Is the Same Tea Really the ‘Same’ Tea?

With the rush of new spring 2017 tea just a few short weeks away it’s a good time to discuss something which I think speaks to many tea enthusiasts – how to get the best tea for your money from a a crowded marketplace of variously priced teas that appear to be the ‘same’ thing.

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Tea producers have an equally daunting task of pricing each and every production run of tea, and in the case of Chinese green tea, for instance, an excess of warm weather can increase the speed with which tea leaf grows in the first few weeks of the harvest. When the weather fails to cooperate, the amount of time for plucking tender bud-only teas may quickly vanish, even before enough of these teas are made.

When this happens tea producers will switch to plucking the next leaf configuration known as a mao feng ( two leaves and a bud) and make tea with it. So the tea in the baskets at the end of the day in the tea factory may be a different pluck from what they had in mind at the beginning of the day. For all tea, the quantity produced as well as the quality of each batch will factor into the price of those batches of tea. So the price of the bud-only tea will reflect a shortage of that tea for the year.

yel-mengmt_sb2-03bea932And so it goes – adjustments to the plucking style are made each and every day as the leaf grows larger. This gives tea producers many choice teas with both small and large grades of differences to sell. Each small batch will most likely have a different price, too.

Tea merchants, on the other hand, have the equally daunting task of finding the right grades of tea to satisfy their customers. The retail cost of any tea is directly related to what the tea merchant paid for the tea, plus a small amount added in to cover freight costs. Tea merchants purchase their teas from a variety of trusted sources – some purchase directly from origin, others from tea importers of varying sizes (in the US) and others from wholesalers (in the US) who purchase teas from larger tea importers. This range of sourcing options can present tea merchants with a dizzying choice of tea in many grades and prices.

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So what savvy tea enthusiasts need to realize is this: all tea is not created equally, even when it has the ‘same’ name. Nor is all tea sold equally fresh and sound or from the same plucking season or year.While this may be quite obvious to some, we know from experience that there are plenty of tea drinkers out there who don’t see the correlation between grade and price, and erroneously believe that all tea with the same name is the ‘same’ tea.

Some tea merchants sell consistently high quality tea and others do not – it all depends on their attitude about tea and the teas they select. If you only frequent shops that sell low-priced tea and shun those you fear are over-priced, you may be cheating yourself out of drinking really good tea. Low priced tea will never be good value in the long run.

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There is frequent complaining in the tea-o-sphere about the price of tea. Of course, those who are complaining about price usually believe that all prices are too high and that every tea vendor is an evil devil who is out to flinch their tea customers. Honestly, while there is some pretty bad tea being bandied about the internet (and that is something to complain about at any price) and a few merchants who mark their tea up to atmospheric levels, the market is self-policing.

So those serious about staying in business know that today’s transparency on the internet will cast them in a poor light. So, overall, I think the problem is not as great as it is made out to be. I sometimes think that posts like the aforementioned are designed simply to attract readership and cause a tempest in the teapot. It’s a known fact that sensational reviews and posts that rant and rave attract more attention than less flammable opinion does. Grousing is in – in fact, it has now become a sport for some!

So rather than have customers fixate on price, we believe that tea enthusiasts should think more about how to get the best tea that their money can buy. Which is not the same as searching for the lowest price. As shoppers, we need to think more like investors, and expect for ROI – return on investment on our purchases.

Thin-Client-Return-on-InvestmentWhat is ROI on tea? Imagine that you purchased 4 packages of Keemun Congou tea from 4 different tea vendors. You steep each tea fairly and uniformly with the same steeping parameters, and rate the teas on the following points. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction that you received from each tea in relationship to the price is the ROI value. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction is a measure of:

  • satisfaction with the taste/flavor/aromatics in the cup
  • freshness of taste/flavor/aroma
  • degree of seasonal flavor characteristics
  • sound condition and good appearance of the leaf
  • tasty-ness in relation to price

Ideally, you want to find tasty tea at a price you can afford – the teas that give you, well, the best bang for the buck. You might end up deciding you prefer the most expensive tea, or if the most expensive tea is 2 x the cost of another selection but only a little bit better tasting, then the less costly tea may be the best ROI for you.

How to find teas with the best ROI? Our suggestion is to invest a little money in your future tea drinking this spring (when the fresh teas start arriving) and order the ‘same’ tea from several tea vendors. Do this with 3-4 teas and order the ‘same’ teas from at least 4-5 tea merchants. This will cost you a bit of money, but what you discover will be well worth it.

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After you conduct your steeping/tasting experiment, you will most likely find that there is a pattern to the quality of tea each tea merchant sells. Tea vendors position themselves quality-wise, so you will find that some tea will be great, and some, just so-so. Reliable tea shops maintain a discernible level of quality because they know what they want in their teas and stay true to these principles.

And this is what tea enthusiasts should look for – a tea shop or online tea vendor that has a well-thought out selection of good, sound tea that turns over seasonally and stays fresh because it sells. Because in truth, great teas do not pop up in unlikely places. Most know that Walmart is not the place to go to purchase handcrafted goods, nor is Whole Foods the right place to purchase distressed food.

The same holds true for tea. The shop that sold you some 2-year old green tea, and some saw-dusty black tea will not be the place to find a mind-blowing Fenghuang dan cong.Choose Two-Way Road Sign - Isolated

OK, so what factors do tea sellers consider (and you should think of these, too) when purchasing tea to sell? The factors that affect grade/price:

  • season of the year and time frame within the season for teas made in the same year
  • age and condition of the tea (if it is an aged tea)
  • the leaf pluck of the tea (bud most expensive; bud and leaf next most costly; bud and two leaves next most costly)
  • amount of hand-work involved in shaping and firing the leaf
  • condition of the leaf
  • quantity of that tea produced
  • the taste/flavor and aroma of the tea

Let’s again use Keemun Congou, a popular Chinese black tea, as an example. Most producers of Keemun sell their tea in 3 categories with 3 price points in each category for a total of 9 different grades of quality.

So, at the retail level the grade of Keemun will account for big differences in the price of the tea. The cost may double, triple or quadruple per kilo from common grades to the highest grade of premium Keemun.  Keemun  Congou has 9 grades for teas – this does not include other Keemun-related tea such as Keemum Mao Feng or Keemun Hong Xiang Luo, which have their own set of grades and price points. And tea workers like to show off their tea making skills by finessing more and more differences from those tiny tea leaves. So it is not uncommon for small batches of special production Keemun to be outside of the normal grading standards.

Tea producers usually assign letters or numbers to their grades such as Grade A or #1 Grade, but sometimes also use terms such as premium grade, superfine grade, Emperor grade, superior grade, etc. While these can be legitimate grades, these terms may also become diluted when they are used indiscriminately by some tea vendors. On the retail level many Keemun Congous are not sold with a known grade. If the specific details about different Keemun Congous are unknown, you should assume that these are most likely very different teas that merit the taste test to ferret out the best ones.

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Chinese spring green teas are manufactured in even more grades and price points, adding a greater level of complexity and confusion for consumers. But there are some clues given at will be of some help in evaluating the quality of spring teas, and these are:

  • season of the pluck (when plucked)
  • where the tea is from (place)
  • configuration of the pluck ( bud, mao jian, mao feng, etc)

Each spring, tea from the new harvest year is sold by tea producers in one of 4 categories based on seasonal divisions/pluck time. Sometimes these markers of pluck time are given for certain teas:

  • Pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian tea (plucked before April 5th)
  • Before the Rains or Yun Qian tea (plucked before April 20th)
  • Spring tea or Gu Yu tea (plucked before May 6th)
  • Late Spring or Li Xia tea (plucked before May 21st)

Each seasonal division has several grades of quality, too. The earliest plucked tea within the division and the most perfect leaf will be the most costly. For XiHu Longjing, a very famous and popular tea worldwide, there are four designated places where authentic Longjing (based on tea bush varietal) is grown: Shi Feng, Meijiawu Village, Weng-jia Shan and West Lake Village. Last year, the 8 grades of XiHu Longjing were listed, as well as the occasional special batch and competition-grade teas.

  • AAA Jing Pin: 100% bud and 1 leaf
  • AA Te Ji: 70% bud and 1 leaf; 30% 1 bud and 2 leaves
  • 1 st Grade: 70 % 1 bud and 2 leaves; 30% 1 bud and 1 leaf
  • 2nd Grade
  • 3rd Grade
  • 4th Grade
  • 5th Grade
  • 6th Grade

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Lastly, for an even more complex listing of grading/pricing, consider a very well-known
yan cha or rock oolong tea – Da Hong Pao. Prices for this tea can range wildly, as can its authenticity, proving a thorny issue for tea merchants. This is an example of last year’s production grades and not counting special small batches; traditional charcoal roasting or not; amount of roasting; new or aged tea; blends of Zheng Yan and Ban Yan, etc.:

Zheng Yan – core production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3

Ban Yan – close to original production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5

When purchasing yan cha (or dan cong) remember this: the best ones can cost $1,000 a lb or more in China so are never cheap. The highest grades never leave China. The older these teas are or the rarer the tea bush varietal from which they are made the more expensive they will be. And if these teas have been given a traditional charcoal-roast this will add to the cost as well. Much of the ‘Da Hong Pao’ that is sold in the West is actually Shui Xian – know your vendor!

OK, so before you throw up your hands and say ” What’s a tea drinker to do? ” remember, that the best way to find your way to a clearer path of discernment among tea is to do a little homework and taste a lot of teas to develop your palate.

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Keep notes in a book or on your smart phone and educate yourself about the teas you are drinking. Because purchasing tea is not as cut and dry as searching for a specific bottle of a favorite wine by a known producer or finding the brand of chocolate that you like, tea enthusiasts have more work to do to find the right tea vendor for their taste preference and pocketbook. However, once you do, the rewards are tremendous and are well worth the effort required to educate your palate for fine tea.

So, with a new tea season coming, it is time to revel in the fresh new teas that will soon be here. Use a little caution and look for ROI in your tea and you will feel that you have spent your money well for tea that is fresh, tasty and makes you feel good when you drink it. That is the best ROI that we can think of!

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Our Awesome Nepal White Tea

Nepal Himalaya White Moon Dance white tea

We work directly with Jun Chiyabari Tea Garden for the teas that we sell from their gardens each year. This tea really impressesd us with its brisk flavor and fresh, exhuberant aroma.

It is a stunning example of the art of tea making and a limited, seasonal pluck from a specific spring time frame. It is comprised of a very tiny leaf and bud. This tea was made just a few weeks ago – now that’s fresh!

In fact, we like this tea so much that we purchased the entire batch that was made (minus 2 kilos that went to a fine tea shop in Europe!).

Read more about it here:

https://www.teatrekker.com/nepal-himalaya-white-moon-dance

Our 2016 Spring Teas are Here!

Welcome spring – welcome new spring  tea !

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Our fresh 2016 new teas are being sent from the tea fields as soon as they are made. As each tea arrives we add it to the Tea Trekker website where it will appear in the appropriate listing for its type of tea (green, black, etc) and also in the seasonal teas listing for 2016. We expect the spring green teas to continue arriving thru the month of April.

Happy, sweet tea drinking!

 Click her to follow our 2016 fresh spring tea harvest arrivals

 

Thoughts On the Arrival of 2016 Spring Tea

Whoohoo….it is fast approaching the new 2016 tea season here at Tea Trekker.

Early spring is an exciting time for us. It is filled with anticipation of the new tea season in China, India, Japan, Korea,Taiwan and Sri Lanka. We eagerly await the moments when we are notified by our tea suppliers that new fresh teas are ready and the samples we requested have been dispatched to us.

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The teas we select are then AIR SHIPPED to us in order to obtain these premium teas when they are just 10 days to 2 weeks old. These fresh teas are such a taste treat, and so rarely available for sale in the USA this soon after manufacture. We pride ourselves on being one of the first tea vendors to accomplish this fast availability of fresh new tea.

Seasonality in tea is important. Tea enthusiasts are beginning to understand that many premium Chinese green, white and yellow teas; and Japanese and Korean green teas are plucked only once each year in the early spring.

Other teas, such as hong cha and oolongs may be plucked over the course of two or three seasons. Tea that is plucked once a year is more expensive because the short manufacturing season yields less tea for the farmers and tea villages to sell. But these teas have superior flavors and aromas and more finesse and character than the standard-quality green teas that are plucked during the summer months, so tea lovers seek them out for the sheer joy they provide in the cup.

Some tea has a main spring crop and a second crop in the late summer or fall. Knowing what season a tea was made can reveal information about what to expect in the flavor and aroma of that tea. All teas, even those manufactured in more than one season, have a time of the year when they are at their tastiest best. 


Japanese sencha, too, manufactured from leaf  plucked in early May will have a sweetness and a delicacy that is lacking in sencha manufactured in the summer.  While seasonal variations in tea reveal different flavor and aroma qualities, tea drinkers often find that they have personal taste preferences from one season over another.

Spring plucked tea implies ‘freshness’ and freshness is important with green, yellow, and white teas, and some oolongs. ( The notion of ‘fresh’ tea or ‘young’ tea does not apply to all classes of tea. Many Chinese oolongs are aged to enhanced flavor, and other teas (like matcha, for example ) are best when ‘mellowed’ for several months before drinking. Sheng Pu-erh tea can be drunk young, but is traditionally stored for years to develop rich, deep flavors. Many black teas will hold well for several years and a bit of aging can soften their astringent edges. So knowing when a certain tea was harvested and having an understanding of when that tea should be drunk, is an important tool in evaluating any tea.


The spring tea harvest begins at different times in different countries and regions of each country. In the locations where tea has a dormant period, bud-break (the re-awakening of the tea bushes after winter hibernation) is triggered by seasonal weather changes.

Following below is an approximate timeline of tea harvesting dates in China, India, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka and Taiwan based on a normal weather cycle. Of course, these dates are always subject to the whims of nature and the seasonal/un-seasonal weather patterns and conditions that affect all farms and agricultural crops. Cold weather will delay plucking, and unseasonably warm weather can speed up leaf growth and the pace of plucking and manufacture by as much as a week or two. And, for tea villages located higher and deeper in the mountains, seasonal tea production can delayed by a week or two.

Hopefully, this timeline will help our customers gauge when their favorite 2016 teas might be arriving to our tea shop. We announce new tea arrivals via our e-newsletters, so those who want to know when teas arrive (some sell out fast ) would be advised to sign-up on the teatrekker.com website to receive these newsletter announcements.

  Approximate Tea Harvesting Timeline

  • FEBRUARY (late)

China: production of bud-pluck green and black tea (dian hong) begins in late February in some regions of Yunnan Province

India: the Darjeeling and Assam regions in the north begin plucking 1st flush black teas end-of-February to mid-March

Sri Lanka: The quality season for the Southern Coast districts is February, and in the Central Highland districts of Nuwara Eliya and Kandy it is February and March.

  • MARCH

China: weather permitting, the arrival of early spring in mid March begins the plucking season for some premium green and yellow teas in Western China. In Sichuan Province, Mengding Mt. Gan Lu, Mengding Mt. Huang Ya and Zhu Ye Qing are plucked in mid-March.

The earliest plucks of Xi Hu Region Longjing tea (Zhejiang Province) and tiny
Bi Lo Chun (Jiangsu Province) begin to appear at this time as well.

In eastern China’s Fujian Province, production of bud-plucked Yin Zhen white tea is from mid-March to the end of March.

In Yunnan Province dian hong leaf black teas begin to appear in the market along side leafy green and tender bud green teas by mid-March.

Nepal: Eastern Nepal begins plucking 1st flush black tea in mid-March.

Taiwan: early spring semiball-rolled oolong production begins in central Taiwan.

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  • APRIL

China: April is the busiest time in eastern China for premium green teas from all of the important green tea producing Provinces. Teas such as Anji Bai Cha; En Shi Lu Yu; Huang Shan Mao Feng; Long Ding; and Lu Shan arrive early to claim the Pre-Qing Ming designation

The 1st Fenghuang Dan Cong oolongs are plucked beginning at the end of April.

Production of Lapsang Souchong and Jin Jin Mei begins in northern Fujian Province in April, as well as all the teas that make up the family of Keemun black teas.

In southern Fujian semiball -rolled green oolongs from the Anxi region
(Tieguanyin and SeZhong varietals: Ben Shan; Huang Jin Gui; Mao Xie; Tou Tian Xiang ) begin to appear in late April and continue into May.

Light roast Wu Yi Shan oolongs (Da Hong Pao, Jun Zi Lan, Rou Gui, Shui Jin Gui, Shui Xian, etc) are manufactured in late April to early May but are sometimes not sent to market until June. Traditional charcoal roast Wu Yi Shan oolongs (heavy roast) appear in June.

Dian hong production in Yunnan Province begins in April and can extend into May

The leaf and bud materials for Pu-erh are plucked from old tea trees in parts of Yunnan Province from April to July.

NOTE: the spring season in China is divided up into 4 periods of time, and the harvest dates of the most anticipated green teas, such as Longjing, are associated with certain dates on the agricultural calendar. This is the breakdown for the production time based on a perfect weather season:

  1. Pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian tea ( leaf plucked before April 5th )
  2. Before the Rains or Yu Qian tea ( leaf plucked before April 20th )
  3. Spring tea or Gu Yu tea ( leaf pucked before May 6th )
  4. Late spring or Li Xia ( leaf plucked before May 21st )

India: spring tea from the Nilgiris are manufactured in April/May.

Japan: limited early production of the first new tea of the new uear – Shincha – may begin in late April as well as first plucked Sencha (Ichibancha) teas.

Korea: the first of the season green – Ujeon – is plucked just before Koku ( the first grain rain and the sixth seasonal division), around April 20th.

Taiwan: spring pluck Baozhong comes to market towards the middle April. Production of jade oolongs from lower level elevation tea gardens begins in earnest.

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China: Several later-to-market Eastern China Greens that rely on very large leaf sizes, such as Fo Cha; Lu An Guapian; and Tai Ping Hou Kui are ready for May production.

May also brings to market the Bai Lin Gong Fu family of hong cha, and the Golden Monkey Panyang Congou family of hong cha.

The base tea for jasmine tea ( zao pei ) is made now and stored until the tea can be ‘married’ with the fresh flower blossoms when they arrive in the summer.

Production of leafy Bai Mu Dan; Gong Mei; and Shou Mei white teas begins and ends in May.

India: 2nd flush teas begin to be plucked in Darjeeling and Assam.

Japan: production of Sencha begins and or continues in various regions throughout May. Gyokuro tea production can begin in mid May and continue into early June depending on the location of the tea gardens.

Korea: production of Sejak occurs during Ipha (the start of summer- around May 6th); plucking of Jungjak follows during Soman (full grains season around May 21s )Taiwan: production of high-mountain gao shan begins in the higher elevation tea gardens. Plucking may continue into early June. Manufacture of Bai Hao begns.

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  • JUNE

Sri Lanka: the Uva district of the Eastern Highlands produces its quality season teas from June-September.

Taiwan: manufacture of Bai Hao oolong continues into June and sometimes July.

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  • SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER / NOVEMBER

China / Fujian Province: Fall production of Tieguanyin and local Se Zhong varietals is underway at the end of September into October

China / Guangdong Province: September/ October production of  winter dan cong begins

India / Nepal: Fall production of autumnal teas begins in October and can extend into November

Taiwan: mid-to-end of October until mid-November is the time for winter production of high mountain gao shan and mid-level elevation semiball-rolled oolongs; and leafy Bai Hao and Baozhong oolongs.

  • JANUARY

India: winter frost teas (black tea) from the Nilgiri region of southern India are manufactured from December thru March.

Sri Lanka: West Highlands quality season in the Dimbula region is January thru March.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips for Steeping Delicious Green Tea

We hear a lot of this and that about green tea from our customers. Most are thrilled to have discovered this lovely category of sweet, fragrant tea while others find it bitter and astringent or just plain unpleasant. Sometimes there are foods and drink that just do not agree with us and that is that – like a bad first date that is just not meant to be. But other times we wonder if the technique used to steep green tea is going unchecked or if someone was using just plain old or bad tea.

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So, in advance of the new 2016 green tea season which will begin in China at the end of March (4 weeks away), followed by harvests from Japan and Korea as the weather warms in May , let us share some thoughts about how to obtain the best flavor from your green tea. We have found over the years that many tea enthusiasts who think that they do not like green tea actually do, once their steeping technique is adjusted to fit the needs of this fresh, clean leaf.

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1. Start with good, premium grade loose-leaf tea. Supermarket tea will just not deliver good taste and neither will teabag tea (no matter how fancy the teabag or how much you paid for them). There is a reason why most commercial green tea is flavored, and it is almost always to distract from how low-quality the base tea is.

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2. Buy fresh tea. Try to purchase green tea that is sold with a current harvest date, not an expiration date. Green tea is especially perishable, so if the tea is more than 1-year old or has no harvest date listed, pass on it and purchase tea from a vendor that sells tea from the current year’s spring season. Old tea will lack flavor and aroma and be unsatisfying or worse, harsh and bitter.

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3. Beware of other aromas fouling your tea. Tea leaves can easily pick up other aromas, so beware when purchasing tea from spice shops or other stores in which there are strong competing aromas in the air. Ditto for storing your green tea – do so away from other aromas in your pantry or kitchen cabinet.

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4.  Do not refrigerate or freeze your tea. Cold, humid air can affect the moisture content of the leaf and yield strange flavors. Keep your green tea dry and in a clean container.
NOTE: some Japanese tea drinkers refrigerate their sencha and matcha, but they do so very carefully in airtight metal containers that do not allow for moisture exchange. If you choose to follow this storage practice, do so meticulously.

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5. Use enough leaf. We recommend using 2-3 grams of leaf tea for every 6-ounces of your tea-steeping vessel’s capacity. Green tea has tremendous variation in leaf size (from 1.5 inches long to very tiny) and also comes in many shapes and and densities (from curls to flat to fluffy). So it becomes difficult to measure many green teas by the teaspoon, tablespoon, etc. Use an inexpensive gram scale if you seriously want to have consistent results and get the right amount of leaf in the cup. ‘Eyeballing it’ produces results that will be successful 50-50 at best. Seriously.

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6. Know your water. Good water will allow the bright flavors of your tea to shine in all its complexity – bad water will dull the flavor and flatten out the taste. Lu Yu, the Tang dynasty author of The Classic of Tea said that water drawn from the center of a flowing mountain stream is best.Since that is not possible for most of us, tap water is often the default water for steeping tea. But is your tap water soft or hard? Hard water contains a high percentage of calcium and magnesium and other salts that may overwhelm the taste and subtlety of green tea. Soft water is the opposite – it contains very few minerals. Taste-wise, soft water is generally preferred for tea steeping. But the best for tea steeping is to use sweet tasting, slightly neutral water, which is easily obtained by purchasing bottled spring water in the supermarket. Avoid mineral water and distilled water.

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7.  Use short steeps. Green teas are sweetest and most elegant when they are steeped for 1-2 minutes; longer than that in the water only encourages bitterness in the cup. You will also gain the opportunity to re-steep most green tea one or two additional times if you steep this way. Much of the joy for Asian tea drinkers is observing how the tea changes in taste and character on each re-steeping.

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