Making tea seems simple enough.
You put the kettle on, prepare your cup with a tea bag of your choice and when the kettle sings and steams you pour the boiling water into the cup and wait for it to brew for a few minutes. Then you squidge the teabag against the side of the mug, add milk and sugar if you want and off you go.
Right? Not so fast, says Martin Isark, a professional food and drink taster. You should never use boiling water because it will make your tea taste “no better than cabbage water”, according to him.
Isark says the correct way to do it is to wait for the water to cool down to 80°C and explains that boiling water was originally used back in the day when it was necessary to make sure the water was safe to drink.
“It’s time to debunk the myth that you should use boiling water. Having the water too hot will kill the desirable nuances of tea and all you’re left with is a strong flavour of dry, astringent tannins,” Isark told the Daily Mail.
Not so fast, says Jessica Bonin, a tea expert and owner of Lady Bonin’s Tea in Cape Town. “The 80-degree rule is applicable to particular teas, not as a general rule of thumb.
“It’s important to understand that different varieties of tea come from different methods of processing. This is much the same as how all wine comes from grapes but tastes different based on where and how it’s grown, as well as how it’s processed,” Bonin explains.
The main varieties of tea are black, green, oolong, white and pu-erh, and the variety of tea determines the water temperature requirements. “For example, a Japanese sencha green tea would require a different water temperature to that of a Chinese gunpowder green tea. A roasted oolong prefers hotter water to a non-roasted oolong. Darjeeling black tea needs much cooler water compared to an Assam black tea,” she says.
Bonin also explains that there’s a difference between teabags and loose-leaf tea. “I liken tea bags to instant coffee and loose leaf to roasted coffee beans. Martin Isark’s statement would be the same as arguing that water temperate affects instant coffee (which it doesn’t) the same way it affects roasted beans (which it does),” she adds.
The only consistent time to apply the 80-degree rule is with green tea, whether it’s a teabag or loose tea, according to Bonin. “That bitterness we experience with green tea is due to the water being too hot or the tea being steeped for too long. The bitterness in green tea is undesirable, but with black tea, we’re looking for the tannins in the way of strength, and therefore a hotter water creates a stronger flavour. If you prefer a weaker tea, you then use cooler water or steep the bag for a shorter period,” she says.
For her the perfect way to make a cup of tea is entirely relative to each individual. “After a decade of travelling the world in search of tea, traditions and practices, I’ve come to learn that while different teas have specific guidelines to optimise the best flavour potential, it all boils down to preference,” she adds.
She says her grandmother was the first person to alert her to the magic of tea. “She was by no means an expert, but she understood the key ingredient was love. As a final tip, to make the best cup of tea requires you to pour every ounce of love into that cup.”
And then your cuppa will really overflow.