How to Make a Perfect Cup of Tea
by Danielle Charles
Brewing tea is a medicine of the soul – pulling us directly back into the consciousness of ourselves as the purveyors of our own well-being. As herbalist Rosemary Gladstar says, “by taking an active role in the process of the preparation of our medicines and foods, we participate in our wellness.” There is no simpler or more soothing way to do so than to brew a cup of tea.
We have all known the pleasures of a warm cup of tea – the sound of the kettle whistling on the stove, and the warmth of the mug in our hands as we inhale the fragrant steam. This is comfort at its simplest. Even if we never sip that delicious alchemy of plant life, water and fire, we still feel soothed and transformed by the ritual.
In our fast paced lives, this sort of slow and gentle process is easy to dismiss and overlook – but it is truly just the thing we need – a time to slow down and be fully present with ourselves. Five minutes of letting go of the whining kids and the dishes that haven’t been done and all your worries, and letting your mind free to explore the world of your inner dreams. No matter how busy we are, we can all spare those 5 minutes. We deserve it.
So now that you are hopefully inspired about the joys of brewing tea, here are some thoughts on how to make the perfect cup.
First a few words on the equipment:
- Stick with glass, stainless steel, ceramic, cast-iron or enamel pots and utensils.
- At all costs, avoid preparing your herbs in containers made out of aluminum or copper, which are injurious to the human body and to the properties of the herbs.
- Be cautious with pottery made in China, as the glazes can contain heavy metals which will leach into your tea.
- Invest in a good tea strainer – tea bags, while convenient, contain small doses of old, stale herbs that barely compare with the joys of a tea prepared from fresh or properly preserved dried herb. If you do use tea bags, choose those that are stapled closed as the glue used to seal many tea bags will leach into the water and is often harmful to human health.
Making an Infusion:
The proper word for a tea made from an herb other than the tea plant (Camellia sinensis – from which we derive green or black tea) is an infusion or tisane. This is the method used for preparing the more fragile parts of a plant (leaves, seeds, flowers) whose properties would be destroyed by boiling.
When we infuse, we pull constituents such as vitamins, some minerals, tannins (the astringent principle), mucilage (the slimy principle), and volatile oils (the fragrant principle) out of the plant material and into the water.
The amount of time we steep the herb is dependent on which constituents we are trying to pull out – vitamins and minerals take more time, and lend better to overnight infusions while herbs containing the fragrant volatile oils, which quickly extract but quickly fly away (volatile is from the latin volare – “to fly”), need only be infused 10 minutes before we can taste and smell them in our tea. Tannins also extract quickly, and tannin rich herbs such as black tea will become bitter and overly astringent if left to steep too long.
The temperature is also dependent on what we are looking to extract. Cold water tends to pull mucilage out most effectively, creating a thick bodied, moistening tea – great for sore throats! Tannins and volatile oils require hot water. While we need not obsess about these details to make a beverage tea, they are important to consider when we are drinking a tea for medicinal properties. Below is a list of herbs that are rich in these particular constituents and their taste characteristics. Play around with them – try making a cold infusion of peppermint, for example, and compare it to a hot one. See if you can recognize the tastes and properties of different constituents in your tea.
Vitamins and Minerals (salty) – dandelion leaf, nettle leaf, milky oat seeds, alfalfa leaf, raspberry leaf, chickweed
Tannins (astringent, drying) – green and black tea, raspberry leaf, rose petal, peach leaf, meadowsweet
Mucilage (thick, sweet) – licorice, marshmallow, slippery elm, chamomile
Volatile oil (aromatic, pungent) – peppermint, chamomile, thyme, rosemary, lavender, fennel, cardamom, ginger
Now that you know a bit of about the tea making chemistry, let’s talk about the method. The basic method for making an herbal infusion is as follows:
- Fill a tea-kettle or pan with filtered cold water. Do not use hot water from the tap as it contains too many impurities. Heat on the stove until boiling. Remember the tea is only as good as the purity of the water you prepare it in.
- Gently crush or crumble dried plant material to open the cellular structures, and place into a tea pot or glass mason jar. Use 1-3 tsp of herb per cup of water. Fresh plant material can be roughly chopped or used whole to enjoy their beauty. Use at least twice the amount of plant material if using fresh (3-6 tsp/ cup).
- Pour the hot, steaming water over the herbs and quickly cover the container. Let steep at least 10 minutes or longer, depending on the active constituents you wish to extract. You may also refrigerate the tea after steeping to sip on hot and humid summer days.
- Strain into your cup, and enjoy.
- While you drink your tea, sit somewhere quiet and peaceful. Watch the steam rise and curl into ribbons and feel it warm your face. Inhale it’s fragrance. Listen to the bird song, the wind in the trees, the patter of rain on the roof. Here you are in this moment – stop and savor it. Now sip your tea and let your mind wander where it will…
Solar and Lunar Infusions
Though teas prepared in the light of the sun and moon may not contain as many chemical constituents as those made in hot water, they do contain the powerful and subtle energies of the light they are infused with. It is easy to dismiss what we cannot document or see – but we shouldn’t underestimate what is subtle. Try this yourself and you’ll see…
Think of the sun where you need more light, more warmth in your soul – for depression or the blues. The moon is the power of the darkness – the power of the cooling, gentle feminine spirit. I like to make female tonic teas in the moonlight for this reason.
To make a sun tea: Prepare an infusion as above in a glass container. Set in a warm sunny spot for several hours. Or you may also choose to not cook the herbs at all, but place them in a glass container with cool water to be only infused in sunlight.
To make a moon tea: Place herbs in a clear glass bowl – it is best to use fresh herbs if you have them. Cover with cool water and leave the bowl uncovered in the full moon light all night. Drink first thing upon arising.
Decocting, or the cooking of plant material in hot water, is used to extract more unyielding plant material such as roots, mushrooms, barks, nuts and non-aromatic seeds. These types of herbs require longer cooking time to break down their sturdy cell walls. We make decoctions whenever we make soup. To do make an herbal decoction:
- Add herbs and cold water to a pan. Place over low heat and slowly bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and let simmer for 20 minutes to several hours, depending on the strength and tenacity of the herbs.
- Remove from heat, strain and drink.
- If you want to combine fragile herbs with those that need to be decocted, you can add them to the decoction once it’s removed from heat, and let infuse for the needed amount of time.
Herb Combinations and Flavors:
The combining of flavors and qualities of different herbs into a tea blend is an art to be sure. While we all know the familiar tastes of peppermint and ginger, making our own tea blends allows us to to experience exotic and uncharted flavors and scents. How about lavender, thyme, rose-hip and sage? Sarsaparilla, orange peel and licorice?
Start with herbs you know and love. Brew them alone to get to know their characters and subtleties. Then try a few favorites together – chamomile and peppermint for example. Note how the properties meld together and transform each other. The next step is venturing into that uncharted realm of the unfamiliar tastes, smells and overall herbiness of plants. Keep your mind open as you explore the tastes more foreign to the tongue – bitter especially. There is great medicine in the taste of bitter.
Here are some combinations to get you started:
Nourishing Woman’s Tea: Oats, red clover, nettles, raspberry leaf, alfalfa, spearmint (make as an overnight infusion – a great one to try as a lunar infusion too)
Spirit lifting Tea: Tulsi, lavender, damiana, bee balm, lemon balm, rosemary
Heart Strong Tea: Hawthorn leaf and flower, linden, mimosa, rose hip, rose petal
Warming winter chai: Astragalus, eleuthero, dandelion root, burdock root, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, licorice, black pepper
Lunar tea infused in the light of the full moon