Tea and coffee, and why their brewing methods vary and differ

Monday, 20 March, 2017

Why are there so many ways to brew coffee, yet hardly any for tea? It’s not something I’d really thought about, especially when it comes to coffee. A different beverage, such as cappuccino, requires its own method, right?

Jesse Raub, writing for Serious Eats, decided to investigate. It gets a little scientific, but what he found makes for engrossing reading.

Coffee ground particles are porous; their structure looks a bit like that of a sponge, with little tunnels running through it. The soluble material that’s extracted is embedded throughout the walls of those little tunnels. In some ways, the extraction process sort of looks like the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when the water starts chasing them through the tunnels. The bigger the coffee particle, the longer the mine cart tunnel system inside that coffee particle, and the more time it will take the water to travel through it, extracting solubles as it goes. If it helps to imagine tiny versions of Indy, Willie, and Short Round being chased by the brewing water inside the coffee particle, feel free.

Fascinating, or what. But here’s what often happens when you make a cup of tea:

Polyphenols comprise a grouping of different plant compounds, like flavanols (and specifically catechins), that contribute body and structure as well as the general blueprint for a tea’s flavor profile. They’re also responsible for a tea’s bitterness. Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, contribute texture and savory qualities, and essential oils produce aromas and more delicate, complex flavors. Polyphenols dissolve and are extracted fairly quickly, while amino acids take more time, but essential oils are the ringer here: They don’t actually dissolve into a tea, because oils aren’t soluble in liquid. We need enough time during the steeping process for the water to break down the cellular structure of the leaf. This is what allows the essential oils to be released into the brewed tea, where they’ll exist as an integral part of the tasting experience – even though they’re mostly just floating on the surface.

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