Why does my tea taste bitter? | How to avoid tea bitterness

The perfect cup of tea should not taste bitter when correctly infused. The main reasons the tea tastes bitter are incorrect infusion time, too hot temperature, poor quality of tea leaves, water, and carelessness in infusing. With the instructions in this article, you can bump up your tea steeping to the next level.

Tea cup with dark tea in it, some tea leaves sprinkled around it, and a wooden spoon full of tea leaves.

I think we have all been there. A relaxed moment with the perfect cup of tea. Then you take a sip and you wish you didn’t. Your mouth is filled with a bitter and unpleasant flavor. There is nothing to save that cup anymore. The moment has passed.

But why does my tea taste bitter? How to avoid bitter flavors in tea and prevent a bad cup of tea from ruining the perfect moment? Is it so hard to have a good cup of tea?

Don’t lose hope. Steeping the tea is quite easy, but you need to follow the general rules to get the best flavors out of your tea leaves. Let’s start with the source of bitterness and then we will go through how we tackle it. If you are feeling busy, you can jump directly to the conclusion.

Where does the bitter taste in tea come from?

Tea comes from the tea plant Camellia Sinensis, which grows on both sides of the equator. Commonly known are the high-quality tea leaves from their native place in China and the beautiful Japanese green teas and Indian Darjeeling from the foothills of the Himalayas. But tea plant grows nowadays as well in places like Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam. We can use the leaves, the buds, and the stems of the tea plant to steep a hot drink called tea.

Green tea leaves drying on huge trays in Asia.

The tea leaves contain bitter flavors and they are a natural part of the tea’s flavor profile when steeped right. The bitterness comes from the tannins that are hiding in the leaves of the tea plant in the form of catechins. Tannins have a bitter, mouth-drying, astringent taste. When tea leaves are heated in hot water the tannins come out. When leaves are steepened for a too long time or in too hot water, tannins sneak out into the water faster than the more pleasant flavors of the tea leaves creating the bitter notes. The tannins are more pungent in hot tea than in cold brewing tea. So if you are sensitive to the tannins you might enjoy an iced tea more.

In the drying process the tea leaves the black tea is oxidized, and green tea almost not at all. The oxidation also affects the flavanols in black tea, which reduces the bitter flavoring agents by about 85% compared to green tea! That’s why especially green tea becomes bitter with incorrect steeping.

So the green tea varieties contain more bitter flavoring agents. Therefore you should always pay more attention when infusing green tea leaves. The bitter flavors infuse faster when water is too hot and that’s why green tea should be steepened generally in lower temperatures.

So let’s go through next the biggest dos and don’ts in steeping the tea.

| RELATED: Best Books on Tea and Infusions | Find your new favorite!

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How to avoid bitter taste in tea

Before abandoning the whole tea world try these tips to make a perfect cup of tea without bitter taste. When you have had problems with bitter tea, there are some common culprits for you to keep an eye on when steeping tea to do it better in the future.

One-quarter of a white bowl with dried tea leaves on it.

Temperature

Depending on the tea variety they need different temperatures in steeping. Especially green tea gets very offended when infused in too hot water and you will taste bitter revenge. Try lower temperatures if you are regularly using boiling water. Use the following temperatures according to Camellia Sinensis Tea House (Tea – History, Terroirs, Varieties) as a general guide for water temperatures in steeping the tea.

  • White tea 65-90°C (149-194°F)
  • Yellow tea 75-80°C (167-185°F)
  • Green tea 65-90°C (140-185°F)
  • Black tea 85-95°C (185-203°F)

Other infusions like tisanes and herbal teas do not have the same problem with bitterness as the tea leaves that contain the catechins that release the bitterness in the steeping process.

| RELATED: Tea, tisane, herbal tea, decoction: What’s the difference?

If you are a heavy user of tea you might invest in a water boiler with adjustable temperatures. If you don’t have one use this measuring trick: 1 part cold water to 4-5 parts of boiling water lowers the temperature from 100°C (212°F) to about 80°C (185°F).

Steeping time

Choose the steeping time depending on the type of tea. Too long a steeping time gets the bitter flavoring agents infused in your tea that create the bitter taste in your tea. If your tea box has a label with the steeping time informed, respect that. Generally, green tea needs always shorter time in steeping than black tea. The general guide to the steep times goes as follows:

  • White tea 5-7 minutes
  • Yellow tea 4-5 minutes
  • Green tea 3-5 minutes (or even only 2 minutes)
  • Black tea 3-5 minutes
Spoons are unordered on a surface and filled with different types of dried tea leaves.

Steeping method and measuring

For making tea you generally need water, tea leaves, a sieve, a cooking pot or water boiler, and a teapot or a cup.

  • Heat the clean, fresh water to the correct temperature.
  • Use about 1 tsp of tea leaves per 2-3 dl / 1 tea cup.
  • Pour the water on the leaves and let it infuse for 1-10 minutes depending on your tea. Too long makes it bitter, not long enough don’t let the flavors infuse well enough.
  • Take the tea leaves from the water and enjoy your cup of tea.

The method is very easy, but when done incorrectly the bitter taste is guaranteed. If you are carelessly measuring too much of the tea leaves, or there remain a few leaves in the pot when you remove the tea sieve, they can give bitter notes to the whole pot.

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Water

An incredibly interesting study (2019) about the influence of water composition in tea making showed that the type of water is crucial when steeping tea. The results showed a drastic difference in the degree of extraction of bitter taste when green tea was steeped in purified bottled water or deionized water than regular tap water. Tap water gave the best result in flavor. However, the study represented clear health advantages in nutrient intake when tea was brewed with bottled or deionized water.

Pay attention too if you live in a zone of hard water (which has a high mineral content), for it can affect the tea too. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium are good for your health but they can change a bit the flavor profile of your steeped tea. If you are a lemon lover, then you might be happy to hear that adding a bit of lemon juice to hard water can actually neutralize the minerals and therefore reduce their impact on the flavor of the tea. 

Many tea drinkers swear by the spring water. Whatever water you choose, use fresh water to obtain the fresh flavors.

White teapot and a brown cup an a round-shaped wooden tray.

Quality of the tea

In conclusion, if you want to have tea with better flavor use tap water. But if you drink green tea for health benefits, then you should choose purified water. Soft tap water gives better results than hard water with minerals.  

Poor tea leaf quality can affect the infusion and cause a bitter taste. If there are other parts of the plant than tea leaves, like branches or other plants in the tea, they might give incorrect flavors. Invest in high-quality tea leaves and choose the finest teas to secure your tea time.

In terms of quality, there is a big debate between tea bags vs. loose tea leaves that has been going on. The basic idea is that when closed in the steeping bag the tea leaves do not give as perfect flavors as the loose leave teas. Also, if the quality of the tea bag material is quite poor the bag itself might give some unwanted flavors to your tea.

Some sources say that the nutrients are better in loose-leaf tea than in tea bags, but I have not found a study to back up that claim. That claim is mainly based on the assumption that the higher quality teas are generally loose leaves and not bulk-produced tea bags. Those are anyhow the extreme ends and cannot be generalized on all the loose-leaf teas and all the tea bags in the market.

| RELATED: Best Books on Tea and Infusions | Find your new favorite!

How to store loose leaf tea

Always store the tea leaves in an airtight container in a cool and dark place. The leaves absorb moisture, and odors easily which might compromise the flavor profile. The containers made out of tin, dark glass, or ceramic are perfect choices to keep the tea leaves fresh.

What about other infusions?

Infusions such as camomille, mint, and other herbal teas as well as rooibos are not from the tea plant and that’s why more correctly called infusions than teas. Most of the infusions are best steeped in higher temperatures and longer times. Notice that sometimes there are mixtures like Mint Tea, that contain both mint and tea. Then the steeping rules should follow the green tea, so use a lower temperature and shorter time.

I RELATED: How to make Moroccan Mint Tea: recipe, serving and culture

Moroccan tea set with Moroccan teapot and two tea glasses filled with mint twigs and mint tea on a tray. Mint bush on the side of the tray and a blue tea tile as a pot coaster underneath the teapot.

Conclusion

Various things can cause a bitter taste in your tea. The easiest and best ways you can guarantee the perfect cup of tea is to use the correct water temperature and steeping time depending on the type of tea you are using and store the tea correctly. Green teas are more delicate than black teas and will release easily the bitter agents in the water with too hot a temperature and too long steeping time. Measure one teaspoon of tea per 2-3 dl of water, avoid too high temperatures, and use tap water with green teas to obtain better flavor.

Have you had trouble with the bitter tea cup?

Let me know in the comments how you have tackled a bitter tea problem to enjoy your tea best!

Bowl filled with dried tea leaves on a wooden plank. Text How to avoid bitter flavors in tea.

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13 Comments

  1. The temperatures are so interesting! I have always wondered why tea tastes so differently depending on where I am buying it from. Thank’s for sharing!

  2. I’m not a tea drinker myself so I have always worried that when I make a cup of tea for someone that I am doing a bad job. Thanks to your post I feel a little more confidant to make tea for a friend!

  3. This is really interesting and helpful! The different temperatures and steeping times for the different types of tea is so helpful. I’ve definitely made the mistake of making the water too hot and ending up with a bitter taste so this makes a lot of sense!

  4. Great post – I learned a lot. I had given up on green tea but it sounds like I could make some tweaks based on your recommendations and get a much better result!

  5. Such an informative article on tea! Yes, I’ve been there and ended up with a bitter cup of tea. I didn’t realize the temperature was so important – and that the temp varies for types of tea. Off to make my perfect cup of tea!