Why Does Tea Get Bitter?
One of the best parts of any day is a warm and inviting cup of tea; it can be the catalyst that starts your day or the nightcap that makes a perfect end to a long day. And for some, the last thing you want is to end up with tea too bitter to enjoy.
SHORT ANSWER – Why Does Tea Get Bitter?
Tea most commonly gets bitter because of how it is prepared. The main reasons for tea getting bitter are steeping the tea for too long and steeping the tea at too high temperature. Young Pu Erh tea and green tea tend to be most bitter. Black teas, dark oolong teas and herbal teas are less bitter.
A bitter tea can ruin what is supposed to be a calming experience. But don’t worry; there are several things you can do to make sure that your drink doesn’t go to waste. Read on to learn about how tea can become bitter and some strategies to prevent or fix it.
5 Causes & Reasons for Bitter Tea
Some tea, by nature, is bitter. However, several other things may be happening to cause your drink to have that strong, unpleasant taste.
Often, a tea’s flavor may be affected by the water you use to brew it. For example, there could be a mixture of magnesium and calcium in your water supply; this mixture creates what we call “hard water.” You can tell if you have hard water by the film left on your hands after you clean dishes or if you have silverware and glassware that have a waxy film.
If your water source travels through several older pipes, or the source comes from an aquifer, you could have an excess of magnesium and calcium that produces hard water. So, how do you avoid it?
The best way to reduce or eliminate hard water is to have a home water system installed. These have several filters that can remove more than 99% of impurities in your water source. Though expensive, a home water system will ultimately protect your cups of tea, and your plumbing as well.
2. Brewing Temperature is too Hot
Like any meal that you cook in your oven, tea also has a correct brewing/steeping temperature. If your brew gets too hot, it will produce a bitter taste. For this reason, it is essential that while you are brewing, you do not boil the water.
Because overly hot water will result in bitter tea, some may assume that the easiest way to avoid this issue is to brew tea at a lower temperature. However, different teas will require different brewing temperatures, some hotter or “colder” than others. In general:
- Black, herbal, and red teas should all be brewed between 208 to 210 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Green and white teas should be brewed between 170 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit.
Note that these temperatures all lie below the boiling point of water, 212 degrees Fahrenheit. With that in mind, it is always best to remove your brew before the water begins to roll into a gentle boil. A good visual sign of when water is about to reach this point is when it starts to push off a few bubbles.
Often, tea manufacturers will provide brewing instructions specifying the correct exact brewing temperature for teas. However, you can use the numbers mentioned above to guide you if the directions aren’t straightforward with this information.
It is also recommended that you soak any loose leaf teas in cold water before brewing as an added way to prevent “overcooking” the tea leaves.
3. Incorrect Water to Tea Ratio
Another way that you can end up with a bitter flavor in your drink is to have an incorrect ratio of water to tea.
A weaker, bitter taste means that you have used too much water and not enough tea; this can be an easy mistake that can happen if you use a teaspoon to measure out tea leaves instead of a teabag. A good rule of thumb to remember the correct ratio is to think of it in terms of teaspoons: one teaspoon of tea per teacup.
4. Incorrect Steeping Time
Another thing to consider if you have bitter tea is steep time. As mentioned before, tea manufacturers will offer directions on how to brew your tea, which usually includes the correct steep time. However, some general times to keep in mind include:
- 4 to 5 minutes for black and herbal teas
- 3 to 4 minutes for white or green teas
One of the main culprits that lead to bitter tea is over-steeping. If you are trying out a new brew, it would be a good idea to steep for three minutes, followed by a taste test. If you aren’t happy with the flavor (maybe it isn’t quite strong enough), add the bag again for 30-second intervals.
5. Naturally Bitter Tea
Some teas may have more of a bitter taste than you are used to because they are naturally like that. For instance, if you are switching from black to green tea, there will be a distinct bitterness versus the other way around.
What Makes Tea Naturally Bitter?
The main reason that your tea tastes bitter is because of tannins; if the tea has a high number of tannins, you will have a sharp, astringent taste to your brew.
Tannins are composed of tiny particles called theaflavins. Theaflavins are created when anti-oxidation occurs in non-oxidative chemicals. The chemical catechin is one of the volatile agents that releases tannin into the brew.
If this happens to be the case, it is a good idea to keep trying different teas until you find something you’re happy with. Over time you will develop a palate. Once you know what you are looking for in a drink, something that was once bitter before could suddenly have a new taste. You might even like a brew that you detested the last time you tried it.
Types of Tea & Bitterness Levels
How naturally bitter tea can be will depend on its type. There are seven main varieties of tea you can choose from:
- Green Tea
- Black Tea
- Herbal Tea
- White Tea
- Fermented Tea
- Yellow Tea
Green tea is a tea that many Americans consider “new.” However, it has been a favorite drink in China since its discovery in the first century. Today, there are eight types of green tea produced in China, each with its own harvesting and brewing methods.
Green tea shouldn’t be heated as high a temperature as other teas, and it also has a shorter steep time. Some will notice it has a more bitter taste than black tea, which is a result of the active chemicals within it working as antioxidants.
Black tea is the kind of tea that Americans know best. It is more oxidized than other drinks with a distinctly longer brewing and steeping time. It begins with a whole leaf, which is the least altered of the teas but can also come in particle form.
When brewing, it should be brought up close to boil with the water. Some tea directions state that you should boil the water and then add the drink, but with black tea, brewing works best when done submerged in the water. Once it comes off the eye, you should steep it a few more times to assure that all the flavor is present.
When black tea has a bitter taste, it is because it has been over-steeped. The tannins that are in tea put off a bitter taste when exposed to the hot water for too long.
Herbal tea is interesting because it is made from a decoction. A decoction is when a portion of the brewing materials are liquified to remove oils. This oil is then added to the brew, which means you can make tea from most any plant.
Tisane is the name that herbal tea has gone by for the last 2000 years, but it can’t seem to shake its herbal moniker. The herbs required to make this type of tea are numerous.
The most bitter tea on the planet, the Guangxi Kuding, has light green color and has been used for centuries to prevent colds. The bitterness in the drink is said to have cooling properties that would calm a fever or coughing.
Oolong tea has some fascinating history behind it. Experts have trouble pinning down its exact origin story, but that doesn’t make the tea any less exotic. No matter if it is the leftovers from a divine tea party or an accidental occurrence, oolong’s popularity can’t be denied.
The process of creating oolong tea leaves can be made in many ways, but the most critical step is the withering of the plant. This withering aids in oxidation, and once the plant is crushed, the flavor emerges.
Oolong is one of the least bitter teas out there. It has a flavor that ranges from sweet to floral with a full-bodied taste as well. Over-steeping is not a problem with oolong, as the brew tends to be sweeter if left on for longer.
White tea is the least processed of all the teas. It is picked before the flower blooms. It has these tiny white hairs inside the bloom that gives the drink its name. The lack of oxidation that white tea leaves get gives it a distinctive taste that makes it stand out from the rest of the pack.
White tea came into usage in the late first century. The leaves were washed and steamed before being dried and served. The process was so involved that the only person who could afford to drink the tea was the Emperor of China.
Today, the need for people to have an organic product has spurred growth in the white tea market. The clean and straightforward cutting process means that there is much less handling before it reaches the customer.
White tea is one of the most bitter types. If it is cooked for too long, it will have a horrid bitterness that is hard to overcome. If you are looking for a more potent caffeinated drink, having over-steeped or brewed white tea could be the kick you are looking for.
The fermented tea is a very involved tea that may take months for the brew to be prepared. A large part of the tea process is waiting on the ingredients to ferment, and fermentation could take months. A popular version of fermented tea is kombucha or Pu’er.
To create the fermented portion, leaves undergo either a piling method or are treated with lactic acid. This process can take months or years to complete. The by-product of fermented tea can have alcohol that will impair the drinker, so be warned.
Kombucha can also be over-steeped to give the brew a bitter flavor. You wouldn’t think it, with all the time that a fermented tea can be maturing, but you can still over-steep it. If you use maple syrup, there can be a distinct bitterness in the brew, as well.
Yellow tea is an expensive brew that weathers a few more steps than green tea. They are placed in an encasing and steam process that gives the leaves a yellow tint. The encased leaves have a high antioxidant level and taste that is considered bitter by most black tea drinkers.
Yellow tea is like green tea, in that it has antioxidants and should be cooked at a lower temperature. Yellow teas are some of the sweetest teas there are. That means that it is almost impossible to make them bitter, but can still be done if it isn’t cooked and steeped correctly.
6. Improperly Stored Tea
You could also have ended up with a batch of old tea; if it has been around for a while, the flavor will eventually begin to dissipate and leave a bitter taste behind.
You wouldn’t think it, but when a tea leaf comes off the plant, it starts to degrade. Oxygen is the primary driver of this decomposition. Over time, the air around the plant will cause it to flake away. So, what can you do to protect against the degradation of the tea leaf? Follow these simple tips for storing teas correctly, and you will keep your tea from becoming bitter and possibly ruined.
Keep Tea in Airtight Containers
The best way to keep oxygen off of tea leaves is to store it in airtight containers (Amazon). A good rule of thumb to consider when shopping for a container is, will it hold water? If the top on the jar has a simple mechanism that locks or a clasp that holds it closed, that might not be enough.
Having an airtight container prevents degradation of the leaves, but it also maintains the flavor. If the tea goes for several days, or maybe even weeks, without being opened, it will still taste the same as when you sealed it. So, be careful: tea will spoil if not stored properly.
The airtight container market is full of excellent products, but you should try to find something with a name brand.
Leave Tea in a Cool Storage Area
Tea is like any other leaf; it will soak up any nearby heat. This heat can also break down the plant. Even at low levels, heat can speed up the oxidation of the tea leaves. Oxidation is the degradation that we are trying to prevent. Oxidized teas have a bitter and biting taste that makes it undrinkable.
If you have green or yellow tea, you may need to store it in the refrigerator. Storing the tea in the fridge drastically slows the oxidation rate, but remember to allow the tea to warm back up to room temperature before brewing. If you throw the leaves in straight away, there will be a condensation that forms on the leaves, making them bitter.
Store Teas in a Dark Environment
Keeping your tea in the dark is a great idea. Light has a way of photodegradation that can be just as harmful to the taste as over-steeping or brewing in boiling water. It produces a metallic taste in your tea that can be more unpleasant than bitterness.
The number of dark places in your kitchen or pantry is more numerous than you think. You could try a cabinet or drawer that is seldom used. One great idea is to store all your tea in a drawer. That way, when it is open, you can see what you have quickly and send your teas back into the dark once you’re done browsing.
Keep Tea Away from the Trash
Leaves are also pretty absorbent to particles in the air. If you store your tea by the trash can, you can expect it to soak up some of the smell, especially if it’s not in a sealed container. That’s not a good thing. If you thought bitter tea was bad, wait until you smell five-day-old tuna fish sandwich tea.
As the criteria for the perfect place in your kitchen rises, the appropriate number dwindles like the dregs of a quaint Earl Grey. In all honesty, the best place to keep your tea is inside the pantry with the rest of your dry goods, but don’t forget that tea can soak up just about any flavor lingering in the air.
Keep it Dry
A big thing about tea leaves is their ability to take in moisture from the air. If you are storing the tea leaves by a constant source of moist air, like an exhaust fan, the brew will become bland or have no taste at all.
It would seem like a no-brainer, but using an airtight container quickly solves this problem. As mentioned earlier, the lack of oxygen inside means it is watertight from the outside.
Store Tea in Bulk
All this talk about containers and how well tea absorbs the taste and flavor of other items around it leads to this tip: keep it in bulk. If there are just a few tiny remnants of tea at the bottom of the container, it will lose its flavor very quickly. Storing tea in a full container will produce the best results.
How to Fix Bitter Tea
Once the tea comes out of the pot and you know it is terribly bitter, what can you do? In this scenario, your best bet is to try and fix the tea instead of starting over.
How do you fix a bitter tea? The best ways to fix a bitter tea is by adding one or more of the following:
- Baking Soda
1. Baking Soda
No matter what we call it, sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda (Amazon), is a salt that comes in white crystalline specks and is excellent for cleaning. It is also an alkaline that forms tiny carbon dioxide bubbles when cooked. It is most often used to make quick baked goods like pancakes and muffins.
If your tea has a bitter taste, just add a pinch of baking soda to it. Keep in mind that adding too much will make the tea taste like bitter baking soda, so more is not always better.
The magical secretions of the ever working honey-bee can spruce up that bitter tea in a heartbeat. The wide array of different tasting honey can add a much-needed lift to a bad batch of tea.
However, regardless of how much you add, there could still be bitterness in the kettle. With that said, make sure that you don’t over-flavor your tea with honey and end up making a paste that is hard to clean and remove from your pot or fine china.
Adding ice to the mix will water the bitterness of your drink down, meaning there will be less of a tea taste and more of a watery taste. Primarily in the South, people use a combination of sugar and ice to calm down a bitter brew. The astringent taste will be calmed by ice, although there could still be some lingering bitterness.
Tips for Producing Non-Bitter Tea
How a tea will end up tasting boils down to is how well you store and brew your tea. We have seen that there are all types of tea and ways to prepare them. For most Easterners, a black tea with lumps of sugar and maybe ice is the way to go. For others, a nice refreshing green tea after a furious bout of hot yoga can hit the spot.
But, did you know that making the perfect tea begins before you even fire up the stove? Below are a few final tips to help you make the perfect tea and eliminate any chances of bitterness.
When it comes to boiling water, make sure to pour it directly onto the leaves for the best results. Time and again, articles on the internet opine the need to have water dashed against the side of the cup. This keeps the tea from being emulsified by the heat of the water. However, it has been shown that when the water and tea co-mingle, the flavor of the drink is much closer to the maker’s intended directions.
Use an Infuser
An infuser is a device that allows you to use the whole leaf of the tea plant. The basket attached to the steeping infuser allows the entire blade to unroll and all flavor to be drained. An infuser adds some style to a bland tea set. It can come in several colors and with some impressive designs. If you are going to search for an infuser, be prepared to see several elaborate systems that will more than fit your needs.
Spice it Up
One of the best ways to add some pizzazz to your daily tea and eliminate bitterness is to add some spice. The spices that could be added will depend on what kind of tea you have chosen. The most popular additions to tea are:
A great way to release the flavor of these spices is to crush them with a grinder. There are several types of grinders, but the old fashioned hand-turned versions work just fine.
Finally, one of the best things to add to a bitter spot of tea is milk. The milk gives the bitterness much less of a bite and adds another layer of flavor. Only black and morning teas should have milk added for flavor. Another important thing to remember is that some people do not recommend starting your morning with milk in your tea. It can lead to inflammation and soreness in the joints.
Besides being naturally bitter, some teas may develop an astringent taste as a result of how it is prepared. By following the tips mentioned above, you can ensure your tea comes out smooth and tasting great, every time.
There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.
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