Assuming that you're part of the /r/tea community (and according to my website analytics about 99% of you are), you've probably seen some iteration of this post at least fifty times: "What temperature is best for brewing X tea?" Which, 9 times out of 10, is followed by a moderator telling the poster to, for Christ's sake, read the fucking sidebar. Then, without fail--one post at a time--all hell breaks loose. It starts with someone commenting that, well, "in my experience, X tea yields the most complex flavors from water heated to Y degrees," which is immediately rebutted by someone else who says something along the lines of: "What? You brew X at Y degrees? Pfft. At Y degrees, you might as well just be drinking water," aaandthen, if r/tea's really feeling raunchy that day, the post will quickly evolve into two parallel conversations: one about water temperature, and another about water quality--and people from all around the globe will weigh in, each defending his/her stance that you should always brew X at a temperature of Y, with water from Z, using method N...
...of course, this is all done with the amicable tagline of "but hey, brew your tea however you like!"--a cliché that I dole out pretty much any time I post on r/tea in an attempt to make my contribution as non-preachy/-confrontational as possible.*
However, the tragedy is this:
The poster (usually a new drinker overwhelmed and intimidated by the world of tea--which as of mere minutes/days/weeks/months ago was only as complex as having herbal blends wafted into his/her face with an oversized lid) rarely has his/her question answered in any concrete way, because the only real answer that an experienced drinker can give is often frustratingly vague... Something a la "try experimenting with different temperatures until you find one that you like"--an answer that really doesn't delve into the heart of the question, because the question itself is fundamentally flawed.
From lurking r/tea, it appears that when people ask about temperature, water quality, and brewing methods, what they're really asking is this:
What temperature/water**/method should I use to brew X tea to make it taste the way it's supposed*** to?
It will help new drinkers if they move away from the belief that X tea is supposed to taste a certain way, and instead move toward the idea that X tea is capable of yielding a wide array of different flavor profiles (some subjectively more distinct/desirable than others), which can be achieved by using different temperatures...but don't just take it from me: while researching the effects of various temperatures, I reached out to White2Tea, Crimson Lotus Tea, Bitterleaf Teas, and Yunnan Sourcing, who each contributed their experience and expertise.
When it comes to temperature and flavor, Paul from White2Tea says that "most teas will be increasingly harsh the higher the temperature of the water used for brewing." He says, "For some teas that won't be an issue, but for [other] teas the water temperature can be the difference between enjoyment and disappointment."
"I think Paul nails it," Jonah from Bitterleaf says, adding that, in his honest opinion, "The main effect temperature has on tea...is how harsh or bitter it gets. Higher temperatures will pull more out of the tea, both good and bad, but there can be a point where more 'flaws' are being brought out than 'desirable' flavors are. It's also important to take into account that different regions and varietals will also handle temperatures in unique ways: "A lot of Yunnan-grown assamica or taliensis handle heat much better." Yunnan yellow teas, Jonah says, don't need to be babied as much, "whereas yellow teas from other provinces may become quite a bit more bitter and react similarly to a green tea if pushed too hard."
It's also important that, when you're drinking the tea, the temperature of the liquid is as close to the temperature of your mouth as possible. "I learned that back in my coffee days," Glen from Crimson Lotus says. "Your mouth can sense more when the liquid is about the same temperature [of your mouth]. Drinking teas at extreme temperatures masks flavor. That's why you slurp hot tea to cool it down, as well as aerate it."
Speaking more pointedly about young raw puerh, Scott from Yunnan Sourcing also raises a solid point, stating that, when he tastes a tea, he doesn't try comparing its flavors to food, because raw puerh "bears no relation to that world." Instead, he says, "when I drink raw puerh I am comparing it to other raw puerhs... It's more about the overall feeling of the tea in the mouth and throat than any flavors there. Does it have body? Does it make itself felt in the mouth and throat? Is there a mouth-watering effect? Is there a kind of cooling effect in the mouth and particularly the tongue? After you are done drinking the tea, does the feeling/taste/aroma of the tea linger in the mouth? Did the tea as a whole wow you compared to other teas you drank?"
After some time spent absorbing this information, I invited my good friend @tea_blooded to my apartment to brew the same tea side-by-side using three radically different temperatures: 175F, 195F, and 212F. In the section below, we offer a condensed version of our tasting notes for each temperature. Hopefully, this experiment will help those confused by water-temperature and taste to better understand what more experienced drinkers mean when they say "the right temperature is the one you like best."
Taste & Temperature (ft. @tea_blooded)
Vendor: Yunnan Sourcing*****
Price: $34.00USD/400g ($0.085USD/gram)
Compression: Stone Pressed
Material: Mengku County (Lincang Prefecture)
Season: Spring 2016
Vendor Description: "Strong and pungent, astringent and bitter, sweet and floral..."
We are immediately confronted by a prominent--yet still enjoyable--bitterness and astringency, which hits the back corners of the cheeks with a mouth-drying astringency. Throughout the session, the bitterness and astringency stay at center stage, but there's also a floral sweetness that creeps in enough to make itself known. Unlike the other two temperatures, this temperature produced a tea with a very prominent and detectible main-flavor: it's pleasant and aggressive bitterness. Toward the end, the bitterness began to fade and the floral sweetness became more detectible, but the sweetness never took over as the main flavor.
The only caveat that we have about boiling tea is this: if you don't use high-quality leaf-material, then you run a high risk of producing an unpalatably-bitter tea...unless you're into like that face-melting grunge-metal bitterness--and if that's the case, then more power to you.
195 Degrees Fahrenheit:
This temperature had us scratching our heads, because we didn't understand how the same tea that had just dried our mouths with an aggressive astringency was now making our cheeks salivate with a bright and floral sweetness. The tea brewed at this temperature was very well-balanced: all the same flavors were present from boiling, except none of them were overpowering the others. Instead, they each complimented each other, producing a very flavorful profile. However, I must add that balanced isn't always best, and if you're looking for more a more aggressive profile, you're going to want to push the tea a little harder.
175 Degrees Fahrenheit:
Not going to lie: going into it, @tea_blooded and I were extremely skeptical about brewing tea at such a low temperature. We were making jokes that this was just going to taste like lukewarm slightly-sweet leaf-water. In actuality, we were pleasantly surprised. This tea was sweet and light, and unlike the other two temperatures, this tea stayed extremely consistent throughout the entire session. The flavors didn't change or evolve. Seriously, this tea tasted astoundingly similar on both the first and last steeps, leading us to say that we'd actually recommend brewing tea at low temperatures if you're looking for consistency, and also if you're averse to bitterness and astringency. At such low temperatures, we couldn't detect any.
Similar to what we said about boiling, though, it's important that you use high-quality leaf-material at such low temperatures, or else your tea is going to end up just tasting like lukewarm semi-sweet leaf-water...
The Dirties (2013)
This might not be the time or place, but has anyone seen The Dirties (2013) directed by Matthew Johnson? It's a Canadian movie about school violence, filmed with a somewhat-broken 4th-wall, and it has stuck with me for the past four years, ever since I stumbled across it in college. It's really haunting, especially the ending, which punched me in the gut with a rock-solid fist. I'd really love to chat about The Dirties with anyone who's watched it, or anyone who decides to watch it after viewing the trailer below.
It's currently on Amazon Prime Video for free (if you have Prime).
If you watch it, let's chat!
*Even when I know damn well that the ONLY temperature to brew X is Y, and if you use anything other than water Z heated exactly to temperature Y, then you're a fucking moron.
**In the next Theory in Action, I will be tackling the other half of this question ("Theory in Action (Vol. 2): Water Quality"), where I'll brew the same tea using three radically different types of water--tap, filtered, and spring--to see exactly how much of an effect water-quality plays.
***or "...the way it tastes best"--a question that, for blatantly subjective reasons, I'm not even going to try to tackle.
****Of course, taste is always subjective and my tasting notes might not be the same as someone else's, and not all teas will taste exactly how I'm about to describe them at these temperatures due to any number of factors, but give me a fucking break, okay? I'm trying to do something nice, here. I'm trying to help people. What are you doing aside from sitting there all smug? All like "Pfft..." --Unless you're not sitting there all smug and like "Pfft...", and the only reason you came to this footnote is because you were expecting something humorous, because I've trained you like Pavlov's Dog to expect that every time you see an asterisk, something ridiculous will follow. In that case, I apologize. You're not smug. You were just being a pal, and I apologize (see cat GIF) for jumping your bones.
*****Sheng Gut is not affiliated with Yunnan Sourcing, however...blah blah blah...