George Orwell penned a somewhat infamous and rather opinionated essay on the perfect cup of tea. You can read it here, but be forewarned (and with all due respect to Mr. Orwell's skills as a writer) that while we fully share his enthusiasm for tea in general, we don't embrace all of his opinions regarding its preparation or potential.
The perfect cup of tea requires good tea and good water. These must meet at the optimal temperature and for not shorter or longer than the time required to coax the best flavors of the tea leaf into that water for us to enjoy.
Different varieties and finished styles of tea leaf, different vessels, and different serving traditions modulate these factors. But, in the end it still comes down to a simple formula: tea + water + time + temperature.
We recommend the following two styles of brewing for tea exploration: Chinese Gongfu and small-pot "western-style" brewing.
Chinese Gongfu style is a style whereby larger quantities of leaf are infused in a single cup or tiny steeping vessel multiple times. Water temperature and infusion time may be modulated cup-to-cup as the flavor profile emerges. This is a great style for tea appreciation and evaluation of new teas.
Pot Brewing is familiar to most - multiple cups of tea are brewed at once using a pot. For brewing of high-quality teas, we recommend brewing in a small pot that holds no more than four cups, and preferably less. To retain control over steeping time and flavor, a removable infuser or brewing basket is required.
Good leaves can be ruined by water that is too hot or by water that is of poor quality. Very few teas enjoy be scalded under a rolling boil. Always let your water drop a few degrees below boiling before sharing with the leaves.
Excellent teas can also fail to reveal their character if they are infused in water too cool for them.
Cold brewed tea, though, is a wonderful thing and many delicious summer teas can be prepared from delicious fresh leaf. Cold brewing generally produces a tastier beverage than iced hot-brewed teas.
If you're new to experimenting with steeping methods, follow the general guidelines below.
Water boils at 220F/100C
Greens and lightly oxidized teas typically like cooler temperatures 140-195F.
140F degrees is an extremely low steep for Japanese Gyokuro and other fresh greens.
Dark, highly oxidized teas - reds, blacks, pu-erhs, highly-oxidized Oolongs like temperatures from 185-205 F in general. Some can even go hotter.
Over steeping ruins a tea's flavor profile: less palate-friendly essences and the bitter end can come rather quickly in some teas.
If you are new to Pu-erh teas count the seconds on your fingers for your first few trial steeps.
Temperature Control Rule of Thumb (No thermometer needed).
If you pour boiling water straight into an mug or teapot, you will lose about 18F/10C. You can use this rule of thumb to rapidly lower boiling water to the desired temperature before you pour it into a vessel with tea leaves.
After pouring water into an empty container wait until you begin to feel the heat on the sides of that container. Pour into another un-warmed container if you with if you need to drop the temperature even more.
It's great to calibrate once in a while with a thermometer, but if one uses the same preparation vessels, a refined practice of temperature control without regard to numbers emerges.