Some people are in love with coffee, but as for myself, I’m in love with tea.
I will admit that my preference began for slightly petty reasons. Everyone I knew in my family was partial to coffee and I wanted to be contrary. Later in life, however, I learned that while I enjoyed the smell of coffee, I wasn’t really a fan of the taste.
I’m sorry to any coffee drinkers enjoying my content that I may disappoint with this revelation.
Like many tea drinkers in the world, I began my tea journey with the bags of tea that I could purchase at any local supermarket, but my world was expanded the minute I discovered a store in a local mall selling loose leaf teas. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing could exist, although I’m not entirely sure why. The tea in the bags had to come from somewhere, after all.
And after my first taste of a cup of tea brewed from loose tea leaves, I knew I would have a hard time going back to bagged tea.
I’ve sung the praises of loose leaf tea so many times since then that I know some friends have wanted to try it, too, but have gotten a bit overwhelmed which is completely understandable. Between the numerous varieties and blends that exist and various brewing methods, it makes it a bit difficult to know where to start.
“But why?” I can hear some of you asking. “Isn’t tea just tea?”
Well… yes and no. This is why I wrote up this beginner’s guide to loose leaf tea, so anyone who might just be starting their journey into the world of loose leaf tea may have a better idea of what they’re getting into.
What is Loose Leaf Tea, Anyway?
Quite simply, loose leaf tea is, well, tea that hasn’t been prepackaged into tea bags, but there’s a little more to it than that.
When tea is packed into those little tea bags, it gets crushed into particularly tiny pieces, meaning you lose a lot of the flavor, aroma, and health benefits of the tea you’re drinking.
That’s not to say that you can’t still have a damn tasty cup of tea from a teabag, of course. I’ve had several. However, the resulting cup of tea from the tea in the tea bags is not going to be nearly as robust as what you would get if you were steeping whole leaves.
Additionally, loose leaf teas are actually more economical. With tea bags, it’s recommended you use each bag once and that’s it. Once you’re done with the box (which can happen fairly quickly if you drink tea multiple times a day), you need to go out and buy more. With loose leaf tea, however, the same scoop of leaves you use to brew one cup of tea can actually be re-steeped several times and, surprisingly, you don’t lose anything in the experience. You’re actually saving some money there.
What to Look For
When it comes to what to look for with your loose leaf tea, you’ll want to avoid the quality of tea that you tend to find in bags. These are usually little more than tea dust where the leaves have been crushed beyond all recognition. You want to look for broken leaf or whole leaf teas. These can usually be found at some local health food stores, but can more commonly be found at specialty tea shops or even at various chain shops online.
I’d recommend starting at some specialty shops if you can, most of which do have a presence online, as I’ve found a lot more whole leaf teas from them and whole leaf teas actually make a superior cup of tea.
Whole leaf tea expands and unfurls as it steeps. This actually produces more flavor in the cup of tea you’ll eventually be drinking. When you steep the stuff in the bag, the smaller tea particles actually over steep, causing the resulting beverage to taste fairly bitter. The bitterness from bagged tea is actually what turns a lot of people off of drinking tea in general, at least in my experience, and we want to avoid that.
What to Try First
The first thing I remember about setting foot in that store of loose leaf tea I mentioned early on in this post was that I was completely overwhelmed by choice. I remember the back wall of the store was covered with large air-tight tubs of loose leaf tea of different varieties.
It’s easy to look at any specialty shop’s offerings and feel completely lost and overwhelmed. You might even be thinking to yourself that you have no idea what to even try first. So here are some general ideas to get you started.
If all you’ve been drinking up until this point has been bagged tea, you may already have a head start on a lot of people. If you’ve developed a preference there, it may not be a bad idea to start in the category of tea that you’ve enjoyed the most in the past. For example, if you’re a fan of chais or green teas, you can usually find some amazing quality teas in a similar flavor profile.
However, if you’ve tried tea in the past and haven’t been a fan of the bitterness, it might be a good idea for you to start on the opposite end of the spectrum from where you started. Herbal or dessert teas might just be your thing as they’re generally on the sweeter side. Some teas in these categories may also have dried fruit in them, so if there’s a particular kind of fruit you’re partial to, the tea blends that have your favorite fruit might just be the starting place for you.
Barring any of that, a lot of places, especially specialty shops, carry sampler packs with an assortment of their offerings in them. Hell, I’ve been drinking loose leaf tea for a while now, and I still go for sampler packs from time to time. They’re a good way to try a variety of teas that I might not normally go for on my own, and sometimes, I even find new favorites!
How to Make Your Tea
So you’ve got your tea and now you need to figure out what to do with it. Fortunately, most companies will lay out brewing instructions right on the packaging of your tea of choice.
The frustrating thing, at least for beginners, is that steeping instructions tend to assume you know what you’re doing which is not exactly helpful if you’ve never actually done this before. Fortunately, once you know the basics of how to steep your tea, it’s pretty easy from there.
Before you even begin, you need to know exactly how much tea you’re making. The best ratio from what I’ve found is 1/2 a teaspoon of leaves for every 8oz of tea you plan to make. So if your favorite mug holds 16oz of liquid, you’re looking at putting a whole teaspoon of leaves in whatever you’re planning on steeping it in.
You’ll also notice that a lot of teas will give you a range of time to steep your tea for (as an example, 3–5 minutes). When you’ve just put fresh leaves into whatever you’re using to steep your tea, you should be starting at the lowest number in that range. So if you’re told 3–5 minutes, steep your tea for 3 minutes. If you decide you like your tea a little stronger, you can increase it from there, but starting at the lowest increment is always the best place to start.
And remember how I said you can steep those leaves multiple times earlier? Those are generally what the higher numbers in that range of time you’ve been given are for.
And that’s the basics of —
Wait! Does water temperature matter?
Well, this is actually a subject of debate in parts of the tea community. Some people say the temperature of the water doesn’t matter. Other people say it does.
Personally, I hold the belief that water temperature is important. Too high, and you may scald the tea or make it even more bitter than you intended. Too low, and the cup you’re drinking from may not be flavorful enough. Some sing the praises of temperature-controlled kettles for just such a thing!
However, while the water temperature is important, you can actually work around not having that temperature-controlled kettle. Water boils at 212°F, so if that’s the temperature you’re told to steep your leaves at, you’re all set! If you need your water to not be quite that hot, however, you can turn the burner off under whatever you’re boiling your water in and let the water cool a bit before adding it to whatever you’re steeping your tea in.
But these are some of the basics for your first steps into the world of loose leaf tea! Hope it helps point you in the right direction.
Originally published on Medium on February 18, 2022.
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