Fish Eyes in your Kettle: Chinese Water Temperature Methods


The Record of Tea (茶录)

As you probably know, different kinds of tea need to be steeped at different temperatures to ensure you are getting the best flavour out of your tea. This is particularly true of delicate whole-leaf green teas which may be most optimally steeped at temperatures as low as 70°C (155°F). But how do you know when to stop your kettle at a lower temperature than boiling? There are of course temperature-controlled kettles out there, but if all you have is a kettle or a pot in your kitchen then you can use the traditional Chinese methods of determining water temperature by paying close attention to the way the water changes as it boils.

This method has been used for hundreds of years by the Chinese for cooking and for steeping tea. As an example, Cai Xiang (蔡襄, 1012-1067) – successful politician, Song Dynasty calligrapher, and expert in tea – wrote a famous book called the Record of Tea (茶錄) in 1049. In it he wrote about many important tea topics, and includes a reference to the use of shrimp eyes, crab eyes, fish eyes, and string of pearls for use in determine the temperature of boiling water. These different stages of water boiling are described below:

Shrimp Eyes (虾眼)

Shrimp Eyes: the first small bubbles appear

The first small bubbles – about the size of a shrimp’s eyes – start to appear at the bottom of the water. The temperature has now just broken about 70°C (155°F). This lower temperature is perfect to bring out the flavour of delicate teas without “burning” the leaves and to avoid bringing out the bitterness. Use it for very fine green teas, such as Longjin (龙井), Biluochun (碧螺春), or Japanese Sencha (煎茶).

Crab Eyes (蟹眼)

The bubbles grow and wisps of steam appear

The bubbles grow larger to a “crab eye” size, and the first small wisps of steam will start to be visible from the top of the water. The temperature is now around 80°C (175°F), which is great for white teas like Silver Needle (銀針), a some green teas like Gunpowder tea (珠茶), and more delicate oolong teas such as Oriental Beauty (东方美人) .

Fish Eyes (鱼眼)

Fish Eyes: the first bubbles rise to the top

Bubbles the size of a fish’ eye start to appear and start to rise to the top. If you’re using a kettle, this will be the first time you’ll be able to hear it making noises. The water temperature is now around 85°C (185°F) so take the kettle off now for most oolong teas: Dongding Ooolong (冻顶乌龙), High-Mountain Oolong (高山乌龙), or Qilan (奇兰). It’s also good for black teas that aren’t fully oxidized This is the absolutely hottest temperature you should steep any green tea, even the cheap stuff you picked up in Chinatown.

String of Pearls (连珠)

String of Pearls: bubbles are now rapidly rising to the top of the water

A steady stream of bubbles forms that look like a string of pearls on a string. The temperature is now between about 90-95°C (195–205°F). This temperature is suitable for aged or ripe Pu’erh teas (陳年普洱), many whole-leaf black teas such as Dianhong (滇紅) and Keemun (祁门红), and heartier Oolongs like Dahong Pao (大红袍) or “Iron Goddess” Tieguanyin (铁观音).

Raging Torrent (翻腾) (騰波鼓浪)

Raging Torrent: a “rolling boil”

The “rolling boil” in English, the temperature has now reached 100°C (212°F). This temperature right for strong black teas like Lapsan Souchong (正山小种), Ceylon, Darjeeling, and your everyday “builders” tea in teabags. It’s also right for tisanes (herbal “tea”).

Hopefully this post gives you an easy cheat sheet to help you get the right tea temperature for a given tea. With a little bit of practice this time-tested method will allow you to get the right temperature for your water and help you get the most out of your tea.

Update: the folks over at Más Que Té have translated this article into Spanish! Check it out: Ojos de pez en tu “kettle”: métodos chinos para medir la temperatura del agua.

Beyond the bag: why whole leaf is better


You are almost certainly familiar with bagged tea, the familiar product that appears on grocery store shelves and in hotels and restaurants worldwide. While convenient and cheap – for shipping, storing, and preparing – the famous teabag steeps a tea that, while drinkable, pales in comparison to a well-steeped cup of whole leaf tea. So why are teabags so bad? Read on…

A photo of the inside of a tea bag, loose leaf tea, and full leaf tea

Three black teas: tea bag, loose leaf, and whole leaf

To understand what’s wrong with a teabag, it’s useful to know what’s inside. When tea is processed, the dried leaves are sorted according to their size using a tea leaf sorting machine.

A leaf sorting machine from a tea plantation

Each level has leaves (or parts of leaves) and branches of differing sizes.

The sorting machine has has a rack of vibrating shelves with holes of different size ranging from large on the top rack down to very small on the bottom rack. Tea leaves are picked and dried (and possibly go through stages of fermentation, depending on the type of tea being produced), and they are dumped into the top of the machine.

The biggest and fullest leaves are found near the top. The leaf is almost, if not completely, intact. This is the “whole leaf tea” that this blog is all about. A little further down and you start to find leaf fragments that typically end up selling as “loose leaf tea”, especially in blended teas.

So what comes out of the bottom of this monster? Little scraps of tea leaves and branches, called the “fannings” or “dustings”. This is the stuff of bagged tea.

So what’s the problem? It’s still tea, right? Perhaps an analogy would be best here. Pretend a friend has told you about a great bakery down the road that she frequents regularly. You’ve heard great reviews so you decide to check it out. But when you get there, instead of trying a fresh loaf of their acclaimed whole wheat, you opt instead for a bag of breadcrumbs they swept up off the floor. It’s not quite the same experience.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s a time and a place for breadcrumbs. But you’re fooling yourself if you think it’s the same as the bread.

A close up view of the inside of a typical tea bag

What’s inside of a typical tea bag

The dustings inside of a teabag have a large surface area for their size. This means that the tea will steep quickly, but also that the bitterness and tannins will come out very quickly as well. There is a relatively accepted method of brewing black tea in teabags to minimize the bitterness (see this post for more information), but you’re never going to be able to get the full flavors out of most teas if you’re steeping the dustings.

Ironically, while “whole leaf” tea seems like an advanced concept, the lower surface area and longer steeping times actually makes them easier to brew for the amateur. If you’re just getting into tea, I strongly recommend jumping right into the whole leaf varieties from the start.

And that’s why this blog exists: to help everyone from the amateur to the tea enthusiast to learn more about loose leaf and whole leaf teas and, ultimately, how to steep a better cup.