Tea Brewing 101: An Introduction to Loose Leaf Tea

Loose leaf tea is the way to go. Loose leaf has been gaining popularity over tea bags because the difference in quality is easy to taste. The tea in regular tea bags at the grocery store have the grade of fannings. Fannings are the smallest pieces of broken tea before the dust grade. Literally the bottom of the barrel, broken tea has lost essential oils and other chemicals that are the flavor and taste of the tea. Also it will dry out and go stale quickly. Once you have had loose leaf tea, you will notice how dull and broken bagged tea tastes in comparison.


The other reason for the loose leaf resurgence is because people are realizing that loose leaf tea is also economical. At first glance, loose leaf tea seems more expensive because the price of the bag on the shelf may be $8, and you know at the grocery store there are boxes of tea for $2.50. The box of tea at the grocery store probably has 20 bags of tea, about 12.5¢ per cup of tea. The loose leaf tea says 3 oz. As we will discuss below, the rule is to use 2 grams of loose-leaf tea per cup. There are about 85 grams in 3 oz, so there are 42.5 cups of tea in a 3 oz. loose-leaf package. The loose-leaf will be around 19¢ per cup of tea, just 5¢ more for much better quality.

The only thing to stop you now is the convenience of tea bags. If you like tea brewed in bags, you can buy tea filters, large bags to fill with loose leaf tea and brew in-cup. Learning to brew loose leaf tea isn’t difficult, and you don’t need fancy equipment. Do you have a small strainer, 2 cups, and a kettle? If you do, you have enough equipment to start brewing at home. Just brew the tea in one cup with hot water from the kettle, and strain into the other. For well-made tea, there are some parameters you should follow, and then adjust according to the individual tea. Here is what you need to know to make good tea:

1.)Temperature

To get the best flavors out of tea, it should be brewed at the correct temperature. Using water that is too hot for the tea can destroy some of the flavors and aromas, and coax too much of the bitter alkaloids out of green and white teas. Black Tea is usually brewed at 200ºF to boiling, though just under boiling is considered best. Green and white teas should be brewed at a lower temperature, 170ºF to 185ºF. Oolong tea should be brewed between these temperatures for green and black teas, 185ºF to 205ºF.

To brew green tea without a thermometer, set the kettle aside on a cool burner for 3 minutes after boiling, for oolong 2 minutes, or for black tea 30 seconds. The water should be in the correct temperature range when the time is up. A cold teapot will reduce the temperature of the water you use for brewing. It is a good idea to warm your pot before adding the tea leaves by running hot water through it.

2.) Quantity

The general rule is 2 grams of tea leaves per 6 ounces of water. What works best will vary from tea to tea and with individual taste for the strength of tea. How many teaspoons equals 2 grams will vary with the size of the tea, because a teaspoon is a measure of volume whereas a gram is a measure of weight. If you don’t have a scale in your kitchen, hopefully the tea has brewing instructions with the quantity in teaspoons. If not, it is safe to use a teaspoon per 6 oz water for most teas. If the tea is cut or rolled into balls, keep the teaspoon level. If the tea has large bulky leaves, like our Coconut White tea, use a tablespoon per 6 oz water. Six ounces is .75 cups. That is the size of traditional coffee and tea cups, the small kind that come with saucers. Your standard mug at home is probably 12 ounces.

3.) Steeping Time

A good way to test the best brew time for a new tea is to pour a bit for tasting after 2 minutes, and for every 30 second interval afterward. Assess the color and the flavor to determine the best brew time for your tastes and the individual tea. The general rules for steep time are 1-3 minutes for green and white tea, 1-5 minutes for oolong, and 3-5 minutes for black tea, and 5 minutes for rooibos and tisanes (aka herbal tea.) These rules work for most teas, but they won’t work for Japanese green teas. To keep Sencha from becoming bitter, steep for less than a minute or simply pour the water over the leaves in a strainer.

4.) Equipment

Equipment for loose leaf tea ranges from simple filter bags and in-cup infusers, to teapots and other tea making contraptions. My personal favorite is the teapot, because it is classic and collectible. There are two functional qualities to look for when selecting tea brewing equipment, space for the leaves to unfurl and the ability to stop the brewing process. The more space you have for the leaves to unfurl, the more leaf surface area in contact with the water and the more room for leaves to move in the hot water, giving you richer taste. When brewing is done, you want to be able to remove the leaves from the tea (removable infuser or filters), shut out the leaves from the tea (shut-off infuser), or serve all the tea immediately so that the brew doesn’t become bitter.

5.) Water Quality

Brewed tea is 99% water. Water quality makes a huge difference in the taste of tea. This parameter should not be skipped. Some tea experts will claim that only water melted off of pristine glaciers will bring out the magnificence of the tea. That would make exceptional tea, but I prefer to source my ingredients closer to home. I have found that spring water and even tap water, if it is tasty tap water, can bring out the best in tea. In general, water that tastes good will make tea that tastes good.

Water for tea should be not too hard or too soft, taste pure (no chlorine or other chemicals,) be oxygenated, and have a neutral pH of 7 or be slightly acidic. Water that is too hard will taint the flavor of the tea. Soft water won’t bring out enough of the flavor and aromatic compounds in the tea, and the tea will taste flat. Taste your water at home. It should taste pure and crisp, free of chemicals, and sometimes a bit sweet. If it tastes flat and dull, and maybe a bit salty, it is too soft for tea. If your water tastes strongly of minerals or chemicals, you can try filtering it at the tap or in a filtering pitcher, and then taste it again. If you need or want to use bottled water, choose spring water (or glacial water). It will extract the best flavor from the tea. Avoid distilled water, it has been boiled already and stripped of minerals and oxygen. Distilled water will leave the tea tasting flat.

One last thing, boil fresh, cold water every time, and don’t boil the water too long. You can boil water and keep it at temperature, but boiling the same water twice will cause it to loose too much oxygen. Oxygen is needed to bring out the flavor in tea.

Those of us who live in Dayton are lucky! There is an aquifer providing the city with water that is decent for tea. When I moved to Dayton two years ago, I was shocked by how good the tap water tastes here. The cities surrounding Dayton don’t have the same water. If you live in the city of Dayton, try using the tap water for your tea, but taste it first. I have noticed chlorine added to the water sometimes around midnight or on the days before the city does testing on the water.

If you have been using teabags, I hope you try loose leaf tea soon. Quality tea brewed correctly has subtle flavors and individual character that is wonderful to experience. Happy tea drinking!

General Tea Steeping Guide

Tea Temperature Steeping Time
Green and White Teas 170-185°F 1-3 minutes
Black Teas 200-210°F 3-5 minutes
Rooibos and Herbal Tisanes 200-210°F 5 minutes
Oolong 185-205°F 1-5 minutes

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