If you’re reading this, you may have grown up drinking bagged tea. The paper bags with a string attached by a staple may be a comforting memory of a childhood spent sipping tea with your mom or favorite aunt.
Steeping loose tea leaves may sound exotic. It did to me.
My own childhood experience was sipping tea with my mom and then later a college roomie. I thought I was so cool squeezing out the last drop of water from the tea bag with the string.
Seven years ago I discovered what I wish I knew sooner about using loose tea.
I stumbled upon steeping loose tea leaves while researching the health benefits of different foods. After I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 29, I wanted to find ways to tweak my routines to make them healthier.
I figured each tweak added up to a healthier lifestyle.
I was surprised to find that I drank tea in the least healthy — and least tasty — way possible.
My old routine was plopping a teabag full of tea dust into a mug, pouring boiling water inside, then spooning in gobs of sugar. If I was in the mood I’d stuff fresh mint leaves or drop a couple cloves inside to perk it up.
I wish I’d known these 9 secrets to steeping loose tea leaves years ago.
They would’ve saved me from years of drinking what I now consider gross tea.
1. Tea isn’t supposed to make your mouth pucker.
Have you ever sipped a tea that made your taste buds so sour that you can’t help but squinch your face? (Is “squinch” a word?)
I didn’t know what tea was supposed to taste like, so I guzzled it down figuring that’s how tea was supposed to taste. I’d add sugar to make it “better.”
Turns out my problem was number 2.
2. Take the tea out of the water before you drink it.
We brew dried tea leaves in hot water to extract the natural oils from the tea plant. Each plant is developed just like grapes would be to make wine.
When we steep tea leaves in hot water too long, the hot water continues to extract oils from the tea leaves that often creates a bitter brew.
Tea isn’t supposed to be bitter, and you shouldn’t have to add sugar for it to taste good.
Water temperature and steep times differ for each tea, but here’s a good rule of thumb:
If the tea leaf is black, it’s okay to use boiling or almost boiling water to brew.
If the tea leaf is lighter (colorful or green), boil water but let it sit about 5 minutes before pouring over your tea.
Once you know the temp of your water, steep loose tea leaves for 1 to 2 minutes to see if you like the tea. The liquor should be aromatic, and the flavors should come out. Something other than bitter or strong are what you’re looking for to start.
3. Just because a tea infuser has been around forever doesn’t mean it’s the best way to steep loose leaf tea.
Tea infusers are not created equally.
When I was a kid, I wondered what the spoon with the lid on it with lots of holes was meant to do. Turns out, it was meant to steep loose leaf tea. I’d never actually seen it used before.
The problem with these compact infusers is that they don’t allow loose tea leaves to expand. When the leaves can’t expand, they can’t release all the delicious oils inside. This also means that you can’t re-steep your leaves as often because the flavors are trapped inside. (Remember, we’re supposed to re-steep loose tea leaves.)
You can hear the little leaves squished inside their prison chirping, “Help me! Help me!” Too much? That’s how my brain works.
The best way to steep loose leaf tea is to use a larger tea accessory like this one. Something stainless steel that allows the tea leaves to expand is ideal.
4. We get more complex flavors from using loose tea leaves than its dust counterpart.
What is tea dust? In the tea world, they’re called fannings. They’re the tiny particles of tea usually found in bags at the grocery store.
They’re the tea remains originally swept off the manufacturer’s floor and then placed into the relatively new invention of the tea bag. Now tea leaves are purposefully crushed into tiny bits to meet consumer demand for bagged tea dust.
Tea dust has the benefit of brewing quickly, but the disadvantage of being less flavorful and not re-steepable. (I’m making up words all over the place, I know. Stay with me.)
Over the years, the manufacturers added natural and artificial flavors to create a better tasting product.
But it’s still nothing like the original.
Loose leaf showcases different flavors of green tea, white, oolong, black, etc. You can’t get all these rich flavors and aromas with bagged tea.
5. We get more healthy oils from steeping loose tea leaves too.
When tea is crushed — or totally oxidized — much of the leaf’s natural oils evaporate. These natural oils are what’s extracted when steeping loose tea leaves. They also contain much of the tea leaf’s flavor and health benefits.
6. You can re-steep loose leaf tea multiple times.
Unlike tea dust, you can steep loose tea leaves multiple times to extract more delicious flavors each time.
Because much of the natural oils are still within the tea leaf, you can have more than one extraction. That’s a big difference between a quality tea and a poor quality tea.
You can steep loose leaf leaves up to four times in most cases. There are some teas you can steep even more.
7. Just because a premium coffee house knows coffee doesn’t mean they make good tea.
If you’re spending $6 on a cup of tea, you’d better enjoy it. Many premium coffee houses pride themselves on selling quality tea too. The problem I’ve discovered is that the baristas aren’t trained properly on steeping loose tea leaves. They want to be helpful, but they oftentimes insist on serving your tea when it’s “done.”
Take control of year tea experience and ask to get your tea before they think it’s done brewing. They usually steep it too long.
8. Just because it’s a name brand doesn’t mean they’re selling quality tea.
Unfortunately, people aren’t used to drinking good tea anymore.
Tea lovers often say loose tea is up and coming, but until people recognize the value of loose leaf tea — the superior flavor, the higher amount of healthy oils — the market will continue to be flooded with sub-par tea.
The biggest names in the tea world won’t carry the good stuff until people speak up and ask for it.
9. Life’s too short for sub-par tea.
After breast cancer, my perspective on my quality of life changed.
I realized that I settled for less than I deserved in a lot of areas in my life. Tea happened to be one of them.
Now, when I sip tea I’ve over-brewed or I’m faced with the decision about whether to drink lackluster tea dust at a coffee house, I say, “No, thank you.”
I don’t have time for second best.
It’s time we get what we deserve and stop settling.