When I first began to dabble in green tea, I absolutely hated it. It was bitter, drying to the mouth, wretched taste, and I was left for a long time feeling that green tea just wasn't for me. Many people I knew who drank black tea felt the same way, so I concluded that green tea was for the few who had the palette for it.
Of course, this was during a time when the only other tea drinkers I knew were buying Bigelow or Lipton bags and, like myself, just throwing them in some boiling hot water and coming back whenever we remembered to take the bag out, squeezing the bag thoroughly to get the last drops into the cup.
I shudder these days when I think about how badly I was scalding my first attempts at green tea, and I marvel that I enjoyed any tea at all, considering the way in which I was preparing it. This is a predicament many novice tea drinkers find themselves when it comes to anything other than black tea: you're scalding (and probably over-steeping it).
If you really want to make good tea, you need to ditch the bags, get some loose leaf, measure it properly, and then use the right water temperature and steeping time for the type of tea you're preparing. Once you've mastered the basics listed below, there is (of course) some leniency with these rules, because there are some companies that do bagged tea very well, and you may like one type of tea steeped a little more or a little less than the norm. There are also traditional styles of preparing tea that involving different steep times and different amounts of tea as well, but these are things to play with later.
For now (if you're new to tea), these are good guidelines to start with, in terms of knowing the typical taste, color, and proper preparation of different teas:
- All Teas - Roughly one teaspoon (table teaspoon, not literally a measuring spoon) per cup (a bit less if the tea is handrolled into little balls like gunpowder green tea, a bit more for more flavor if desired)
- Black Tea - The darkest color tea, and the most commonly know (in my experience). Steep time of 4-5 minutes with boiling water (212º F), sometimes milk and sugar are added. Black tea is not suitable to multiple infusions (steeping the tea leaves a second time or more).
- Green Tea - Green-ish yellow in color, more green or yellow depending on type. Steep time is 3 minutes (maximum!) with rumbling water (176 °F to 185 °F). Some people listen for the moment when the water is "rumbling" or just about to boil, and some people let the water boil and then cool for minute before pouring over tea leaves. Sugar can be added to green tea, but milk is typically not. Some green teas are suitable for multiple infusions. (Don't apply these rules to matcha powdered tea!)
- Oolong Tea - This tea is a yellow or something orange color, depending on region/type. Steep for anywhere from 3-7 minutes with water 194 °F to 212 °F (just start to boil up to full rolling boil). There is a lot of variation on steep time for oolongs, so do what tastes best for you for each oolong. Oolongs are suitable for multiple infusions, depending on quality and strength of the tea.
- White Tea - White tea is very light, in color and flavor, very commonly infused multiple times (with good quality white tea). Steep in boiling water for up to 7 minutes (recommend starting at 7 minutes, as the flavor can be very light).
- Pu Erh Tea - This is an area of tea in which the steep time is very subjective and crucial to the success of the tea preparation. I have yet to master the making of pu erh, but I do know that boiling water is typically used and gong fu style preparation is often used as well (this is not an area of tea to start in as a novice).
- Herbal Tea (Tisanes) - Boiling water, leave the tea in as long as you want to (typically 7 minutes). Pretty simple, no? Tisanes don't contain actual tea, so they are less likely to become bitter or drying with a long steep, so this is one area in which you're unlikely to hurt the quality of the beverage too horribly.