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Brewing Better Tea

Leaves and water—that’s all it takes to make good tea. You can make the practice more complicated if you want, but when budding drinkers ask me what they need to start making better tea for themselves, this is where I tell them to start. Find good tea leaves, and brew them in water you’d be happy to drink on its own. Tea is a drink with a few thousand years of tradition and innovation behind it. It helps to begin with the basics.

Here’s a roadmap to help you figure out the rest, whether you’ve never made loose-leaf tea before, or you’re the kind of tea drinker who sets a monthly brew budget. Tea has a fractal quality—you can always dive deeper and find a new layer of fascination—but when made with care, even a homely cup can be deeply rewarding. The trick to finding those rewards is to set the flashy gadgets aside so you can get up close and personal with the leaf itself. You learn the most about tea—about any drink, really—when experiencing it through the fewest filters.


Here’s a hot tea service idea, straight from a Pinterest board in Tang Dynasty China. In the 8th-century book The Classic of Tea—likely the first major text on tea ever written—this
method of “bowl brewing” is described as a common way for rich and poor alike to take their tea. It couldn’t be simpler: Warm a wide bowl (or mug, or bottle, in more recent centuries) with hot water, pour it out, then place a good pinch of tea leaves inside. Add more hot water until the bowl is about two-thirds full, let the leaves unfurl and sink to the bottom for a few minutes, then drink. Your upper lip and teeth become the filter as you sip. Top with more hot water as needed, until the tea turns too bitter or fades out.

Variations on this method remain wildly popular in China. It’s fast and easy, and it literally gives you an unfiltered taste of the brew. Quality teas will withstand several refills, slowly changing the drink’s character. And even if you’re drinking casually, it’s an intimate experience, you and your tea bowl and nothing in between. You’ll probably miss some leaves at first. Pay them no mind and enjoy the snack. Tea leaves taste good.

This method isn’t ideal for every kind of tea—slender Japanese green tea leaves and many Indian styles can steep too quickly this way, becoming bitter—but it works great with just about everything else.

For beginners, a kettle, loose-leaf tea, and a proper tea bowl serves as a great start.

Kettle A Japanese cast iron kettle, called a tetsubin, elevates any tea setup, but all you really need is a kettle that gets reliably hot and gives you fine control over the pour. Stagg, OXO, and Bonavita make quality electric ones with precise gooseneck spouts. Some of those can be programmed for a variety of temperatures, which is neat, but less of a necessity than many companies make it out to be.

The Tea Larger loose-leaf teas are best for bowl brewing, as they’re less likely to get stuck in your teeth. Fluffy greens and whites are ideal, since the wide bowl cools the water down quickly. But a ball-rolled oolong or wiry Earl Grey would also do well here.

Tea Bowl Any wide, thin-rimmed bowl you like in the 6- to 8-ounce range is perfect for this, as is a plain coffee mug. But there’s no denying the aesthetic pleasure of cradling a well-made bowl designed specifically for tea. The Japanese company Yunomi offers a wide range of these beautiful chawans, which are also called matcha bowls.


Leaves in a bowl is an intimate experience, but at some point you’ll want to strain them. This is the next step in brewing: controlling the duration of a steeping for a more precise cup.

British and American methods treat tea leaves like coffee, using a relatively small amount of leaf for a relatively large volume of water, squeezing everything out of the tea for one big brew. Many traditions from China, Japan, and elsewhere are about the inverse: a high proportion of leaves to water, steeped relatively briefly, then re-steeped again and again. The individual servings of tea are much smaller, just a few ounces, but they add up over a session, and you’ll be amazed at how much more you taste in your tea by trying this method. That’s because there’s literally more “stuff” dissolved in the cup; the tea is fuller and more vivid. Each steeping becomes a cross section of the tea’s arcing trajectories of flavor, aroma, and body. That could be just two or three steepings for some teas, or more than a dozen for others.

Again, this is really about method more than tools, but the appropriate teaware helps. A Chinese gaiwan is simply a small bowl, about 4 ounces, with a lid that can be tilted to act as a strainer. It’s versatile and elegant, though it comes with a bit of a learning curve. A Japanese kyusu is easier to work with. Most range between 8 and 16 ounces, and have a filter built into the spout. Their handles are usually set perpendicular to the spout, rather than behind, which helps for a more precise pour. Some proportionally sized cups complete the setup.

For the intermediate tea enthusiast, a Kyusu and teacups are a great upgrade.

The Tea You can brew just about any tea in a kyusu or gaiwan. Japan is a nation of green tea, and kyusu are ideal for brewing it, but also try roasted oolongs, delicate Darjeelings, or compressed cakes of pu-erh.

Kyusu Look for a kyusu with a wide opening, all the better for adding and discarding tea leaves. I prefer ones with the filter built directly into the spout rather than removable basket inserts, to give the leaves greater room to unfurl. The handmade kyusu from Brooklyn importer Kettl are stunning works of functional art that will make every pot feel like a ritual.

Teacups A beautiful teapot deserves cups to match. Asian teacups tend to be much smaller than American mugs—remember, you’re going to steep this tea several times, not just once—which helps the tea cool off faster so you can drink it right away. The Taiwan-based potter Emilio del Pozo makes cups worth passing down to your grandkids.


Remember that fractal quality we talked about with tea? There’s always another layer to explore. Some drinkers bust out a pharmacist’s gram scale to precisely measure tea leaves, and time brews with a stopwatch. Others hack their water supply, selectively adding mineral salts to make an ersatz spring water that improves the taste of their tea.

There’s no grand right or wrong here. But like any practice, there are some optional refinements you can add to your tea making to improve it in subtle ways. Unglazed pots made with clay from the mineral-rich mines of Yixing in eastern China have been used to brew high-class tea for centuries; the porous clay undergoes an almost alchemical reaction with the tea brewed inside, subtly rounding out its flavor. A simple but elegant bamboo tray catches stray drops of tea from staining your table, while providing an aesthetic centerpiece to your brewing. A small pitcher used for catching tea from the pot and decanting it into individual cups ensures that every drinker receives a brew of equal strength.

Collectively, these tools are often grouped under a Chinese method of tea making called gong fu cha, which roughly translates to “making tea with skill.” But gong fu cha isn’t really about the tools; it’s about using technique and know-how to coax the most out of a simple pot of tea, like a chef would with a scrambled egg. The tools are there to help along the way and to make the process a pleasurable one. The rest is up to you.

To take your tea game to the advanced level, consider handmade teacups, a Tixing teapot, trays and presentation dishes.

Handmade Teacups Teacups look like they couldn’t be simpler to make, but it’s deceptively difficult to fashion one that fits just so in your hands and against your lips. Song Tea in San Francisco has one of the loveliest collections of cups for tea in the United States.

Tea Tray A useful platform to organize your tea equipment, catch stray drips, and give some weight to a brewing setup. I’m partial to simple bamboo designs, which are durable, inexpensive, and handsome.

Sharing Pitcher If you’re making tea for two or more people and dispense the brew straight from the pot, the last cup you fill will have stronger-tasting tea than the first. A sharing pitcher, sometimes called a fairness cup, will ensure everyone gets a brew of equal strength.

Yixing Teapot Yixing clay teapots are collector’s items all their own. They’re also a market rife with frauds, so sourcing from a reputable seller is a must, and quality versions rarely sell for less than $100. Because of the pots’ porous interiors, brewers typically use different pots for different types of tea.

Tea Presentation Dish Take time to inspect your tea leaves before brewing, and take a good sniff along the way. This is pleasurable in its own right, and it gives your guests a chance to better glimpse the tea you’re taking the time to make for them. Any old saucer works for this of course, but you can also get a presentation vessel specially designed for the task.

Tea Storage Jar An attractive jar to hold on to some tea may seem like the height of frivolity, but hey, aesthetics matter, and you need an airtight container to store your tea anyway, so why not
one that looks beautiful on the table?

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