Two things all tea gardens have in common are plentiful seasonal rainwater and well-drained soils. Although some tea farmers occasionally irrigate their plants, most tea is grown in regions where the climate provides sufficient hydration. The altitude of the mountains plays a very important part in healthy tea growth due to the mist and fog. The bushes need very foggy, pure air so that the leaves are wet throughout most of the morning. The water should not collect or pool, yet the plants require a continuous moistening of the root and leaf. If plants are grown at a lower elevation where it’s hotter and drier, farmers cannot depend on fog and therefore must spray or water their tea bushes. For this reason tea is generally grown in mountainous areas of 3,000 to 5,000 feet and on slopes with a 60- to 45-degree angle. The need for a balanced amount of sun, shade and water to produce a reliable harvest is why premium tea has been grown for thousands of years in the same locations.
A tea’s flavor characteristics can be flushed out and weakened by an overly rainy season. In addition, overly wet teas are difficult to process. However, not enough water can take away key flavor facets and make a harsher-tasting tea which is just as equally unsatisfying.
One of the most important elements involved in processing tea is removing water from the leaves. If the tea is not between four and seven percent moisture when picked, the producers will bring it down to that level before packaging. White teas are dried naturally or occasionally oven-dried to hasten the process. Green teas can be hand-fired on a log or pan-fired like Dragon Well. Processing oolong teas is an art. It is more complicated as they must be oxidized slightly, then baked at a high temperature and dried completely. If the tea is too wet overall, the leaves will become moldy. If only the outside of the leaves are dried and the inside is left wet, the tea will become brittle and also could develop mold. Besides being unattractive, mold destroys the taste of tea.
When preparing tea, water is just as important as the tea leaves. In fact, water represents more than 98 percent of the beverage. Water that contains some minerals favors the development of optimum beverage tastes. Ultimately, even if you start with one of the world’s finest teas, you may end up with a less-than-ideal beverage if you use an inappropriate brewing method or poor quality water. Nowadays in the urban environment water quality can vary seasonally and regionally.
Do not use distilled water to brew tea. It is necessary to use high-quality, filtered water without chlorine. The tea’s fragrance and taste can be vastly improved by the use of a simple Brita or Pur filter, which eliminates chlorine and diminishes greatly the water’s TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) content. A bottled spring water with a pH of 7 and TDS of 30 PPM or below is ideal.
Each type of tea requires special and different attention to the steeping time and temperature. A digital handheld thermometer is the easiest and most precise way to test water temperature. Temperature guidelines are variable and often debatable. Suggested brewing temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit are:
Water temperature decreases in direct correlation with the strength of tea being brewed. As black teas are the strongest, they require the hottest water. Whites and delicate green teas taste better when brewed with water at lower temperatures.
Tea has three components: essential oils, polyphenols and caffeine. The essential oils are what gives the tea its flavor and aroma profile. The hotter the water you use to steep tea, the more quickly the essential oils dissipate, causing the flavor and aroma to leave the cup. Avoid cooking the leaves and bringing the water to a rolling boil. Boiling the water leaves it devoid of the oxygen needed to steep a good cup of tea and can result in a flat and lifeless taste.
Preheating the teapot is an important step to brewing a good cup of tea. Simply swish a quarter-cup of boiling water in the pot for 10 to 15 seconds to warm it before steeping.