A perfect cup of tea combines the simple with the sublime. Certain techniques that may seem ritualistic attend the making of perfect tea, but they help bring out every note and nuance from carefully selected leaves. Tea holds a high place in South Asia, China, Japan and other countries, but it is Britain especially where everyday people hold dear the finer traditions of getting the best out of tea. You too can gather your loose-leaf tea, and a kettle, teapot and strainer, and brew an afternoon pot of heaven.
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Connoisseurs insist on loose-leaf teas for the best results, since the water can move around the individual leaves as they steep. If you have to use teabags, look for pyramidal sachets that are large enough to contain whole leaves, rather than bags with lower-grade broken leaves and dust. Easiest of all -- keep the loose-leaf tea in a stainless-steel, deep-well strainer in the pot -- much like those in tea lounges -- and lift it out when the steeping is complete.
Start with cold, freshly drawn water, and avoid reboiling it, which lowers its oxygen proportions. As with coffee, the best water for tea is what is called "just off the boil." You can hit this sweet spot by listening to your kettle and bringing it off the stove just before it begins to whistle, or by turning it off after it whistles and allowing it to cool for about a minute. If you want to really fine-tune your brewing temperatures, aim for 175 degrees Fahrenheit for green teas, 195 F for oolong, 200 F for black, and 208 F for herbal, rooibos and mate. You can measure the temperature with a thermometer; use visual cues if you have a glass kettle, such as the extent of the water bubbling; or track built-in temperature gauges on certain kettles and hot-water dispensers.
In Britain, a crucial part of tea making is called warming the pot, whereby you take the lid off the teapot, pour a bit of hot water in, swish it around and pour it out. Warming the pot avoids excessive chilling of the hot water during the steeping period. After you pour out the warming water, add loose tea, a total of 1 teaspoon per 8-ounce cup "and one for the pot," either to the strainer basket or loosely in the pot.
You can also brew individual mugs of tea by placing an appropriately sized strainer in the mug to hold the loose tea leaves.
Watch the clock for black tea and steep it to your preference -- 1 minute may be enough, or 2 to 3 minutes to achieve a stronger flavor. You can also steep oolong tea, either for 1 minute with the usual 1 teaspoon per cup, or pack additional loose leaves in the pot and infuse them for only 30 seconds. For the first brewing of green tea, plan to steep for 90 seconds, or a bit more or less.
When the tea is ready, lift out the deep-well strainer, or if you don't have one, pour out the steeped tea and serve all the pot contents to you and your guests, to avoid stewing the leaves. Alternatively, you can pour all the tea into a second, warmed pot. You can brew a high-end loose-leaf black tea a second and third time, and oolong six times, if you drain all the water from the pot between each steeping.