Getting to Know Your Tea Terms: Brew, Infuse, Steep

An infusion of 2011 Spring Handmade
Imperial Xin Yang Mo Jian (Hairy Tips)
Green Tea

As you read through tea blogs like this one, you will see three terms used in a manner that makes them seem synonymous. The question here is: are they really the same thing tea-wise?


While “brew” is most often used with things like beer, it is often used, especially in certain cultures, to mean making a beverage by boiling, steeping, or mixing various ingredients such as tea leaves. Some sites claim that the water and tea leaves have to be continually boiling (I think this is a bit of an error and that they really mean it has to be brought to a boil over a heat source and then have the heat turned down so everything can simmer). This is also known as “decoction” — placing plant matter in a non-aluminum pot with cool water, bringing the mixture to a boil, simmering the mixture until two-thirds of the water has evaporated, and then straining the mixture before consumption.

For brewing beer, the grains are boiled and kept in high heat and then left sitting to ferment. Tea is usually not left sitting to ferment with the exception of post-fermented teas. Beer and other alcoholic beverages versus tea have their own individual material nature needing a different set of parameters to best bring out their taste and aroma. Tea can even be infused cold in the fridge.


To infuse is generally defined (where tea or tisanes are concerned) as to soak leaves, bark, roots, etc., in a liquid so as to extract the soluble properties or ingredients. One person commented: “An infusion is a very concentrated brew made with one ounce of the herb and allowed to steep for several hours. To get an idea, 1 oz dry herb in 1-2 cups.” This makes it seem as if this term is more appropriate for herbals instead of teas (as in “herbal infusions”). However, it is often used for tea, too. Another person claims that infusing means “pouring hot water over plant matter (such as dried leaves or berries), waiting for a period of time and then removing the plant matter before consumption.” And yet another definition is: “soak (tea, herbs, etc.) in liquid to extract the flavour or healing properties”.

Tea is not brewed, but infused, according to one Chinese tea site. They point out that to infuse a tea means to let the substances within the tea leaves come out to merge with the liquid (usually water) surrounding the leaves and that “infusion” is more accurate than any Chinese word for the process. It gives a better picture of the relationship between the process and the tea.


To steep is usually defined as to soak or be soaked in a liquid in order to soften or cleanse. That’s it. Pretty simple. To me this doesn’t seem to relate to tea. The purpose of putting the leaves in hot water isn’t ultimately to soften or cleanse them, but to infuse them, that is, to pull out of them their various essences.

Bottom Line

While this is largely academic (people will use whichever term they are accustomed to using and/or hearing others use), it would seem that the winner here is “infuse” as being the most accurate in defining what you do with tea leaves. There you have it, for what it’s worth!

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
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