Books and blogs written by tea snobs have spent a great deal of real or virtual space discussing the proper temperature for tea water. They say that water for black tea should be heated to boiling, then allowed to sit for a minute until it cools to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. For oolongs, let cool 2-3 minutes (about 190 degrees); for greens, maybe 4-5 minutes (170-180 degrees) and for white, about 160 degrees. I read this at some point in my past, and ever since, I am really kind of obsessive about it. Some might say annoying. I even got a little thermometer, and put it in the water and watch it the same way someone watches a clock with no second hand when you are waiting for five minutes to pass.
While for me, measuring the exact temperature of the water has become a minor mania that’s just part of the whole ritual of tea (after all, tea is largely a ritual for obsessive people like me), there are times when the thought has crossed my mind: Does it really make a damn difference?
Last night I decided to test it out with two different types of tea. Call this Experiment Number 2 in my quest to make bad tea and figure out why. I took a bag of moderately OK green tea — can’t remember the brand but I bought it in the supermarket for about $3 for a box of 20 — and then took some White Silver Needle tea which I’ve had for a while. The Silver Needle is one of those expensive brands of loose tea which I never really got into because it doesn’t have enough taste.
I boiled a kettle of water, and when it was rolling, poured it right over both cups. Then I let it steep for too long, like 10 minutes.
Results: The cheap tea tasted fine. It didn’t matter that the water was about 40 degrees hotter than recommended. The White Silver Needle tea, on the other hand, tasted like pond scum. It was horrible. I dumped it out, wasting about $2 worth of loose tea.
So the lesson here is pretty simple: If you’re enough of a tea snob to buy loose green or white tea, follow the directions. If you’re only enough of a tea snob to buy the supermarket brands, don’t stress about it. It really doesn’t matter.