo basket in order to release some of the natural oils. At a certain point, judged by the tea master, the natural oxidation process is halted by "firing", quickly heating the leaves until they are dried.

Black teas undergo four basic processes: 1) withering,2) rolling and bruising of the leaves to release natural oils, 3) allowing the oils to interact with air for varying amounts of time turning the leaf copper to red in color, then 4) "firing" quickly at very hot temperatures to stop the oxidation process and fully dry the leaf. This last step of "firing" turns the leaf black.

Tea "gardens" or estates are often a century or more old with regional differences in soil, climate, altitude and growing techniques producing variations of tea leaf. When and how the leaf is plucked and processed, grading of the leaves, blending, transportation, storage, and packaging all affect the final taste. Most tea experts agree that whole leaves kept fresh by proper storage make the best teas.

I have heard that there are beneficial components in tea. What are they?

A number of plant compounds have been found in tea, including amino-acids, minerals, caffeine, and the largest group of all - polyphenols. In the group of polyphenols are flavanols (catechins) responsible for the flavors and aromas of tea, and "antioxidants" which are known for their role in health. Green tea has the highest percentage of antioxidants, however, all teas have some of these helpful chemicals. For a short summary article on the health benefits of tea, see our Tea and Health page.

What is meant by the terms "nutraceutical" and "phytochemical"?

Phytochemical has an accepted definition in science related to "phyto" from plants and "chemical". The biologic activities of plant compounds, or phytochemicals are a main focus of health research.

Nutraceutical is a more interesting and newer word in the health literature seeming to be a combination of "nutrient" and "pharmaceutical". This broad term is usually used to describe plant properties thought to have beneficial health effects. Medicinal compounds, i.e. drugs and medications, are highly regulated in the United States by the US Food and Drug Administration. Nutritional supplements are not regulated by government entities as yet, although there are industry standards for quality of product. "Nutraceutical" has apparently found a political middle ground for the time being.

Do you brew large quantities of tea differently that a cup or two at a time?

Tea is a versatile beverage and can be brewed in any quantity as long as the ratio of tea is consistent. For most teas, one heaping teaspoon of tea to 6 oz of water is the ratio to follow. Some folklore recommends "a teaspoon per cup and an extra for the pot". Also, always remember to brew the teas for the recommended time.

How do you brew good iced tea? How is "clouding" prevented?

There are a few ways to prepare good iced tea. The most common is to prepare the tea as one would for a pot of strong hot tea, let it cool to room temperature, and serve over ice. By making the tea stronger, it can be diluted to taste with ice.

There is always the famous "sun tea" on a nice summer day. Put tea to taste in a clear jar, and let sit in the sun until it reaches the desired strength.

Some tea leaves (Ceylon, and China Black for example) don't cloud when iced. Allowing the tea to cool down before refrigeration or icing also prevents "clouding" (when the color of the tea turns murky and opaque) . Though cloudy tea does not taste different, the aesthetic appeal of clear tea is usually preferable. Iced tea is often served with a citrus or mint garnish. It is also good mixed to taste with some fruit juices. Don't forget that many herbal teas are also good iced.

Is there any reason not to heat water for tea in a microwave oven?

Water heated in a microwave oven tastes "flat" and does not brew tea as well as water heated in a kettle. In a microwave water does not reach the boiling point, and in addition, it heats from the outside towards the inside, so only the outside 1" or so gets really hot.

We strongly discourage brewing tea in a microwave, though we have witnessed such practices. Using a tea bag and microwave is probably the absolute worst way to make tea.

Why are most of your teas available only in loose tea?

Loose leaf teas simply offer the best variety, quality, and freshness. While the tea bag is convenient and some good tea can be found in tea bags in Europe, it is most often blended highly and goes stale much more quickly than loose tea, because it is "cut and sifted" to make it ready for the bag. The smallest leaf particles, grades such as "fannings" and "dust" are used in tea bags allowing the tea to brew quickly and strongly, but also making it difficult to keep fresh. Herbal teas in bags have different properties, but still are subject to going stale faster than loose leaf teas.

Making great loose leaf tea is no more difficult than coffee. Brew the recommended time and separate the leaves from the infusion by pouring off into your cup, another pot, or carafe.

If you do use tea bags, we recommend their use within a three month time period of opening the package to assure the highest degree of flavor possible.

What is the best way to store tea?

Tea is adversely affected by: air, light, moisture, and odor. To keep it as fresh as possible we recommend storage in an airtight earthenware or glass container kept in a cool dark place. Tea is best when it is fresh, so buying amounts you would normally use within a six month time period is best. Tea can retain its aroma up to two years, but the fresher the better for taste.

Japanese green tea is even more subject to going stale and is traditionally used within three months.

Is there a way to transport your tea to work and other places away from home? How can I brew loose tea when I am traveling or away from home?

How about a Tea Tiger!

                           Photo by Jack Strand    Cupping Tea - India 2015