While multitasking, it is very easy to neglect a gaiwan or a glass of tea. As I have a habit of brewing tea in a gaiwan atop a chaxi while writing, editing, or answering emails, I often over-steep tea due to my preoccupied mind. So, I made it a practice (ahem, punishment) that anytime I overbrew tea, I must not toss it out. I must drink it.

The Background

This adventure is partially inspired by what I learned while I was enrolled in a course entitled “Tea: Science and Society” at my alma mater. In the course designed by Professor Dan Choffnes, we learned about the socio-cultural and historical origin of tea, its chemical composition, basics of brewing techniques, various teaware, world literature about tea, and much more. The classroom was within a science lab and each table had a kettle. Professor Choffnes encouraged us to brew tea to our desire throughout class. Our homework consisted of recording the tasting notes of teas brewed at various temperatures and durations. This simplification of the class doesn’t encompass the true delight of that learning experience.

In a guest lesson for the course, Dan Robertson, founder of World Tea Tour and Robertson Tea, spoke about the habits of professional tea connoisseurs. He facilitated a mock cupping session wherein selected teas were brewed at boiling temperature for three minutes (though professional cuppers brew them longer). Our job, he explained, was to identify the good characteristics of teas after it was over-brewed. The less imperfections the tea had, the better the quality of tea.

Green tea steeping in a gaiwan

At the time, I was an undergraduate with serious self-confidence issues. This exercise left a profound impression on me. I learned that imperfections could be something to be admired. 

Following the class, when I studied abroad in China for 13 months, I often frequented tea houses, shops, and gardens. I was intrigued by the intersection of the origin and the ceremony. Having grown up on a small farm in the rural south of the US, I was familiar with how difficult growing and harvesting any plant was. Seeing how tea was so integral to Chinese society deepened my respect for tea culture, the origin of the leaves, and the art of the ceremony.

My Observations

As a means of honoring the root of tea, I decided to indulge in an act of stubborn learning: That when I incorrectly brew tea, I must drink it. This is what I’ve learned: 

  • Green teas are the easiest to over-brew. Considering their delicate nature, using water that is either too hot or brewing for too long can immediately invoke unpleasant bitterness. Brewing green tea requires a delicate command of balance. It is a recurring lesson of mindfulness.  
  • Although white teas are delicate, they inhabit a wide range of beautiful tastes within and outside the norm of recommended brewing temperatures. Although white tea is typically recommended to be brewed at lower temperatures, I found that select white teas would reveal hearty flavor profiles when brewed with water above 90 degrees Celsius. Aged white tea cakes from Fujian and ancient growth yue guang bai (moonlight white tea) from Yunnan, when brewed patiently at higher temperatures, can blossom in unexpected flavors. 
  • Personally, I believe that overbrewing dark teas can be the most painful punishment. Overbrewed sheng’pu can inhabit an almost jagged taste: The sharp, metallic taste emits a high buzzing astringency. It’s one that leaves a tingle (not a tantalizing tingle like the ma-la numbing-spiciness of Sichuan, but a tingle nonetheless) over the tongue. Shu’pu, by comparison, when overbrewed can feel muddy on the tongue with its heavy weight.

These notes compiled from over-steeped teas range from conventional to organic teas. There have been rare, delightful instances when I steeped wild, hand-crafted tea for hours (or even overnight). Sometimes, the flavor felt enhanced by the extended steeping. 

Over-Brewing By Design

There are many times when traditional long brews are not considered over-brewings. Many tea shop owners I met in China would suggest taking used tea leaves to boil endlessly all day long; this tea was called “boiled tea.” And it maintained a subdued but rewarding taste. In many restaurants across China and in diasporic regions, a pinch of the same tea leaves will be placed in a communal pot and shared table after table, their flavor weakening over the day. This is frequently done with pu’er and jasmine green teas. 

My encouragement is that the next time you over-steep a tea, don’t toss out the contents. Give it a sip. What does it teach you?

Photo “brewing Mao Feng” is copyright under Public Domain to the photographer Markus Kniebes and is being posted unaltered (source)