How to Steep Tea without Instructions

You just found an old bag of tea, or your friend gifted you some special tea, but there are no steeping instructions. Do not fret, steeping without instructions is easy if you know what to look for.

IDENTIFY THE CATEGORY OF TEA:
What kind of tea do you have? Green, oolong, red, etc. Different categories of tea require different water temperatures. If the leaves are green and small, you are looking at green tea. If the leaves are covered in small white hairs, then it is a white tea. If the leaves are green and big or rolled, you have a light oolong. Dark, big and/or rolled leaves are likely charcoal roasted oolongs. Small, dark leaves are red/black tea leaves. (Pu-erh tea and herbal teas will be addressed in another post.) Try your best to categorize in order to find a water temperature to start with:
Green- 160^F
White- 180^F
Light Oolong- 190^F
Charcoal Roasted Oolong- 205^F
Red/Black- 205^F

Smell the aroma, look at the color
Now that you have the approximate temperature, it is time to approximate the steep time. Do not reach for your timer, reach within for your intuition. Begin steeping the mystery tea with the chosen water. As the tea steeps, lift the lid every 10 seconds to smell the aroma and look at the color of the brew. This is easiest with a gaiwan, but a teapot works just as well. Throughout the duration of the steep, the aroma and color will have related developments:

AROMA:
Faint -> Light -> Full/Complete -> Strong/Sour
COLOR:
Faint -> Light -> “Shining” & transparent -> “Golden” & opaque

Use your intuition (and this cheat sheet) to determine when the tea is ready to pour.

With these guiding principles, you should be able to get very close to the appropriate steeping parameters for the mystery tea.

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