Perfect Cuppa Brew
Guide to making excellent teas and water-based potions
A skilled Witch or Wizard knows how to make a great mug of brew, whether it is from ordinary commercial teabags or from their own ritually prepared complex formula. This guide is to help you get started making the Perfect Cup of whatever brew you have in mind.
First, before we get brewing, just what IS "tea"? It is a little confusing because one species of plant, Camellia sinensis, has "Tea" as it's common name and the leaves of this plant are the most common ordinary black tea. (I will use capital Tea to indicate this proper named plant.) The Tea plant also gives us Green Teas, White Teas and Kukicha Teas. But the word "tea" (not capitalized through the rest of this tract) is used generically for any drink that is made from water and any type of plant that tastes good, has active ingredients, or is medicinal.
Lets start with an ordinary teabag. Whether it is an Earl Grey or Green Tea or an herbal teabag, most folks will use one bag per cup. Most modern coffee mugs hold two cups, where the traditional old fashioned tea cup was just that, one cup. Boil some water, (filtered, spring water or distilled water is ideal) then turn off the heat and for best taste let the temperature lower for a minute. Water that is right at boiling brings out bitter compounds in just about any leafy Tea or herbal tea, but if it is just below boiling, the brew will be mellower.
Steep the tea for 2 to 5 minutes and enjoy. White and Green Teas are delicate and should be steeped for only a few minutes. Black Teas and herbal teas that have lots of cinnamon and spices will become more flavorful with longer steeping.
Now lets talk about brewing herbs, seed, barks and roots. There are so many kinds of plants that give us wonderful teas for enjoyment and medicine!
In general, herbs that are leafy only need to be infused, that is, steeped. Pour water that has been boiled over the herbs, let steep and strain (or remove the teaball) after a few minutes. I generally use about two heaping tablespoons per mug of tea. Leaves and flowers often have light aromatic ingredients that will be destroyed or wafted away too quickly by high heat or too long of a brew time. Lemon Balm, Lavender, Rose petals and Mints work well like this. Some of these can be also be added as a lovely fresh garnish if you grow your own herbs.
In general, herbs that are hard seeds, roots, or barks will yield more flavor and active ingredients when decocted, which means you bring the herbs to a simmer in the water, simmer gently for a about three to ten minutes, then strain and serve. For most of these herbs, about a heaping tablespoon per mug is strong enough. Cinnamon, Ginger, Marshmallow root, Anise seeds, and Ginseng root are examples of herbs you would brew this way.
Many herbal tea formulations are going to include both leafy ingredients and woody ones. You will have to strike the difference with these blends. I usually bring the herbs just to a simmer, then turn off the heat and infuse for as long as ten minutes. A lid on the pot will keep the aroma and the heat in the brew.
My girlfriend Nikki, who is a very wise herbalist, taught me about the cold/hot infusing technique for getting the goodie out of hard rooty, barky or woody herbs. Put the herbs in a jar of water and cold infuse them overnight or for up to 48 hours in the refrigerator. Soaking like this helps soften up the hard herbs so that they will give up their flavors and active ingredients to the brew. Then bring the mixture to a gentle simmer for a minute or a few, strain and drink your hot brew. While this is ideal for barks and roots, there is no reason you can't cold infuse leafy herbs in this way as well. You would just not want to bring the tea to a simmer, just heat it until it is hot enough to drink.
How about cold teas? Try the traditional Sun tea brewing technique, by adding an ounce or two of herbs or to a clear glass gallon jar. Let it sit in the direct sun for several hours, then chill. Or try a hot/cold infusion. For this, bring your herbs and water to a simmer, then cool off in the fridge for iced tea enjoyment. Again, do not let herbs stay in water even in the fridge for more than 48 hours, or you risk spoiling them.
With some herbal tea ingredients, you are not so much extracting active or flavor ingredient out of them as you are dissolving them into the brew. Examples of this would be Elder berries, Hawthorn berries, and Rose hips. These benefit from long brewing times, since it just takes awhile to dissolve the sweet dried fruity goo off of the seed and into your cup. So use the longer cold/hot infusion technique, or let the brew steep on the stovetop, covered for at least ten minutes. Sir or agitate the tea to loosen the fruit and dissolve it into the water. Teas like this will get "trapped" in paper teabags, since the fruity pulp won't go through a teabag. Another example is Slippery Elm. The gooey mucilage just won't go through a paper teabag, so you must blend it directly into your cup or use a more open strainer.
Confused by all the apparatus and gear you can find for teas and brews? Obviously, centuries of many different cultures all seeking the Perfect Cuppa Brew has led to what we have now, a bewildering wealth of tea brewing gadgets! Here is my lowdown on the main types of these:
The teacup infuser is shaped like an ordinary teaspoon with a perforated enclosure. These are great for brewing Green and Black Teas that only need a teaspoon per mug. But for other herbal tea mixtures, they don't have enough volume to get a strong enough mug of brew.
Larger mesh teaballs work well for leafy or flowery herbal teas and for larger volumes of herbal tea. If you are simmering a small pot, you will want the water level to cover or almost cover the mesh ball. These also work well for cold infusing in large mason jars or gallon jars, and for Sun tea brewing.
How about a classic Tea pot? This really only works well for traditional Green or Black Teas (Camellia sinensis) with larger leaves. Us a scant teaspoon of bulk Tea per every teacup. Add water that has boiled then cooled for a minute. Let steep for a few minutes before serving your Tea party.
Bamboo tea strainers are great if your tea leaves are large. Otherwise your cuppa is going to have herb or Tea silt at the bottom.
Muslin bags work very well for most brewing techniques. The main down side is they are a bit messy to clean, and will go moldy in just a day or two if you don't wash them well.
There are seal-your-own paper tea bags and disposable teacup strainers made of paper. These work very well and keep silt out of your cup. They take a bit longer to break down in your compost pile. You do have a compost pile, don't you? As mentioned previously, they are not good for Slippery Elm or fruity/pulpy sorts of herbs.
I most often use an ordinary kitchen strainer. I steep or simmer my herbs in a small pot and then strain out the herbs as I pour into my cup. Everything is easy to wash.
Whatever device you use, it is important to leave room for the herbs to expand in the hot water. If the herbs are all lumped up in a small teaball, there is not room for the water to get around the leaves and extract the flavors and active ingredients.
Most brew experts agree that glass, ceramic or earthenware apparatus is best. It is believed that metal pots especially change the flavor and healthful ingredients of herbs. I scour resale shops and the internet for old glass cooking pots, and I always use these for my brews. Of course, none of my ritual blends come into contact with metal under my watch!
You are now well on your way to being a tea and brew expert! Enjoy your kitchen witch brewing experiments and trials!