Thursday, March 14, 2019

Why Does This Tea Taste Bad?

If you've only had tea that tasted too bitter, or flavorless, or musty, it doesn't mean you don't like tea. It could just mean you're not tasting the tea in the way it was intended! Every type of tea is different, and several factors can lead to creating a bad cup. 

The other night I had yet another bad tea experience at a restaurant, and it inspired me to write this post. The tea in question should have been vegetal and lovely, and instead I had something bitter and too astringent. Thankfully I knew the tea wasn't bad, it was just prepared incorrectly.

It doesn't matter if you're preparing the tea yourself, or if you're at a 4-star restaurant; if a tea is prepared incorrectly, it won't be at its best. So why does your tea taste bad?  Important factors such as the amount of leaf, steeping time, temperature, and quality will greatly change the flavor of your tea. 

Water Quality Can Change The Flavor
I'm lucky to live in the NYC area, and our tap water tastes great! It really does. I usually use filtered tap water for my tea. But when I travel to visit relatives upstate, I cannot use tap water to brew my tea, filtered or not. It tastes awful! So consider your tap water, and if that could be altering the taste. I'd suggest trying filtered tap water first, and also experimenting with bottled water to see if the flavor of your tea changes. If you'd like to read a little more about how water changes the flavor of tea, check out this great post by Rie from TeaCurious.

The Water Temperature
This seems to play a role in many restaurants. It's so important to tailor the temperature of the water to type of tea you're making. A delicate green tea isn't going to react well to boiling water, and a strong black tea may taste bland with water that's not hot enough. I've noticed most restaurants don't take the time to control water temperature. For example, when the water is too hot, green tea basically gets scorched and the tea turns bitter. You'll miss all the amazing flavors that a lower temperature can coax out of the leaves. Be sure to consult the packaging of your tea, it'll most likely indicate the temperature you should be using. Or a quick online search will tell you what you need to do.

The Water To Tea Ratio
This is another culprit of bad restaurant tea. I've been served pots of tea with an infuser filled to the top with leaves. In most cases, if you use too much tea and not enough water you're going to get a puckering, astringent, undrinkable brew. And of course, if you aren't using enough tea in a huge pot of water, you won't get much flavor. It also depends on your brewing style, but for Western brewing (in a teapot or mug with an infuser), be sure to consult the packaging. A typical ratio is usually a teaspoon of tea to a cup of water, but that's not an exact science and it greatly depends on the leaves.

The Steep Time
I'm guilty of over-steeping my tea most days when I'm at work. I'll start a steep, and proceed to check emails, get distracted, you know the deal. I really should be setting a timer (I use the timer on my phone) to remind myself. Over or under-steeping a tea will cause the flavor to be too strong, or obviously too mild and both will negate any nuances in the tea.

Are You Using A Tea bag?
Ok, first off, I'm not saying tea bags are bad. They're not! There are many good ones on the market, with quality tea inside. But many tea bags are just tea dust or very low quality leaves, which renders the brew unpleasant and flavorless. Another issue is the taste of the tea bag itself- you can easily be getting paper or even plastic notes in your tea. Definitely not tasty.

The Tea Itself
It's possible you're also using tea that is quite old and wasn't stored properly so it's turned stale. That'll make your tea taste, well, stale.  Or perhaps you stored the tea next to something quite odiferous, and it's taken on the less-than-pleasant smell. Tea also varies greatly in quality so I'd suggest trying other brands of the same tea type, you may find one you like better. Doing just a little bit of research about a tea will help you determine if you have something you don't like, or just a poor version of it.

Useful Tools for Better Tasting Tea
So, now you have the knowledge, but maybe you need a few things to get started. A variable electric kettle is a great way to control the temperature of the water. I've owned this one in the past, and it works really well. I also love this one. I've been drooling over this one for months (what, doesn't everyone drool over electric kettles??), and hope to acquire it at some point!

A pitcher with a water filter is a handy way to improve the flavor of your tea.

To measure your tea, you can use a teaspoon, but to be even more precise, a small kitchen scale is essential. I mainly only use mine when I'm tasting a tea for review or trying one for the first time, but if you use it you'll get the right amount of tea every time.

For Western-style brewing, be sure to have a teapot with a mesh strainer so you can remove the leaves at the proper time. There are hundreds to choose from but I love these cute little teapots, they are great for home or office steeping.

So, what do you think? Don't dismiss a particular tea (or all teas!) just because you didn't like it the first time. Of course it's possible it's just not for you, but give tea a chance, and make sure all of these important variables are correct. Chances are you'll have a much better cup of tea. There are so many types to try, so don't give up!

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