A Guide to Steeping Loose Leaf Tea


 Dec 17, 2016 |  Written by Anupa Mueller

Over the years, we've heard just about every comment about steeping loose leaf Tea:

  • I hate Green tea - it's just too bitter!
  • Mine never comes out like yours!
  • When I make it at home, it's always too watery.
  • I can't taste anything!
  • I just stick to English Breakfast - it comes out perfect!
  • What am I doing wrong?!

    Yes, we understand your frustration. So let me share the 3 secrets to making the perfect cup every time.  Master these and I guarantee you will get the intended nuance from each cup. 

    But first, a little background.  Why do so many face such a problem?  Well, consider how tea got started in the U.S.  The first teas used were Black loose leaf tea. With the invention of teabags, the popularity of black tea was further accelerated. Consumers were initially introduced to the English & Irish way of making tea - one for the cup and one for the pot.  A fairly large amount of loose leaf tea was used for each pot and as each cup was poured out, more hot water was added. The leaves were left to steep in the pot. Black tea was usually dark and strong.  

    When teabags came into the picture, the smallest particles of Tea (Fannings) were used and the convenience of a quick cup was introduced.  You steeped the bag for a few seconds and, in an instant, you had a cup of tea .

    Silver Tips Tea Loose Leaf Tea vs. Tea bag

    In the last 20 years, the Tea market radically changed. Suddenly the media was writing stories on the benefits of Green Tea, the cooling properties of White tea, the antioxidants in Rooibos, the soothing qualities of herbal blends. The consumer, who previously had only encountered Black Tea, now had to contend with these new and engaging varieties of Tea and went into this marketplace with the only experience and customs they knew - namely, how to make Black Tea. And that's where the problems began because all Teas do not behave the same.

    But we can fix all that. Let's go back to the 3 secrets:

    SECRET #1 - USE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF LEAF:  The average consumer will use a common kitchen spoon or scoop to measure out tea. Professionally, we measure out 2.2 grams per cup of tea. This is wildly impractical for the average person. Therefore, since leaf styles are extremely varied, using the traditional one spoon per cup can give you mixed results.  Here are 3 leaf styles  - Gunpowder Green on the left, Black in the middle, Yin Zhen White on the right.  All are 2.2 grams!

    You will notice immediately that using 'one spoon per cup' will be problematic. Each spoon will hold a different amount since the density and style of each is different.  You will end up with too much tea or too little tea for your cup. So, the first rule is to get the amount right.  Follow the directions provided with each tea. We instruct you to use a scant or heaped teaspoon or tablespoon if need be.  If you purchase from a company that doesn't provide this detail, change your tea supplier! This is fundamental. Just as you would not purchase a packaged food without directions, you should not purchase Tea without receiving directions unique to that particular tea.  If you are a newcomer to Tea or to a specific tea, first start by following the directions provided.

    SECRET #2 - STEEP AT THE CORRECT WATER TEMPERATURE:  Once again, the experience of most consumers with Black Tea influenced behavior.  A nice hot cup of tea is what most people knew.  This meant putting a kettle on the stove and boiling the water.  For Black Tea - this is perfect.  Nothing is worse than a tepid cup of Black Tea. Most black teas are robust and strong and take well to the addition of milk or lemon, if desired.

    For Green and Oolong teas, however, the cup is much lighter.  The liquor is not as thick, the tea is more nuanced, the leaves are manufactured differently and the taste is only experienced at less-than-boiling temperatures.  Additionally, the taste of Green & Oolong Teas change as they cool and often become milder & sweeter. None of this was communicated to the average consumer as these teas became popular.  So, as each customer was introduced to Green Tea, initially because of its widely touted benefits, they didn't necessarily enjoy the taste or stick with it. We can change that. Just follow our guidelines below.

    For most Black Teas, use fresh water from the tap, bring to first boil, then pour over leaves. Here are some tips to avoid:

    1. Don't let the water over-boil.  
    2. After each use, empty your kettle and begin with fresh water every time.  
    3. Do not microwave the water. 

    Many steeping charts are available on the internet - here is just one example. 

    For Green Teas, boil water as you would for Black Teas, then allow to sit for a minute or two, if possible with the lid off.  Prepare your teapot or tea mug with your choice of Green or Oolong tea.  Pour slowly and, if possible, from 4 - 8 inches away from the teapot or mug. The very act of pouring from one receptacle to another lowers the temperature by at least 10 degrees.  Let the tea steep with the lid on or slightly ajar.  Pour and enjoy the tea as it cools. Re-infuse the steeped leaves for all Greens and Oolongs - each cup will be slightly different and quite remarkable.  Extend every subsequent infusion by about 20 seconds. Nothing should be added to Green tea, nor is it needed.  Green tea is enjoyed for a range of exquisite tastes.  It is variously grassy, toasty, floral, woodsy, mellow, smokey with notes of fruit and honey.  It is always lighter in the cup compared to Black Tea. 

    SECRET #3 - STEEP FOR THE CORRECT LENGTH OF TIME:  Yet again, consumers bring their Black Tea experience to bear.  Black Teas are often termed 'forgiving'. You can over-steep an Assam, Nilgiri or Yunnan and the resultant cup is very drinkable. Sometimes it even enhances the taste.  But there are entire categories of Teas where over-steeping or under-steeping can be fatal.  In Black Teas, Darjeelings, considered 'the champagne of teas' cannot be treated like strong Assams or Breakfast teas.  They are lighter in the cup and a 3-minute steep or less is sufficient.  Over-steeping a Darjeeling results in a bitter, astringent cup. Use a tea-timer or your kitchen timer.

    The same is true with Green Teas which can  be infused multiple times.  Start with 2 minutes.  As you gain more experience with this category and develop some favorites, you may wish to steep them differently to your own preferred taste. For some Oolongs and Greens, a very short 1-minute steep is ideal.  A 'washing' technique is recommended for some, e.g. the richly toasty Wu Yi Oolong.  Here hot water is poured over the leaves to 'wash' the leaves, discarded after 10 - 15 seconds and the leaves are then re-steeped and poured for tasting. Once again, your tea vendor should guide you through the nuances of each so you can get the maximum enjoyment out of each cup.  Green & Oolong Teas are a great value for your money.  One spoon of leaf can give you 3-4 steeps and many cups of pure pleasure. 

    Master these three tips and you are on the way to making a perfect cup of tea every time.

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