Monday, July 30, 2012

Learning to Like Tea Part 3: Loose-leaf

You remember how, back in April, I posted Part 1 and Part 2 on learning how to like tea?

Part 3: Loose Leaf Tea!

Don’t throw away your bagged tea; it’s still tasty, and some days you’ll just not feel like cleaning up a loose-leaf tea. But the world of loose-leaf teas provides more room for personalization, exploration, and taste bud frolicking.

What you need

First off, you’ll need supplies. Get a tea ball or a tea strainer of some kind.

Tea balls are small, and because they’re contained, the tea is less likely to spill. The downside is that experts say tea tastes better when it’s got more room to expand, such as in a tea strainer. (I’m guessing it has to do with surface area exposed to the water?) Tea strainers are usually larger, of course, so the leaves have more room to move around. There are also other tea accessories to choose from (tea stick? single cup of tea brewer?) and you can easily spend hundreds on finding the perfect product. I suggest buying something cheap to get yourself started, and upgrading when you know what you like. Personally, I’ve found tea brewed in a tea ball is still quite delicious, and I don’t notice a big difference (oh, barbarian me!).

You’ll also need airtight storage containers for your tea if you’re purchasing from independent shops or other non-prepackaged teas. You go with plain tea tins or decorative ones, as long as they’re airtight. Also make sure they keep out the light, so no airtight clear plastic or glass containers, unless you keep them in a dark cabinet. And keep the containers out of direct sunlight and out of the freezer; tea should be kept at room temperature or slightly cooler, but not refrigerated.

Now you need your tea. Go with something similar to a flavor you’ve already tried in the bagged version: a floral tea if you like florals, a nutty if you like nuts.

What you don’t need

You do not need a cast-iron teapot for your first loose-leaf tea, or an entire nice tea set, or rock sugar, or other fancy accessories. These things may or may not come later, after you’ve figured out what kinds of tea you love, and how often you’re going to invest the time to drink it. I’ve got two tea sets at home that I adore, but 85% of my tea drinking comes from a regular old mug, with a tea strainer, with water from the break room coffee machine. Luckily, I have enough tea-loving friends that I do get to use my tea sets (one on a weekly basis during my Sunday writing buddy sessions, the other when I have several guests over). But it’s not something I would suggest acquiring in your first month of serious loose-leaf tea drinking. It’s more effort to clean, and not worth the investment if you won’t have the opportunity to use it.

The basics

Let’s say you like English Breakfast. You can pick up a loose-leaf English Breakfast tea from, say,  Twinings. Some loose-leaf tea tins are as inexpensive as boxes of bagged tea, although usually you’ll have to pay a little more. With a black tea, you’ll need to add 1 tsp of tea per 8 oz of water into your tea ball (most mugs are more than 8 oz). Use more tea for stronger flavor (don’t brew longer). Put your tea ball into the mug and pour your hot water over the tea ball. With English Breakfast, brew 2-3 minutes.

Hint for water temperature: your idea temp for black tea is 205 F. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a special thermometer to test my water (although they do make those). If you have a stovetop teapot, wait until it starts whistling, then take it off and let it sit for two to three minutes. Or, pull it off when you just begin to hear some bubbling in the teapot and pour then.

Remove your tea and set it aside on a plate or something. You can reuse this tea. Loose-leaf teas generally can make 2-3 cups of tea before needing to be switched out, as long as it doesn’t get oversteeped or brewed in water too hot. The second and third cups, of course, will be a little weaker, but #2 not noticeably so to my taste buds.

Sweeten (or not) as you usually would.

Where this gets fun

Loose-leaf teas come in a wide variety. Tea aficionados have spent hundreds of years blending new varieties, and there’s always something new and interesting to try. Plus, you can blend flavors to make one of your own.

For example, take Teavana’s Morrocan Mint Green tea, made from green tea and spearmint. It can be blended with Jasmine Oolong tea for a natural/floral taste, or ToLife White Tea (strawberry, jasmine, orange peel, and rhubarb) for a natural/fruity taste.

You can take your loose-leaf Earl Grey and add a pinch of dried lavender for a natural/floral taste.

You can hit the Asian market and pick up a traditional jasmine tea, and add to the teaball a bag of that white tea you just wanted more from for twice the anti-oxidants and plenty of flavor.

To get yourself started, I recommend browsing around at Teavana. They’ve got tips for brewing the perfect cup of tea, and recommended blends. Downside? Many of their teas are expensive, and if you go into a store in person, they’re pretty pushy on the sales. But, you can’t smell the teas online, so it’s worth the in-person trip if you can manage it. Just be firm with the salespeople. (Tip: take cash and leave your card at home. Tell them your budget before you start and expect to spend every cent of it. For a first trip, $50 is a decent estimate for teas and supplies; you can get away with $25 if you already have air-tight containers in which to store your tea. Stick to 2oz samples to begin with, so you can sample different types. You will want to spend more than this, so consider yourself warned.)

Independent tea shops, if there’s one in your area, are usually fantastic. And unlike Teavana, which is a chain (they train their employees to push sales), they may have a more relaxed selling style that can be as attentive or as hands-off as you’d like (or not. You know, independent, so each one is different.)

And of course, major brands will sell loose-leaf teas in regular grocery stores and places like World Market.

New tea drinkers: Questions? What do you notice about loose-leaf tea? Is it different from bagged tea for you?
Experienced tea drinkers: What’s your favorite blend of tea? Any advice for people just starting out on loose-leaf tea? 

(Learning to Like Tea Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Guest Post: Types of Tea, Guest post: Getting the Best Cup of Tea)

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