Multiple Infusions vs Duration of Infusion

Im curious about what everyone’s thoughts are about the following:

From what I understand, many teas, if steeped for too long will develop an undesirable bitterness. So in scenario A, if a tea “should” be steeped for 3 minutes, but is instead steeped for 7 minutes, then it would produce a bitter drink. However, the same type of tea might be suitable for multiple infusions. So in scenario B it could be steeped the first time for 3 minutes, and then steeped in new water for 4 minutes, and both infusions would produce a desirable outcome.

My question is, assuming my example above is a decent depiction of reality, why are the outcomes different? In both cases the tea leaves were steeped for 7 total minutes. The only real difference is the quantity of water (the total volume in the 2 infusion example would be double), and differences in temperature for the final 4 minutes. This has me wondering if tea that has been steeped for too long should just be diluted. What is going on chemically here?

Any thoughts?

9 Replies

Generally, I would keep the total infusion time below/at or just close to the time it “should” be steeped at. So if a tea was only supposed to be steeped for three minutes, and I was planning to try for two infusions, I might steep the first at one minute and the second for two minutes. Or I might push it, like one for 1.5 minutes and the second for 2.5 minutes. I wouldn’t do both at 3 minutes(+).

That’s what I always assumed you were “supposed” to do. I would have assumed the same thing would happen with the second infusion that would have happened with one longer infusion – bitterness, although it depends on how forgiving the tea is, I guess? Like I have an herbal tea I tried recently that’s like, pine needles and tree leaves and stuff, not “tea-tea.” The box says steep for 7-10 minutes, and I tried 3 steeps at 10, 12, and 14 minutes each – WAY over the time on the box. But I wouldn’t try that with, say, a black tea.

Curious now to know if I am doing what others do.

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To put it simple, there are a lot of flavors in tea caused by molecules that are aromatic, fragrant, bitter, astringent… Those flavors can be extracted to hot water at different temperatures and within different amounts of time. In our infusion, we want the temperature and infusion time to be the optimal for extracting the pleasant flavors and minimize the dissolving of unpleasant flavors (eg. bitterness, although some people may even like it). So for some types of tea, short infusions are better than long infusions (assuming bitter flavors come out later than tasty ones). For some types of tea, lower temperature could be better (assuming aromatic molecules can be destroyed in high temperature, and bitter ones are only dissolved in high temperature).

Some flavors could be very pleasant when not so concentrated, but overwhelming when made too concentrated – I found some floral flavors are of this type.
Some flavor could be too light to taste when not so concentrated, but more tasty when concentrated enough.
So leaf/water ratio matters too.

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DukeGus said

I think Gingko covered about everything.

For example imagine a Taiwanese hung shui oolong that has been recently roasted again and you didn’t have time to let the roastiness cool down. Most of the times you drop the temperature of the water a bit and reduce the time of the steeps, so that the roastiness doesn’t overpower the taste of the tea.

Another example if you tasted a green that’s not that high quality and becomes to spicy/bitter on the high end of the temperature you drop it down and maybe steep it a bit longer so you get the same body.

If you got a pu erh that’s not so aged and is pretty young you could try reducing the amount of tea(maybe try to get whole leaves too and not breaked) and increase the steep time so you don’t get bitterness but you get it’s young taste kind-of tamed

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Will said

I think you are forgetting the ratio of tea to water. Normally, when you’re brewing a tea multiple times, you’re not brewing 3+4 minutes instead of 7 with the same ratio of tea and water; rather, if you’re going to do a 7 minute brew, you would probably use less tea leaf than if you were going to do multiple, shorter infusions. Conversely, if you were going to, say, fill the brewing vessel 3/4 full of leaf by volume, you would want to do very short, flash infusions, especially at first.

Some teas are “stronger” than others, or perhaps more suitable to be brewed multiple times, but overall, it’s just a matter of seeing which combination of brewing parameters suits your taste. Don’t worry about how a vendor recommends brewing the tea. Once you have a basic sense of how you brew a particular type of tea (through experimentation), you can adjust as you like. If the tea is too strong, you can either use less tea, more water, or brew for a shorter time, and so on.

Different compounds may get released at different parts of the process, and, in most cases, the heat of the brewing vessel will drop as time goes on. So, that’s why you don’t get exactly the same results by doing a long infusion with a small amount of tea vs. a flash infusion with a whole lot of tea. Both methods “stress” the tea, but they do it in different ways. In the first case, you’re getting all of those different tastes together, whereas in the second case, you can kind of see the way the tea “evolves”, so to speak.

Generally speaking, a really great tea will probably taste good even if it’s stressed (i.e., brewed really strong). But much of the time, we’re drinking teas which are less than perfect, and in that case, using a bit less tea and a slightly longer infusion time, or using slightly cooler water, are some ways that you can bring out the best in these teas.

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Ian said

I understand your question perfectly and I do have to say that this is pretty hard to answer!

I think that what those above have said is spot on! Will made excellent points about water vs. tea ratio, and I totally agree that “good” teas will be able to withstand a seven minute infusion! However, I don’t think this has been said, and it’s kind of hard for me to put into words. When you brew a tea for 3 minutes, that means that the hot water has allowed the tea to steep out its contents, both flavor and the chemicals found in tea (tanins, antioxidants, etc.) for three minutes. Allowing it to go for 4 more minutes would mean adding EVEN more of the teas contents (a good, high quality tea should contain enough to be steeped and still have these things in them) to the already added flavor in your cup/pot/whatever. This is what can create a funky tasting brew. However, if you remove the leaves at 3 minutes, you can drink it pleasantly and enjoy the amount of flavor that the tea releases with 3 minutes of brew time. When you then put it back in, you are creating a new cup that will allow the tea to release the rest of its contents and create a new cup (sometimes these cups will taste the same, but in some cases, like with oolongs and other more complex teas, the next infusion will taste different because the tea is slowly releasing ALL the flavors that it has) that has no funky taste to it because there isn’t extra flavor and such in the cup.

I feel like that’s really confusing, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at!

I think you actually put that perfectly. It makes sense to me.

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Roland said

Lots of good info from everyone already, but also to mention that your dealing with whole leaves rather than small particles. I believe what that means is that the outer surface of the tea will react with the water first. With multiple infusions, the leaf will be rehydrated after the first infusion, so water will more quickly penetrate further into the leaf in later infusions. In contrast, a single prolonged infusion will penetrate the centre of the leaf, but will also be continuously extracting from the outer edges of the leaf.

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This has been very helpful. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

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cteresa said

“So in scenario B it could be steeped the first time for 3 minutes, and then steeped in new water for 4 minutes, and both infusions would produce a desirable outcome.”

It does not quite work like that. There are many factors involved. Steeping occurs through the surfaces. Tannins which are usually the bitterness we mean, usually seep faster through “new” or sharper edges for example. And there are many many chemicals in tea which will seep at different rates and though different surfaces. For example tea expanding (which it does) means the surface through which chemicals seep also alters. It´s alll very complicated and difficult to predict scientifically IMO.

Another factor which is important is water temperature. Different things will transfer differently at different temperatures (duh). But keep in mind that even if you have precise control over the initial temperature of water, the water while seeping will of course try to get into thermal equilibrium with pot (and pot with environment) during the steeping. if you brew a pot with initially 85º water for 7 minutes, when you finish the water will be dunno 77 or 75 or something, if you brew it for 3 minutes water will be maybe 81º, and then you brew it for another 4 minutes at 85, it will be obviously different, you see? (temperatures totally invented). The curve of temperature with time will surely be different.

sp basically my opinion is go with empirical experience of what works for you, or go with what works for other people.The physics of tea steeping involve many variables, much more than just temperature and time (and even if just those two, remember temperature varies with time, and varies with pot and thermal conductivity of pot. I am not a fan of glass pots for example!). Tea is IMO something, like wine, almost irreproducible since it depends on so many variables.

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