One of the most basic and most emphasized aspects of brewing tea any more seriously than from a bag with a yellow label is water temperature. Plenty of people adhere to stringent guidelines requiring temperature to be measured precisely with a thermometer to ensure it's always at just the right temperature to infuse x kind of tea. I'm not one of those people.
I may have no use for a thermometer in my daily brewing, but that's not to say I don't pay any attention to temperature. In general, I brew my greens cooler (65-80C depending on how tough or delicate the individual tea is), my oolongs warmer (80-90C), and my pu'erhs hot (+95C), but really I'm all about brewing tea by intuition. If I think a tea can take it warmer or needs it cooler, I adjust accordingly, and in general I find measuring and re-measuring the temperature of the water being used is more of a distraction from the tea making process than an aid to it. Admittedly, it doesn't work out every time, but even then I look at it as an opportunity to learn more about the tea I'm drinking and about how I can adjust my brewing style to compensate for unwanted characteristics such as excessive bitterness or astringency. However, as much as I may learn a lot from tea brewed at a less-than-ideal temperature, the goal is always ultimately to make a better cup of tea, so at the end of the day the reason I do what I do is because it works for me. Or worked.
Ever since I started drinking hot plant-based beverages I've been relying on your average plastic household kettle to heat the water. You know the type, they've got a metal coil element to heat the water, a plug for the wall, and a spout so large that it's difficult to hit anything smaller than a kitchen sink with any kind of reliable accuracy; on the whole not great for gongfu cha. For that reason, I've been looking for a better kettle for a while, and this past Monday one finally came in the mail. It's a ceramic kettle, stand, and burner set from Teamasters, and it's an excellent product. It heats water reasonably quickly (fifteen minutes to a boil from warm tapwater), pours a fine and accurate stream, and even noticeably improves the mouthfeel of the water put in it. In fact, the part that really lets this product down is the soft fleshy bit attached to the bamboo handle. My plastic kettle may not have been ideal, but I habitually estimate the water temperature based on the size of the bubbles that are coming off the element, and with practice I got to be quite good at it (during an experiment comparing my guesses to simultaneous readings taken using a meat thermometer I came consistently within a few degrees C of the actual temperature). With a new kettle using an element-free design, I need to re-learn how to estimate water temperature.
The dual prongs of bitter defeat.
Although I am usually loathe to use a thermometer as an aid to brewing tea, in this case it was necessary. For science (ah, the sweet allure of that quintessentially available justification...). I preheated some water in the plastic kettle and poured it into the ceramic one which then got placed on the burner. After playing the waiting game for a little while, I opened the lid and saw a handful of small streams of bubbles perhaps a few millimeters in diameter, the appearance of which I thought would signal approximately 85C. As it turned out, the actual temperature was 95C! No wonder the first tea I drank with this kettle got massacred.
My notes on the signs of reaching different water temperatures show that steam will probably be most practical indicator of water temperature, with light and heavy wafts from an open lid indicating 75C and 85C respectively. For my pu'erhs, I think I'll just continue to rely on the bubbles and the audible 'tinks' they make as they burst into existance. In the meantime, I've resigned myself to using a digital meat thermometer for occasional temperature checks to prevent the slaughter of innocent leaves. Although this has so far been successful, I do look forward to once again casting off this crutch.
(Note: I started writing this post this past Friday but waited until today to put it up to allow the inclusion of photos and better data, so everything since then has been brewed using temperature checks including the sessions that formed the basis of reviews.)