What is Black Tea?
Black Tea is a rich and robust brew made from fully oxidized camellia sinensis leaves. Many of us first experience black tea at hotel Continental Breakfasts or as iced sweet tea in the summer. As a result, black tea often gets a reputation for being dark and astringent with prominent tannins and a hint of bitterness.
When brewed with affection and purpose, whole leaf black tea actually produces a wide range of flavor profiles with differing levels of tannin, acidity, and even some natural malty sweetness.
If you're ready to explore the many flavors black tea has to offer, keep reading for the best way to brew black tea!
How to Brew Black Tea
The most important thing to remember when brewing tea is simply this: if it tastes good to you, then you brewed it right! That said, there are brewing best practices and some variables you can play around with to determine your perfect brew.
The three main variables in brewing tea:
- Amount of tea
- Water (temperature and volume), and
In Western-style brewing (how most cafes and home-brewers in the US make their tea), you have a rather large ratio of water to tea and a relatively long steep time. For traditional brewing, you use a smaller ratio of water to tea and steep for shorter periods of time. Neither way of preparing tea is more correct than the other, though you may find that you enjoy certain teas prepared in one style over another.
Western-Style Brewing (8 or more ounces of water)
To brew black tea in the Western-style, you will need:
- Teapot with infuser or mug with infuser basket
- Kitchen Scale (or teaspoon)
- 5 grams tea per 12-16 ounces of water (2.5 grams per 6-8 ounces water)*
- 205° F or 96° C hot water (preferably filtered)
Steps for Brewing Loose Leaf Black Tea (16 ounces)
- Choose your brewing vessel. We recommend a teapot with infuser / strainer or a basket infuser that sits in your favorite mug!
- Using a kitchen scale, measure 5 grams* of tea per 16oz of water into your basket infuser. (See: * for note on using a volume measure like a teaspoon.)
- Set your infuser of tea in your mug or teapot.
- Pour 205° F water over the tea leaves until your teapot or mug is full and the leaves are covered. We recommend using spring water or filtered water for the best taste!
- Set your timer for 3-4 minutes. Most black teas are excellent at 3 minutes. If you prefer your tea with a little milk and honey, you may want to steep for 4 minutes for a slightly more tannic brew.
- Remove your leaves and enjoy your tea! Resist the temptation to press on the leaves (especially if you are using a French Press!), as this will express the tannins and make your tea bitter.
- Re-steep your leaves 2-4 times, depending on taste and preference! Each time you steep, use 205° F water and steep for increasing intervals.
*A note on weight versus volume: If you don't have a kitchen scale, you can use a volume measure like our perfect teaspoon. Most black teas will be about .5 -1 perfect teaspoon per 8 ounces of water. Please keep in mind that volume is an imperfect measure, as more voluminous leaves will take up more space but weigh less. An example of this would be the rolled leaves of the Jin Die black tea versus the twisted leaves of the Yunnan Da Ye black tea. Both of these black teas are golden bud teas, but the rolled leaves of the Jin Die make it much denser than the Yunnan Da Ye, meaning you would need fewer teaspoons to reach the same weight measurement. You can see an example of this in the photo below!
Traditional Brewing (Gaiwan or Yixing Teapot)
To brew black tea in traditional teaware, you will need:
- Gaiwan or Yixing teapot
- Preferred black tea
- Small pitcher
- Small cup (or cups for sharing)
- 205° F hot water (preferably spring or filtered water)
Steps for Brewing Black Tea in Traditional Teaware
- Heat your water to 205° F and use some of the water to warm your Gaiwan or Yixing pot, pitcher, and cup.
- Discard the warming water.
- Fill your Gaiwan or Yixing approximately 1/3 full with tea.
- Pour 205° F hot water over the leaves. Replace the lid and set your timer. You may use the Gaiwan lid to "stir" the leaves a bit and remove any bubbles from the top of the liquid.
- Steep for 45 seconds to 1 minute.
- Pour off all the brewed tea into your pitcher, making sure to get all the liquid off the leaves.
- Serve your tea from the pitcher into cups and enjoy!
- Re-steep your leaves 5 to 6 times for 25 - 30 seconds each re-steep.
How to Brew Earl Grey (& Other Scented Black Teas)
As a general rule of thumb, all scented teas are brewed according to best practices for the base tea. In this case, the base tea is black tea, so you would use 5 grams of tea per 16 ounces of 205° F water and steep for 3 minutes.
We do not necessarily recommend brewing scented teas in traditional teaware, especially high-quality clayware from China and Japan. Clayware is perfect for brewing traditional teas because it becomes seasoned over time with tannins - much like a cast iron skillet or wok will be all the better for years of continued use. Because of this, however, we recommend brewing your scented teas in glass or ceramic so they do not affect the taste of the other teas you brew!
Is Boiling Water OK for Black Tea?
We recommend using hot, filtered water that is just below boiling for brewing black tea. Generally water that is at 205° F is perfect for brewing black teas, though some First Flush Darjeeling teas may benefit from slightly cooler water around 195° F. If you do not have a variable temperature kettle, you can boil your water and allow it to cool for about 30 seconds before brewing your tea! Alternately, you can use a candy thermometer and add cold water until you get to the desired temperature.
How Do I Know If I'm Using Enough (or Too Much) Tea?
A lot of guests in our store are surprised when we tell them our 2 ounce bags of tea should yield 20 to 25 first steep cups of tea. Why? Many of us are using too much tea!
This goes back to what we mentioned earlier about volume as an imperfect measure for tea leaves. Sometimes a tea is so dense that it doesn't really look like much, so you add more, and then your cup is way too strong. Others, the tea is so voluminous that you might not end up using enough and find your tea to be a little weak. In the photo above, all 3 jars hold 5 grams of tea, but you can see the volume in each jar is ever so slightly different!
Play around with your ratios of tea to water and find the mix that works best for you, and remember the rule of tea: what tastes good to you is the perfect brew!
How Much Caffeine Does Black Tea Have?
Black tea will generally have between 22 - 58 mg of caffeine per first steep cup, or about half the caffeine found in a cup of coffee. What may surprise you is that while there is not a significant caffeine difference between black tea and green tea, the way your body processes the caffeine is very different. For this reason, you are much more likely to feel the caffeine from the black tea quickly, whereas you will notice a steadier and more prolonged caffeinated feeling from green tea.
If you are looking for black tea taste but with less caffeine, you can try steeping your leaves for 30-40 seconds (in a western-style brew), then discarding that tea and steeping again for 3.5 minutes. Most caffeine is extracted in the first steep, so this will result in a tasty but less caffeinated cup! (Though it will not, of course, be entirely caffeine-free!)