Why is my tea so weak?
August 8, 2019 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I can't seem to brew a sufficiently strong cup of tea. What can I do differently?

My ideal cup of tea is so strong that you MUST add milk and sugar just to make it barely drinkable. Then you must add still more to make it pleasant.

My normal tea routine is to add 2 bags to a mug, add boiling water, and steep for 5 minutes. I then add a little bit of sugar and a splash of milk. It is never strong enough for my taste. I feel like I can still barely taste it. The longer I steep it, the more it seems like I'm tasting the paper of the tea bags rather than the tea itself.

Could it be the brand of tea I'm using? I have Barry's Classic (it's actually not too expensive to order it directly from Ireland) and what I think is UK import PG Tips. I had Barry's in Ireland that was incredibly strong, and PG tips in England that was almost as strong (sorry) -- so what could be going wrong stateside?

Could it be the hardness/softness of the tap water here? I've heard that can make a difference. Do some brands really work better with different kinds of water? Should I try a brand like Lyons instead? Cost is a factor, so I have to think it isn't necessary to be shelling out for high-end stuff.

Would the right quantities of sugar or milk actually help bring out the flavors of the tea better?

(Also probably worth mentioning that I have a bag of loose leaf Yorkshire Gold that was gifted to me, but making 3-4 cups of loose leaf tea every day seems fiddly. Is there a way for loose tea to be brewed as easily and cheaply as tea bags?)
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Food & Drink (39 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Has your tea expired? How long has the packet been open?
posted by bergnotburg at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

KATI cups! Loose leaf will always be better. The KATI lets me do the loose leaf thing at work with minimal fuss.
posted by bfranklin at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2019

-Switch to loose leaf
-use a brew pot that can go onto the stove, so you can apply heat while it brews. Lacking that, use a towel or something to retain heat. If you want to run the experiment, brew tea in a pot on the stove. You will get very different flavor profiles depending on temperature. Contemplate simmer brewing the tea if you WANT it crazy bitter.
posted by Dmenet at 9:41 AM on August 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

Make it in a pot, steep it 10 or 15 minutes (or more), that's the way I like it
posted by canoehead at 9:44 AM on August 8, 2019

It sounds like water quality can affect tea.

You could rule this in/out by buying a jug of distilled water at the supermarket and try making tea with that.
posted by duoshao at 9:45 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Use loose leaf. Teabags always taste of paper. Make sure you are getting imported tea, the same brands in the US are an order of magnitude worse than in other countries. And, finally, try getting tea from an Indian or Pakistani store. Ask them for danedar (grainy) tea if strength is your primary aim; the tea quality won't be the best (on par with PG Tips at best) but will be strong.

Get one of those teapots that have a built in strainer. If you don't use a teapot without a built in metal strainer (personally I dislike them), then avoid the teapots which have a sort of built in sieve where the spout opening is. They are intended to keep the tealeaves out of your tea but often don't work well and just make it harder to empty out and clean. Instead, just use a separate strainer that fits over your teacup. When cleaning the teapot, just pour into the strainer to get the remaining tealeaves.

I am always amazed that people find looseleaf tea a hassle. As long as you use a strainer and a teapot with a free flowing spot, it isn't more hassle than squeezing out a teabag.
posted by tavegyl at 9:48 AM on August 8, 2019 [14 favorites]

Tea can lose flavor with age, temperature changes and light exposure - you want to be sure it's fresh and stored correctly.
posted by prewar lemonade at 9:49 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oops, just realised you are already using imported tea. I find UK and Irish tea too weak, so try going to an Indian/ Pakistani store and checking to see you're getting an import from one of those countries. Even Lipton from there is significantly stronger than the kind marketed in the US or UK.
posted by tavegyl at 9:50 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

It will help to warm up the mug with hot water first, dump the hot water, put the teabags in, and then pour the boiling water over the teabags.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 9:51 AM on August 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

I too like a very strong cup of tea.

I find that loose-leaf CTC format tea, which looks like little granules, makes a strong cuppa very quickly.

The brands I use are PG Tips Loose Tea and Williamson Tea English Breakfast, Loose (the latter only in the can; their loose tea that comes in plastic zip bags seems to be traditional leaf format).
posted by homodachi at 9:52 AM on August 8, 2019

I stand corrected... Apparently distilled water is not good for brewing tea. This guide gives the skinny on types of water for tea brewing. It sounds like testing with spring water would make more sense.
posted by duoshao at 9:55 AM on August 8, 2019

Another person who likes strong tea (but probably not as strong as you are describing it) -- you really want to go loose leaf here.

I drink a mug of Assam with a splash of milk every single morning and use a Teavana PerfecTea maker, but there are similar products on the market, like the T2 teamaker. You just put the loose leaf tea in the teamaker, pour in the hot water, and then when it's ready you just put the teamaker on top of the mug and it drains into the mug.

If you want it stronger, I prefer to add more tea leaves before steeping longer -- I find that adding more leaves for the same amount of steeping time makes stronger-flavored tea, whereas steeping it for longer just makes it increasingly one-note bitter without more flavor. But of course, YMMV!
posted by andrewesque at 10:03 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Barry's isn't going to loose strength just sitting around, and PG Tips won't either. It's bog standard builder's tea, it isn't a fancy delicate flower. You can pull it out of the back of your nan's cupboard from 20 years ago and it will be fine as long as it's been stored in a ziplock or tupperwear container.

You appear to be in MD, so your water is hard as is most of the water in Ireland. What colour is your Barry's box, is it red or is it green? I'd guess the real difference is in the kettle. Traditionally we ignore the limescale in our kettles until it builds up enough to freeze the kettle, adding a certain terroir to the tea.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:03 AM on August 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

Try Trader Joe's Irish Breakfast tea - it's so strong I can't drink it on an empty stomach.
posted by something something at 10:05 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Good questions about the freshness! But yeah, I keep my tea in a sealed ziploc bag, and I go through a box of 80 bags in less than a month anyway. Actually, what prompted me to ask this question was that I was still dissatisfied after opening a fresh box.

DarlingBri, my Barry's box is black, Classic Blend. I've heard that's the strongest they make? And yes, I am in Maryland. I think our water is pretty hard, if the residue left on dishes is any indication.

tavegyl, I regularly shop at a local Indian grocery, and they have a huge tea selection, but I'm not familiar with most of the brands (that's actually where I buy my PG Tips, because it appears to be the actual UK import). I can definitely look for loose teas the next time I'm there. Would you be able to recommend any particular South Asian brands, or is that not so important?

In general, yes, I'm perfectly happy with bog standard tea, as long as it's strong. Anyway, I like having a few different options to mix things up a little.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:21 AM on August 8, 2019

Yes, I think you will get a better result in a teapot. Remember to preheat the pot. If your kitchen is cold and you pour the boiling water into a cold mug or pot, the steeping temperature will be too low to get out the bitterness of the tea, and then no matter how long you steep, the tea will never be "strong".
posted by mumimor at 10:21 AM on August 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Look to chai - it's is typically made with boiled tea that is so robust that it requires milk and sugar. I use Lipton Yellow Label loose-leaf.
posted by aquamvidam at 10:22 AM on August 8, 2019

You can try searching for "extra fine tea infuser". I have one like this, with two arms that are long enough to reach across the top of my large mug. It makes nice strong tea. Even brewing tiny CTC-pellet tea in it resulted in almost no residue at the bottom of the cup.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:44 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

You are stirring after you pour the water onto the teabags, right? And you are using boiling water? And squeezing the bags as you take them out?

That should be enough to get you pretty strong tea from Barry's or Yorkshire Tea with one bag, and 2 should make it as strong as you say.
posted by ambrosen at 11:16 AM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have literally no idea what the black "Classic Blend" is. In fact, looking at BarrysTeaShop.ie I am very disheartened to say that I think that stuff is all madey uppy for export :( Nobody drinks Barry's from a black box, I have no idea what that green box is, and what you want is this green box of, you know, Normal Tea Tea.

Just PM me your address and I'll post you some teabags in a baggy and let's find out!
posted by DarlingBri at 11:17 AM on August 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

I like very strong tea and steep it for 12 minutes. I only use one teabag. Five minutes, for me, would produce an undrinkably weak tea.
posted by Aquifer at 12:09 PM on August 8, 2019

Loose tea is the way to go but since you have hard water you could try one of the teas formulated for hard water - Yorkshire makes one. We have hard water, though we always filter the water for tea, and have tried a number of the brands (Yorkshire was best in regards to taste) and have never found an appreciable difference from a normal type of tea but I know some people swear by them. In terms of South Asian tea, we haven't had too many we actively disliked though we only do loose tea. My partner likes this one, Tata Agni leaf tea and my Indian grocery owner prefers the Red Label leaf tea from Brooke Bond.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:16 PM on August 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

It seems like the main two variables in your cup are the type of tea and amount of tea leaves.

As an experiment, how about trying 3 or 4 bags? That would see if you can get to your desired strength with more leaves.

For different tea leaves, you may find what you are looking for in loose leaf tea. I found Upton Tea via MeFi and have found it reasonably priced, even compared to using tea bags. If you do try loose leaf tea, I think you would enjoy a black tea that is either "BOP" or "CTC" style. Both will have broken leaves instead of whole, which will make a stronger tea. I steep mine for about 5 mins, but it doesn't seem to get bitter if I steep it longer.

Another benefit of loose leaf tea is that it gives you more flexibility to dial in the amount of tea leaves you use to brew each cup or pot.

Good luck!
posted by bruinfan at 12:32 PM on August 8, 2019

In the Indian shop, look for Ahmad (UK-Iranian), Do Ghazal (an Akbar brand from Sri Lanka) and Dowlat (Iranian). All of them should be strong enough to wake you up.

For technique, try swirling the teabags around at least 20 times. Gets the water flowing.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:35 PM on August 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't really know about teas available in US Indian/Pakistani shops (I admit I'm one of those people who travel with their own tea stash), however if they are available, Tapal Danedar and Brooke Bond are very popular brands in Pakistan.

If nothing else works, you could try making a Malaysian teh tarik concentrate. This is drunk with condensed milk but there is no reason you can't just dilute the concentrate with milk till it's the strength you like. Bring water to a boil in a pan, add tea leaves and simmer for a few minutes. Then take off the heat and let steep for half an hour. Then filter/ strain and keep in fridge. When you want a cup, just pour out and add water and/or milk/sugar to taste. (Or if you want the real deal, warm up, add condensed milk and pour back and forth between two cups until it froths up). This way you'll only have to deal with loose tea leaves occasionally.
posted by tavegyl at 1:15 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I've liked Ahmad's English Breakfast as well, it's one of the few brands available in UK supermarkets that hit the spot for me. Again, though, I use the loose leaf kind.
posted by tavegyl at 1:17 PM on August 8, 2019

Barry's Classic (black box) is nominally the darkest/richest of their varieties, and I'd expect that looking through all the different brands of Irish breakfast looseleaf looking for something more robust is not going to be a satisfying or financially advisable plan.

My best advice is unlikely to help, but try heating your mug with hot tap water or a splash from the kettle before you brew the tea, everything will stay hotter longer, and therefore hotter for the brew. (Given that you have strong opinions about tea, and you used the phrase "add boiling water", I want to just assume you know that it needs truly rolling boil water from a kettle and not microwaved nonsense, but I can't resist adding this sentence just in case.)

Other than that, I recommend science: you've been working with tap water, try a batch with bottled water. Make three mugs at once with 4, 5, and 6 minute brew times and confirm how the flavor changes with direct comparison not just "I think this tasted worse than the cup yesterday", same with measured amounts of milk and sugar, and try 1 vs 2 bags.
posted by aimedwander at 1:42 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Beware the Harney and Sons’ tea sold at Target. I bought a tin of Earl Grey teabags (in a pale blue tin, rather than the teal tin it normally comes in), and it was nothing like the more expensive version. I returned it just to let them know how awful it was.
posted by elphaba at 2:20 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I also find a lot of black tea too weak - you want everything very hot, because heat is what extracts delicious things from leaves. Preheat your mug or other brewing apparatus. Don't add milk or sugar or stir with your cold-ass heat sink spoon until your tea is brewed. Consider a cover on the mug while it steeps to hold heat in (saucer, bar mat, purpose-built mug lid). Don't use one of those kettles that tells you to make black tea at 190F because by the time you pour it in the mug it will be colder anyhow. Hot.
posted by momus_window at 2:36 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

You sound like you know what you’re doing but just in case: be sure you’re not making by far the the most common American tea mistake, which is to make black tea with merely hot water. The water must be boiling. It should literally be bubbling when you pour it on the bag. This is easiest/quickest/safest with an electric kettle.

You also need to stir and compress the bag while it’s in the mug. Don’t just let it stew for X minutes. No matter how large X is, you need to stir and compress.

The strongest easily available British black tea bags in the US are Yorkshire Tea. Yorkshire Tea Gold is better but no stronger.
posted by caek at 4:38 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like to drink tea the way you describe. I use looseleaf Assam tea, which can easily be brewed in bags like this. I use more tea than recommended (about a tablespoon per typical US-sized mug) and steep for 4 to 5 minutes in boiling water. I strongly recommend an electric kettle. NEVER use the microwave.
posted by mkuhnell at 5:09 PM on August 8, 2019

I just got back from a bike ride, but I just wanted to say that I am very excited to have gotten so many responses on this. Thank you all!

Also, I just noticed that I forgot to specify where I'm located -- I originally mentioned that I was in Maryland in the US, and then moved stuff around and forgot to write it again. Sorry if that made things confusing for anyone!

I could write more, but I guess I'm not supposed to be too chatty in here. Long term I'm hoping I'll find a cheap daily driver tea, but I would absolutely love to have a bunch of different options for when I want to switch things up or treat myself (teh tarik sounds delicious, by the way, and apparently the Malaysian tea of choice is BOH -- I'll have to add it to the list!). My willingness to experiment with new teas and brewing methods is limited only by money and my daily caffeine tolerance.

DarlingBri thank you! I may take you up on that offer in the near future. I will always be fixated on Barry's because the first decently strong cup of tea I ever had was at a pub in Dungarvan (in fact, it was the first cup of tea I had in Ireland). I remember that it was Barry's because I'd never heard of it and I made a joke about "oh no, I got the tea intended for Barry" (because I have no dignity, and I'm sorry). Anyway, if the black box stuff isn't a thing in Ireland, then I would imagine that wasn't what I had there at The Local.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:24 PM on August 8, 2019

I've had really good luck with loose leaf teas from Adagio Teas; they make for a nice, strong cuppa. I usually make my tea in this thermos; it has a built in tea strainer, and it keeps the water quite hot for steeping, as long as you keep it closed. I've had mine for years now, and it's still working quite well.

One thing I also love about Adagio - you can create your own blend of tea. Once you find a combo that works for you, you can save it, and then just reorder it when you run out. I've done that.

Lastly, a smoky tea (like a Lapsang Souchong/Russian Caravan) or a black pu-erh may give you the denseness that you're looking for.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:14 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

What you'd ideally need is the German East Frisian ("Ostfriesen") blend, which produces a better taste when brewed really strong than, say, English Breakfast. It's meant to be made so strong that you almost can stand up a spoon in it -- drunk with sugar and heavy cream.
posted by Namlit at 12:39 AM on August 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

There's no law stopping you from chopping open the tea bags you have and adding as much loose ex-bag tea to a cup, too.

There's also no law preventing you dumping a bunch of liberated tea bags into a stovetop kettle and boiling the shit out of it for like ten minutes.

Maybe there should be. There's not.
posted by Jilder at 4:08 AM on August 9, 2019

We exclusively drink Barry's Gold blend using tea bags. I'm agog that two tea bags for 5 minutes isn't strong enough! If we had a visual what colour it was for comparison (after the milk is added), I could tell you whether it is just generally weak tea (water kicked unconscious as per my father), or your tastes vary to the bog water end of the spectrum.

I would make sure that your water stays hot enough the whole way through the brewing process, but other than that I don't have any recommendations.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 5:47 AM on August 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

My husband makes what is to me unpalatable tea with a Yorkshire teabag left in for upwards of 5 minutes. Try that. We can often find it in normal grocery stores in areas with a decent British diaspora, but you can also get it on Amazon.
posted by olinerd at 10:22 AM on August 9, 2019

Re: convenience- I use one of these tea infusers. Then the leaves go straight on the garden! A wider variety here.

No idea how hard they might be to come by in your neck of the woods, sorry.
posted by Coaticass at 6:06 PM on August 9, 2019

Another idea - some of the strongest black tea I've ever had was made Tibetan style. Volunteered at a Tibetan Buddhist festival a couple of months ago, and all day we either had Tibetan Salty Butter Tea, or Tibetan Sweet Milk Tea. A couple of glasses of those, and I didn't need caffeine for the rest of the day!

Tibetan Sweet Milk Tea.
Tibetan Butter Tea - Black Tea - Green Tea.
posted by spinifex23 at 6:47 PM on August 9, 2019

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