Just as with coffee, a perfect cup of tea can be fleeting and ephemeral. Someone makes one for you, somewhere — a mug of milky black tea, a fragrant cup of jasmine green — and if you catch the bug, you might spend endless mornings trying to replicate it with different tea bags, leaves, vessels and steeping times.
One factor sometimes gets overlooked in that calculus: The heat of the water you use. “You can have the best tea in the world, and ruin it with the wrong temperature,” said Kristine Henderson, owner of West Sayville’s Infuse Tea Bar. Pour boiling water over some green or oolong leaves, for instance, and they can become “bitter, astringent, and undrinkable.”
Green teas are the easiest with which to test this theory: Pour scorching water over the leaves, steep for a few minutes, strain and taste. For a second cup, let boiling water cool in an open vessel for 10 minutes or so, and steep for the same amount of time before straining. The difference will likely be striking: The hotter water coaxes more bitterness from the first cup, while the cooled water lets grassier qualities come to the fore.
Infuse is chockablock with hundreds of loose-leaf teas and tisanes, each in a sample vial for pre-commitment sniffing. Purchase a bag of tea, and it comes with a temperature chart on the back to keep you in line once you get home. Loosely speaking, green teas should be steeped at 175 degrees, for one minute to 90 seconds; oolongs at 185 to 200 degrees, for a three-minute steep; and black teas at 208 degrees for three to four minutes.
You can see that process in real time at Infuse. Ask for a cup of oolong, and — after you weed through the dozens that Henderson stocks — she will break out timers to achieve the optimum cup. While you wait at the wooden bar, Henderson might share the tea’s back story — where it came from, her thoughts on climate and locale and storage, and why the second (or even third) steep might be the best.
After you leave, thoroughly schooled, who knows — you might be the person who eventually makes that perfect cup for another.
Infuse Tea Bar is at 106 Main St., West Sayville; 631-567-4832, infuseteabarny.com