Can You Re-infuse Black Tea?
End of story.
*Okay, two, maybe three, exceptions
Basically, yes. I’ll get to those exceptions—but first let me repeat:
most black teas—even high-quality loose leaf teas—cannot be satisfactorily re-brewed
Yes, I know that you can get something out of those leaves. Maybe even something drinkable.
But good? Nah.
Stick to the greens and whites and oolongs for re-brews, to the teas that actually improve with re-brewing.
So here are some reasons why black teas are a one-time thing.
Many of the black teas are CTC, which means they are small pieces of leaves, with a lot of exposed surface area. They release their flavor in the first few minutes of brewing and that’s pretty much it. To put it another way, many of the substances that contribute both flavor and health benefits (like those polyphenols we always hear about) are extracted quickly.
Which brings up a related point—about doing a first brew to extract the caffeine and drinking only the second infusion. Really bad idea.
First off, in studies of tea bags, it takes over five minutes of brewing to remove 80% of the caffeine. Which means the second brew still contains caffeine but has very little flavor or health benefits left (because those were extracted quickly). A circular argument.
With whole leaf green, white, and oolong teas, the flavor—and the caffeine—is maintained over multiple infusions. For those teas that have been shaped into pearls or rolled, each infusion will unfurl the leaves more fully, releasing additional caffeine and flavor.
The Exceptions to This Inviolable Rule
So this brings us to those black tea exceptions. One example is Hong Cha Java, a whole leaf tea that leans toward the oolongs, which can (and often should) be re-brewed.
Another candidate is Black Gunpowder. Because this tea is so tightly rolled, it takes awhile to open up, which means that when you add hot water a second time, the leaves will continue to yield flavor as they fully unfurl.
And there’s China Yunnan Golden Downy Pekoe.
During brewing, the tightly rolled curls open into full leaves—and even something akin to art as seen here with this beautiful birdlike bud set.
So I re-brewed it, and got what looked like a decently dark infusion. It even tasted not bad—
—until I compared it to the first brew.
All those notes that make this tea a complex and rewarding cup are gone. Yes, the second brew is drinkable, but that’s about it.
What to Do, What to Do
Easy. Savor that cup of black tea.
Then toss the spent leaves into the compost bin with a clear conscience.
Teas pictured: (top) montage of Assam FTGFOP1 Mangalam, black classic; (middle) Autumn Spice, black aroma, brewed leaves; (bottom) China Yunnan Golden Downy Pekoe, black classic, brewed leaves. All available from teahouse.com.