The length of time you steep your tea for is one of the most crucial elements when it comes to making the perfect brew for you. If you steep your tea for too long, you’ll end up with a sharp and bitter tasting cup. However, steeping your tea for too short a time, could leave you with a drink that is weak and lacking in flavour. To make things even more interesting, different types of teas require different lengths of time to steep to bring out their best flavour and maximum benefits. So, just how long should you steep your tea for? And does using hot or cold water make a difference when doing so? In order to even begin to understand the intricate art of steeping, let’s first have a look at the science behind it.
The science of steeping
Steeping is a method used to extract the flavours and beneficial chemical compounds from the solids used to make tea. When tea leaves are submerged into hot water, the compounds within them are released via a process called osmotic diffusion. This happens when there is liquid on both sides of a selectively permeable membrane, such as the tea leaf. The different chemical compounds within the tea will diffuse into the water at different rates according to their molecular weights. For example, the chemicals that contribute to a tea’s aroma and flavour will dissolve the fastest due to their light and volatile nature. The antioxidants and caffeine within the tea will then be the next chemical compounds released during this process. Finally followed by the heavier flavanols and polyphenols such as tannins, which infuse with the water and are responsible for a tea’s bitter flavour.
Why steeping times are important
Caffeine content: If a highly caffeinated cup of tea is what you are looking for, then you should remove the tea leaves after about 3-5 minutes, as this is roughly the amount of time needed for the maximum amount of caffeine to be steeped out of the leaves and into your brew.
Flavour profile: If a delicate and sweet cuppa with a beautiful floral aroma is the brew you desire, then you don’t need to steep your tea leaves for very long. Geraniol and phenylacetaldehyde are some of the first compounds to break down in a tea. These are the chemicals responsible for giving the tea it’s floral scent. Linalool and linalool oxide will also be released during this period to give the tea its sweet flavour.
However, if a strong and unsweetened tea is what you want, then steeping your tea for a couple of extra minutes than you usually would, will release the tannins within the tea that give it a strong and bold flavour profile. The pigments within the leaves will also be released as well, meaning the darker your tea is in appearance, the stronger it will be.
When it comes to herbal teas, you can steep the leaves for as long as you like. Drinkers can be more liberal with their steeping times due to the high volume of aromatic compounds and low level of tannins within the tea, that prevent you from achieving a bitter tasting brew because you have steeped the leaves for too long.
Health benefits: The findings of a study published in the journal Beverages in 2016, saw that the beneficial compounds within a tea were extracted within the first five minutes of steeping the leaves. As a result of releasing these beneficial compounds into your brew, an analysis of multiple tea-related studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology in 2015, found drinking three cups of tea a day can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by 27%, cardiac death by 26%, and mortality by 24%. The Polyphenolic antioxidants found in tea have been said to also help protect against liver disease, diabetes and even depression.
Why water temperature is important
Hot water steeping: Having a higher water temperature increases the kinetic energy, encouraging the compounds within the tea to be released at a faster rate. When steeping black and herbal teas for example, using hot water is the most efficient way to extract their beneficial compounds without also compromising their flavour. This method of steeping is also ideal with regards to caffeine content, because using hot water also increases the volume of caffeine extracted from black tea and infused into your brew. However, with green tea being the most delicate tea, using boiling hot water when steeping it will usually have a negative overall impact on the flavour, appearance, and aroma of the tea. A guide for steeping different teas using hot water can be found below:
Tea Time Temperature
White tea 4–5 minutes 175°F (79°C)
Green tea 3–4 minutes 175°F (79°C)
Oolong tea 3–5 minutes 195°F (91°C)
Black tea 3–4 minutes 195°F (91°C)
Herbal tea Up to 15 minutes 212°F (100°C)
Cold water steeping: While steeping teas in cold water does require you to invest more time into the process, it’s still incredibly simple to do and the results are definitely worth the wait. As mentioned earlier, with green teas being the most delicate of the bunch, this process is ideal for steeping them. Using this method means that you avoid the risk of over steeping your tea, which releases the tannins it contains, and leaving you with a harsh and bitter tasting brew. Steeping tea in cold water has also been found to yield a higher volume of antioxidants from the leaves than steeping them in hot water. The data from one study found more polyphenols were extracted and retained from steeping at 40°F (4°C) for 12 hours, than steeping for 3-4 minutes using hot water. A guide for steeping teas using cold water, also known as cold brewing, can be found below:
White tea 6 – 8 hours
Green tea 6 – 8 hours
Oolong tea 8 – 10 hours
Black tea 8 – 12 hours
Herbal tea 12 – 14 hours
So now that you have a better understanding of how key steeping time and water temperature is when making your brew, it’s time to try it out for yourself. You’ll need to do a bit of experimenting of your own to find out what methods and timings work for you. Why not check out our diverse catalogue of loose leaf teas to get you started?