It's a common question: why do some teas create flavorful brews for seven or eight steeps while others finish in only three or four? Is it the brewing method? The quality of the leaves? The age of the tea?
As with anything in the tea world, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But there are some general rules that can help you understand why some teas last more steeps than others.
Below we share a few factors to look for, but remember, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel. When it comes to tea, there are always surprises.#1 Leaf shape and surface area.
Obvious when you think about it, but leaf surface area is rarely talked about in tea education. Put simply, the larger the surface area that’s exposed to water, the faster and stronger the brew.
One extreme example is the familiar tea bag. Powdered tea leaves have a huge surface area, so they release their flavor quickly and strongly, usually lasting for only one steep.
In the Taiwanese tea world you’ll find the other extreme in tightly rolled oolongs. The first steep of a ball-rolled oolong only begins the process. Slowly the water opens and unfurls the tea leaves, giving a very subtle taste to the brew.
As the leaves continue to unfold and the surface area exposed to water expands, the full flavor of the tea gradually expresses itself with each following infusion.
Because of this delayed expansion, these types of oolong tend to last much longer than other teas. That’s why, in general, ball-rolled oolongs can be re-steeped many more times than black teas or strip oolongs.#2 Elevation
The higher the tea garden, the slower the tea grows. On the one hand, this means less yield and a smaller harvest, but it also means leaves that tend to be more concentrated in carbohydrates and other compounds. With more ‘stuff’ to give, the higher elevation teas typically brew longer.
Lower elevation tea plants grow faster and produce more leaves, but with much less concentration. And so, these teas tend to be ‘spent’ more quickly.#3 Leaf bruising during processing.
The more a leaf is manipulated or ‘bruised’ during the tea-making process, the more its cellular structure breaks down, and the more likely the tea is to express its flavor quickly in hot water.
For example, black tea is the most manipulated out of all the tea types, and it’s rare for a black tea to last more than four steeps. On the other hand, white teas tend to last upwards of seven or eight steeps even though their surface area is quite large.
This is because the cellular structure of the tea leaves hasn’t been as broken down during processing. With its cellular structure mostly intact, the leaves release their flavor much more subtly and slowly than teas that have undergone more vigorous processing.
Bonus! Don’t Forget Brewing Practices!
The hotter and longer you brew your leaves, the faster the tea will express itself and the fewer steeps you’ll get.
If you lower the water temperature and shorten the brewing time, you’ll be amazed at how many infusions you can get from a high-quality ball-rolled oolong.
We once had a student who claimed they could get 15+ steeps from our Pear Mountain Oolong if he used 85C water and brewed for only 15 seconds each time.
It's all about experimentation!
How many steeps a tea lasts for is a complicated and fascinating subject. There are no firm and fast rules, and there are many more factors to consider than only the quality of the tea. Some Good teas may last only a few steeps, and many bad teas can last far too long.
Hopefully, the above guidelines will help you understand why certain teas last as long as they do so you can choose the best tea for you.
If you have any questions or tea knowledge you’d like to share, please throw it in the comments!
Have an awesome day, enjoy your tea, and happy steeping.