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What Makes Tea Bitter?

Tea is generally a welcoming beverage, except for one instance: when it gets bitter. Bitter tea can make even the most devoted tea lovers turn up their noses. To avoid this, it’s important to know what makes tea turn bitter. 

The truth is that tea usually turns bitter due to user error. There are some teas that have more of a natural bitterness, but they shouldn’t ever be unbearable. Some reasons your tea could be bitter are:

  • Additives 
  • Steep time
  • Age
  • Freshness

In this article, you’ll learn why your tea may be turning bitter and how to identify the problem as quickly as possible. In addition, you’ll learn how to prevent it and how you might be able to save the tea if it has gone bitter. Keep reading – knowledge is power when it comes to tea.

Why is My Tea Bitter?

There could be so many reasons why your tea is bitter. Using the process of elimination is your best friend when trying to figure it out. Below are some common reasons that tea either is bitter to begin with or becomes bitter over time. 

When trying to determine the cause of the bitterness, you should start by confirming the age of your tea. If nothing looks wrong there, then you should move on to the things you’ve added to your beverage. Then you should look at your storage method. Lastly, if your tea is still bitter, consider whether or not the tea you’re drinking is simply bitter by nature and determine whether or not you need to add different components. 

Natural Bitterness of Tea

Tea can definitely be naturally bitter, but some are more bitter than others. For example, green tea, light-colored oolong teas, and other light-colored options tend to have more of a natural bitterness. That’s why these types of teas are usually served with a sweetener, like honey and sugar. 

Darker teas, like black tea and darker oolongs, are not as bitter, which is why they aren’t always served with a sweetener. However, they do tend to be more intense in flavor than light-colored teas, which is why they’re sometimes cut with cream or other flavors instead. 

Tannins

If your tea is naturally bitter, it’s because of molecules called tannins. These molecules are released into a tea by catechins, which occur as tea oxidizes—which is another reason why you need to be extra careful about your steep time. The longer your tea steeps, the longer catechins will have to release tannins. 

Green and other light-colored teas naturally have a higher concentration of catechins than darker teas (since darker teas don’t oxidize as quickly) which is why they have more of a natural bitterness. 

Additives Can Cause Bitterness 

The number one cause of bitterness in tea lies with what you add to it, even if you don’t realize it. A common addition to tea is lemon, which is bitter, and people can get pretty heavy-handed with it. When added correctly, lemon can bring out some of those lower flavor notes, like florals in oolongs.

The ratio of sweetener to tartness in your tea could also be off. If you take your tea without sugar and you add things like ginseng and lemon, your tea is going to be more bitter. That’s why it’s so important to taste the tea as you’re preparing it, rather than waiting until the end. 

Steeping Can Make or Break Your Tea

Another big issue when it comes to bitterness in tea is how long you allow your tea to steep. Steeping it for too short of a time can lead to a bland flavor, but steeping it for too long can cause bitterness. However, of course, there are more ways that steeping can ruin your tea. 

The best temperature for tea steeping is also important. Tea leaves are sensitive, and steeping your tea in water that’s too hot can actually cause the leaves to go into shock. By doing so, the leaves will release less of those desirable, tasty compounds and instead release more tannins that turn your tea bitter. 

Age and Freshness

Old tea is always going to be bitter. Over time, tea leaves lose a lot of their flavor, so regardless of whether or not you steep it for too long or in water that’s too hot, it will turn bitter. Freshness goes hand in hand with this issue. Tea that’s been improperly stored loses freshness and ages faster. 

Note: For reference, properly packaged tea has a shelf life of about two years.

How to Prevent Bitterness in Tea

Preventing your tea from turning bitter is easier than you might think. Some helpful tips are:

  • Taste as you go. You wouldn’t make a nice sauce to go with your dinner without tasting it first, and the same should be true for tea. This way, you’ll know what you’ve added and if you’ve gone overboard. 
  • Be careful steeping. Most teas will come with instructions about how long to steep your tea and how hot the water should be. These instructions aren’t just for fun. Tasting also comes into play here. Take a sip at the minimum steep time, then take a sip every minute thereafter until you reach your desired potency and flavor. 
  • Take the teabag out of the cup or the pot. A lot of movies and TV shows often show the characters drinking the tea as it steeps. However, realistically, this either means your tea was not ready or will be bitter by the end. Instead, only enjoy the tea once you can remove the bag. Good tea is worth the wait. 
  • Invest in proper storage. If you keep tea in bulk, you need to make sure you can properly store it. The best way to do this is in a hard container with an airtight lid so that the leaves are unable to oxidize. 

Can You Save Bitter Tea?

Yes! Bitter tea can absolutely be saved! Just because your tea is bitter doesn’t mean you have to throw it out. Sometimes, it is salvageable. Start by adding some sweetener. If that doesn’t cut through the bitterness, you can add a tiny pinch of baking soda. This should help to at least lessen the bitterness so that it’s bearable for drinking, even if the problem was something like the age of your leaves. 

The Bitter End – Doesn’t have to Be the Future for Your Cup of Tea

Bitter tea is an extremely common problem, and it’s one that’s almost completely avoidable. The best thing you can do to prevent bitterness in your tea is to pay attention to it and make sure that nothing you’re doing is going to cause it. If the bitterness is still too much after you’ve tried a few quick fixes, then consider choosing a different, milder variety. 

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