Why Tea Tastes Bitter & How To Get Rid Of It (Part 1)

Many people who visit me at the Chinese Tea Shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown say they would like to enjoy tea more but don’t like the bitter and astringent taste. I ask them to pick a tea (any tea! Oolong tea, white tea, black tea, or puerh tea, for example) and I make it for them using the Gong Fu Cha method of traditional Chinese tea-making.  They are always surprised that the tea is smooth, sweet and refreshing.

There are a number of reasons why tea tastes bitter and astringent. This week I will show you some of these reasons. Next week I’ll show more reasons and a quick way to make your tea to get rid of the bitter taste.

  1. Chemical Compounds: Tea’s bitter and astringent qualities come from two types of chemicals that are found naturally in tea leaves; polyphenols (tannins and catechins) which cause astringency and theophylline which causes bitterness
  2. Plant Species: Most westerners drink Black tea from India. The Indian tea plant (Camellia sinensis var. assamica assam) is a tougher plant than the Chinese variety (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) with higher levels of natural caffeine and the chemicals that cause bitterness and astringency. The leaves are often broken, causing bitterness while brewing
  3. Harvesting Season: Longer hours of sunshine increase the concentrations of catechins in tea leaves and so increase the astringency.  Teas made from leaves picked in summer (which are usually the cheapest and lowest quality teas) tend to contain the highest concentrations of catechins, followed by spring tea, autumn tea and then winter tea which has lowest levels. Since a tea tree or bush has had its leaves picked multiple times by autumn, new autumn tea shoots contain less nutrients and bitter compounds. Autumn tea is prized for its fuller taste and aroma compared with spring or summer tea.
  4. Growing Altitude: High altitudes have more unstable weather patterns and less sunlight than other regions. Tea leaves produced at high altitudes contain lower levels of catechins, hence, tea from these leaves tastes less astringent than teas grown at lower altitudes.
  5. Natural Sugars: The presence of natural sugars and amino acids in tea leaves help to balance the bitterness in tea. There is a higher concentration of these sugars in spring and autumn picked leaves, which gives these teas a sweet and less bitter taste than teas made from summer picked leaves.
  6. Size/Age of Leaves: Young, tender leaves have high levels of catechins. They also have higher levels of caffeine which intensifies the bitter taste of tea. Tender leaves also contain higher levels of sugars and amino acids which balances bitterness. Old leaves contain lower levels of polyphenols and caffeine as well as lower levels of amino acids, which gives these teas a lingering bitter taste.

Next week I’ll show more reasons why tea can be bitter, and a quick way to make your tea to get rid of that bitter taste.

For more information on how to buy Chinese Teas, see our complete article in the Library at The Chinese Tea Shop: How To Buy Chinese Tea – by Daniel Lui

For full instructions on Gong Fu tea-making, see our complete article in the Library at The Chinese Tea Shop: Gong Fu Cha – The Complete Guide To Making Chinese Tea – By Daniel Lui

Don’t know which tea is right for you? Answer a few questions and the Online Tea Wizard will show you all the Chinese teas that suit your taste. Amazing!

2 Secrets of the Tea Masters

Today, I am sharing two advanced techniques of tea-making and why they make your teas taste so much better. The first is a better way to use your teapots and the second is about water temperature.

Tea masters always have a large selection of Chinese Yixing unglazed clay teapots on hand for every kind of tea (including Oolong Tea, Pu-erh Tea, and White Tea). These are the tools of their trade when making tea the traditional Chinese way called Gong Fu Cha (Tea With Great Skill). Each teapot is designed to be used for a specific type of tea. This chart shows the basic guidelines that are generally used by Gong Fu Cha tea-makers.

The different densities and firing temperatures of the clays used to make Yixing teapots regulate heat and oxygen in different ways which are very important factors in tea-making. Even the shapes of the teapots are designed to optimize the different ways tea leaves expand in water. So a lot of consideration goes into the selection of a Yixing teapot. You can get a real Yixing teapot at a Chinese tea shop for around $25.

Yixing teapots also absorb the oils that give tea its bitter taste. Low-fired teapots are thick and porous and are used for strong and robust teas like Black tea and Pu-erh teas. High-fired teapots are finer, denser and less porous and absorb less oils. These are used for more delicate teas like Green tea, White tea and Oolong teas.

For better tasting tea, try this technique. Use a higher-fired teapot for aged teas that have already mellowed like aged Pu-erh teas and aged Oolongs like Wu Yi Shui Xian or 20 Year Old Iron Buddha and any tea made from tips. Many people would like to drink Green teas like Long Jing Dragon Well and Silver Needle  but don’t like the grassy, bitter taste. This is largely because they use glass or porcelain teapots. Use a high-fired Yixing teapot for these teas which will make them taste sweet.

Water temperature is another important factor in tea-making. The higher the temperature, the faster the tea leaves dissolve but this gives less control over the brewing time. An advanced technique is to find the lowest water temperature possible for the tea you are making. This chart will give you a good starting point:

*Boiling means when the water has just reached a slow boil with big bubbles.

A great accessory that we use every day to control water temperature is the new digital variable temperature kettles. With a little experimentation using different teapots and water temperatures, you will be able to control your tea brewing with more precision and get the very best taste for each brew. You will be amazed at the results. You will also use less tea and save money which will make you happy.

More information about clays, firing temperatures and using Chinese Yixing Teapots can be found in a complete guide here, in the Chinese Tea Shop’s Library.

Myths & Facts About Caffeine

Which have the higher level of caffeine: coffee or tea, Indian tea or Chinese tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, pu-erh tea, or black tea?  

There are many opinions, and good facts are harder to find.  Scientific studies can be less than detailed about what products were used so this can add to the confusion.

A well detailed and easy to read study published by the British government in 2004 concluded that:

  • All Teas – mean 40 mg per serving
  • Instant Coffee – mean 54 mg per serving
  • Ground Coffee – mean 105 mg per serving

For those who are sensitive to caffeine, there are ways to reduce the caffeine levels of any tea. The traditional Chinese method of tea-making called Gong Fu Cha (Tea with Great Skill) makes tea in small amounts with many brews to concentrate the taste and minimize the caffeine.  The first step of Gong Fu Cha is to rinse the leaves. Caffeine is water soluble and this first step washes away a significant amount of caffeine but keeps the taste.

Here is a quick guideline:

  • All coffees are higher in caffeine than all teas
  • All Indian teas are higher in caffeine than all Chinese teas
  • Chinese green teas are higher than all other Chinese teas.

The camellia sinensis var. assamica tea plant that is used in India is a heartier and more robust species than the variety used in China. It produces stronger flavours, a higher yield of tea leaves per plant, and the leaves have naturally higher levels of caffeine.

Of all teas, green teas have the highest caffeine levels followed by Oolongs and then Black tea. This comes as a surprise to many people because green tea does not taste as strong as Oolong and Black Tea. Green teas (along with Yellow and White Teas) have a subtle taste but use the least amount of processing to produce the tea, so most of the natural caffeine from the plant is still intact in the leaves. The process used to manufacture Oolong and Black teas removes more of the caffeine.

One of the strongest tasting Chinese teas is the Pu-erh tea which has some of the lowest caffeine levels due the processing methods used and the fact that they are aged and the caffeine breaks down over time.

To learn more about us,  come on in to The Chinese Tea Shop today. To find out which of the various teas will suit your tastes, try The Chinese Tea Shop’s Tea Wizard now!

Tea + Health Benefits: What to believe?

People come to my tea shop every day asking for a tea (whether it’s oolong tea, pu-erh tea (puerh), or white tea, for example) that will help them with their medical problems. This is not surprising as many tea shops make fantastical medical claims about what their tea will do for their customers.

Most people I speak to are quite healthy and are interested in improving things like their energy levels, skin, sleep or digestion. Sometimes they are even sent by their medical doctor. But some have more serious conditions and are hoping for a magical cure. This makes me very sad.

I have noticed that people often quote a scientific study that supports a particular medical benefit of drinking tea (ie: in the western scientific tradition of publication and peer review using methodologies that can be duplicated by others). But a single scientific study on one particular benefit is not a scientific fact. Many people saying that they have experienced a certain benefit doesn’t make it a fact either.

Unless drunk to excess, it doesn’t appear that anyone ever suffered from drinking tea so it’s probably not a big risk and the effects are probably more positive than negative. Whether a tea should be used as a medical treatment  to cure a specific ailment is another matter and if what works for one person will work for another is something else altogether.

I drink lots of tea and am quite healthy. Is it because of the tea or am I just a healthy person? Some will say yes and others will say no.

All one can say for sure at this point in time is there are many promising studies but little consensus within the scientific community about the health benefits of drinking tea. There is however many centuries of study in the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and there is substantial literature available on every type of Chinese tea and their health benefits (some are listed here) as well as research on many things that western science does not even acknowledge exists.  It really comes down to what one wants to believe.

For now, I enjoy tea for its wonderful taste and the enjoyment of sharing the experience with friends. Who knows, this might be the best medicine of all.

To learn more about all types of tea, and to find the tea best to suit your tastes, check out The Chinese Tea Shop’s Tea Wizard here. Or come by the shop and enjoy a cup of fine tea with us!

My next post further explores some of the opinions, myths, and facts about tea and caffeine. Click here to learn more.

So Many Teas! Which Ones Will You Like?

People coming to my tea shop are always amazed by all the Chinese teas they have never heard of before. As they walk around the shop checking out our oolong teas, puerh teas (or pu-erh teas), and white teas (to name a few!) they ask “What does this one taste like?” or “What does that one taste like?”.

To help, I developed four simple questions which may help you find a new treasure on your next tea expedition:

  • Do you like tea that is strong and full-bodied or light, subtle, and elegant?
  • Do you like tea that is calming or tea that gives you energy?
  • Do you prefer a taste that is fresh and new or aged and mellow (as in wine or cheese)?
  • Which tones and notes do you like? (Sweet, Nutty, Grassy, Fruity, Woody, Spicy, Honey, Earthy, Floral, Buttery, Smokey, Roasted, Herb, or Chocolate)

Describing taste is a difficult skill to learn but this quick approach has helped many people find new teas that they really like. Many people return again and again to buy “their” tea and try new ones.

So we built an online version for everyone called The Tea Wizard that tells you all the teas that suit your taste with a few clicks.

There is also a great book called “The Tea Drinkers Handbook” by Delmas, Minet, and Barbaste (Abbeville Press) which will amaze you with the hundreds of terms that professional tasters use to describe aromas, flavours, and textures.

Contact The Chinese Tea Shop team today to learn more about all the exciting teas and tea accessories available at the shop, or try The Tea Wizard now!