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A pot of Pai Mu Tan tea, a white tea which pairs nicely with fruit such as honeycrisp apples.

COLUMN: Zen and the art of tea brewing

The second most popular beverage in the world, explained

Imagine this, if you will: You’re over at a friend’s house, and they ask “green or black tea?” You pick green, but to your horror, you hear the kettle boiling and a few minutes later, you spend the next half hour sipping profanely bitter liquid and feigning enjoyment.

If you’re the friend in this scenario, don’t feel bad. I sat down with Shawn Whitehurst — who’s been with the New Mexico Tea Company for over eight years — and learned that there’s a lot that goes into making the perfect cup of tea.

Whitehurst said the tannin content in the final product makes a significant difference in the flavor of tea. Tannins are naturally occurring chemical compounds found in tea and other foods and beverages. Different types of teas release their tannins in different ways, which is why water temperature is critical for a smooth, enjoyable brew.

In the case of green tea, she said, leaves are intentionally damaged to allow for some oxidation to occur until the tea is heated.

“That sort of gentle damage to the leaf makes it incredibly quick to brew. If you put a green tea like that in a fully, freshly boiled pot and steep it like a black tea … what you would have is so many tannins in that cup of tea that it might even be undrinkable,” Whitehurst said. “It would just be so, so bitter.”

A general rule of thumb I use when heating water for tea is about 170°F for green teas, 180°F for oolong or white teas and a gentle boil for black or herbal teas.

Your tea supplier may give you special instructions regarding brewing temperature, the amount of tea leaves per cup and infusion (steeping) time, so be sure to ask or check the packaging for recommendations. If you’re making your tea iced, Whitehurst advised to increase your leaf-to-water ratio while keeping the steeping time the same.

Another component to consider is what’s in the water you’re using to make your tea. Whitehurst said she likes to pour tap water into a glass pitcher and let it sit for a while to let the chlorine in the water evaporate at room temperature. Water filters can also help to remove chlorine from tap water.

“Chlorine does rid itself from the water really quickly, and it’s just such a huge flavor difference if I drink immediately from the tap or if I let it sit out for 15 minutes,” Whitehurst said. “But you also really don’t want to use things like distilled water, because you do want minerals in your water when you’re brewing tea because minerals give something for the flavors to kind of bounce off of.”

To enhance a cup of tea even further, you can pair it with some food that complements its flavor profile.

“If (the food) is something sweet or rich, I’m more inclined to pair it with a pure, hearty black tea,” Whitehurst said.

For lighter, more fruity foods, an oolong or green can enhance the flavor without dominating the palate. My favorite food and tea pairing happens to be Pai Mu Tan, a white tea, with sliced honeycrisp apples.

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With all of these tips in mind, though, it's important that you experiment and figure out what works best for you. While many may not like the bitterness of an over-brewed tea, I personally know some people who prefer strong, bitter green tea.

“For brewing a cup of tea, your own personal preference is the most important consideration,” Whitehurst said.

Liam DeBonis is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @LiamDeBonis

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