Among its other benefits, I think we can all agree that the first joy of drinking tea is taste.
When it comes to taste, you’ll find that these factors tend to get a lot of focus:
- Leaf quality
However, the temperature for drinking tea can be all-important to your experience!
As Goldilocks said, it needs to be just right. Let’s explore why it’s important to find that balance with the serving temperature for tea.
The Effects Of Temperature For Drinking Tea
Temperature is what links and activates all of the above factors, starting with the leaves themselves. After picking, tea leaves go through the processing of some kind to create the different types we know and enjoy.
Oxidation is the name for the chemical reaction which happens between the oxygen in the air around us and the enzymes in the tea leaf. During processing, the leaves are cut, rolled, or baked, allowing oxygen to access these enzymes.
The effects of oxidation are seen in the color of the leaves, which turn brown when exposed to oxygen. Black tea is fully oxidized, oolong less so, and green tea hardly at all.
But did you know: based on their level of oxidization, all of these tea types have an ideal temperature for the water in which they are infused. This is because of the substances contained within the Camellia sinensis (tea leaves).
Polyphenols are the enzymes affected by oxygen and contain substances called catechins. These substances possess potential health benefits, and they also affect the taste. In general, they are bitter, but oxidation reduces this, giving black tea its sweeter taste.
The key to unlocking catechins is heat. They are extracted from the leaves at high temperatures.
Therefore, pouring boiling water for tea on barely oxidized leaves will draw out catechins not already released, giving a drier flavor. Whereas darker, black tea leaves can withstand higher temperatures in terms of taste because they’ve already lost those grassy notes.
Is there a safe tea temperature?
Much is said about the health benefits of tea and other caffeinated drinks. However, it’s becoming more and more clear that it’s the temperature of tea, not the content of the drink itself, which we need to watch out for.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organisation (WHO), has stated that very hot temperatures of 150℉ and more can increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
While the likelihood of developing this disease is not minimal (around 1 in 55), this research (based on men) suggests that drinking hot beverages could double this. It’s due to the potential damage and burning caused to the throat.
This research is new but significant. Do remember that if you’re at all worried about your health or have a pre-existing condition, seek advice from a medical professional and ensure your tea-drinking is safe.
Thinking about the optimum temperature for taste, and the potentially harmful tea temperatures for health; let’s look at some of the ways we can make boiling water for tea safe and make the most of our favorite drinks.
Boiling Water For Tea
Most of us will use a standard kettle or pot to heat water for our tea, and there are ways of making sure the temperature is optimum when we brew. You can use a thermometer or add cold water to ensure you’ve got it to just the right degree, but these methods can be both time-consuming and inexact.
We’ve found some tricks to help you when boiling water for tea whilst not making it into a complicated science experiment.
As we’ve found, tea taste and infusion is based on oxygen and its oxidation process, which water enhances. Boiling water’s telltale bubbles are not only signs it’s time to brew but also the hallmarks of oxygen ready to join your tea leaves.
Bring the water to a gentle boil, which will introduce just enough oxygen to the tea. It is the size of the bubbles which is key to recognizing the right amount of oxygen for your favorite leaf – green, black, oolong or herbal.
A fun way to know when to stop the boil is to think of some favorite wildlife creatures, including one which evokes the spirit of the great Chinese infusion that is tea.
For green tea temperature, stop boiling when the bubbles are the size of tiny crab eyes.
For oolong tea temperature, let them grow to rounded fish eyes.
For black tea temperature (and other darker teas), look for the eyes of a fiery dragon on a rolling boil.
Tea temperature-wise, this translates to our handy guide below for popular tea types (great if you do use a thermometer as well!):
- Black and dark herbal teas – 208–212℉
- Rooibos tea – 205℉
- Light herbal teas – 205℉
- Pu’erh tea – 205℉
- Oolong tea – 180–190℉
- Flavored green teas – 185℉
- Mate and guayusa teas – 185℉
- White and light green teas – 170–185℉
- Regular green teas – 165–175℉
From this, we see the rich, black and fruity herbal teas at the top of the temperature scale. Their dark, oxidized leaves and sweet flavors withstanding the heat.
Down at the lower temperatures are the least-treated green teas. These types of teas are barely oxidized and require minimal heat/oxygen to retain flavor and keep bitter notes at bay.
Give these a go when boiling water for tea and see if it makes a difference to the taste!
Tea Serving Temperature
So you’ve boiled, brewed and are ready to serve, but let’s not forget those all-important safe tea temperatures. After all, a cup of our favorite infusion is nothing if it can’t be enjoyed safely and healthily.
Doing your best to monitor the temperature when boiling water for tea is great, but as we’ve seen, some of those heights on our chart might still be a harmful tea temperature.
You might be wondering:
Research and studies have shown that while 150℉ is the upper limit, 135℉ is the optimum temperature for hot drinks. But what about those all-important oxidizing temperatures for the water? Don’t worry, drinking and serving tea is a two-part process and you can get the best from both!
Brew your tea with boiling water at the above temperatures to release just the right levels of catechins for taste, and then let it cool to a safe tea serving temperature.
The important thing is not to freak out too much about the cooling time. Recent research has found that a cup of tea with milk cools to less than 150℉ in under five minutes.
Great news for Brits and those of you who take your tea brew with milk. For everyone else, leave it a bit longer – 7–10 minutes should be fine.
As well as seeking advice for health reasons if you’re worried, make sure you get your tea from a good supplier. A tea expert should be able to tell you the ideal brewing and tea serving temperature for any leaves you buy.
One of our favorite tea suppliers is Art of Tea, and they provide a tea temperature guide with each of their product descriptions (under Preparation Tips).
Drinking Cold Tea
Fans of tea will know it’s a delicate balance, and indeed you don’t want to take the temperature for drinking tea too far either way. That goes for drinking cold tea too.
The journey to cold tea takes us back to those all-important catechins. We know that in some less-oxidized teas, and with water too hot, these substances cause bitterness. However, as we’ve mentioned, it’s believed that they also have numerous health benefits.
Catechins and the polyphenols contained within release antioxidants. These are chemicals which can help to fight aging and other cell damage and so potentially harmful diseases. We want the water to be hot enough to release these, but not so hot that it harms the flavor or your health.
Back to that delicate balance.
Catechins are released at high temperatures, but also disappear quite quickly, which is why it’s not ideal to let the tea cool completely. It doesn’t make for a very nice flavor either, as they’re an important part of that too.
Here’s the deal:
Some studies on green tea have shown that oxidation through infusion and leaving to cool reduces the levels of catechins by about 20% over seven hours. We’re not sure who would leave their precious tea that long anyway, but good to know! The same study showed that adding a little lemon to the tea can slow down the release process.
The link between temperature and flavor goes further too – our taste buds are actually temperature sensitive. They are triggered and start working at higher temperatures, sending an electrical signal to the brain to start sensing flavors. This makes sense with our preference for heating up leftovers and that frozen-tongue ice cream feeling.
The Right Temperature For Drinking Tea
A note on getting the perfect temperature for cold tea: beware of reheating in the microwave. It’s difficult to gauge what temperature the water will be and already-oxidized tea can react badly to reheating in terms of flavor.
Perhaps letting hot brews cool isn’t ideal, but drinking cold tea can be delicious. Cold brewing and cold infusions are growing in popularity, especially for those on the go as it lasts longer than hot drinks.
In terms of health, the low temperatures mean fewer catechins are released, so you won’t get the same levels of benefits there. However, they can be a great way to replace other cold drinks like sugary or artificially sweetened sodas.
Temperature is all-important in harnessing the flavor and health benefits of tea. In making sure you’re using the right heat, you can unlock those essential elements of tea which make our favorite drink so special.
How do you tackle boiling water for tea?
Share your tips in the comments below!