It's nice to take some time, just a few minutes to yourself, and enjoy the loose tea brewing process. I'll take you step by step and you can see how easy it is to reward yourself with a fantastic cup of tea.
What's wrong with tea bags?
I don't consider myself a tea snob so, for convenience, tea bags have their place. But the world of loose leaf teas is so much more vast, and I find there's more room for all sorts of flavor experiences.
Most tea bags use small pieces of cut up leaves. Usually, this is lower quality tea, though not always. It's good for creating a strong, uniformly flavored cup, but the subtle nuances of the tea flavor can be lost. Cutting up the leaves means more opportunities for the tea essential oils, where many of the subtle flavors come from, to evaporate.
There's several things you can use to steep loose tea, and you don't really need any specialized equipment (though it's fun to have a collection of teapots or cute steepers.)
I do want to start of by saying, it's not a good idea to use your coffee maker. Coffee flavors are very strong, even after cleaning, and you'll usually get some of that flavor in whatever tea you drink. But, in a pinch, you can use a clean coffee filter to construct a makeshift tea bag. However, your tea may not come out as full flavored.
If you have something like this, a sieve or a strainer with a screen or small holes, the easiest way to steep tea is using a liquid measuring cup. Just put your leaves in there, add your water, time, and then pour through the sieve or strainer into your cup, and enjoy.
The more room your tea leaves have to expand, the more surface area is exposed to the water and so more flavors are pulled out. When you steep leaves in a small strainer, its infusion is limited by how much the leaves can expand. So, packing loose leaf tea into a small tea ball or bag won’t yield a very flavorful cup.
Using a tea steeping basket like this is better than using one of those small balls, though those will work. You can usually find these online or if you get a teapot, it's likely to have a steeping basket in it. There are also fancier looking ones like this you can get.
Time and temperture.. and how much leaf
After you have the steeping mechanism figured out, the next step is to measure out your leaf and boil your water. Let me cut in here a moment to say...
The most important part of tea is the water
Tea is mostly water, so water quality is extremely impactful. Chlorine (or chloramine depending on what your city uses) will kill all the wonderful tea leaf flavors, leaving you with either a weak or a very dull cup (this also happens with coffee.)
I use a Brita filter at home and in my physical tea shop. If you wanted, you could also buy the jugs of water at the grocery store or bottles of spring water, but don't get distilled water. You want some minerals in there for the tea compounds to hold on to.
Then heat the water using whatever method you have. I do want to quickly note if you are using a stove, that you do not heat water in a teapot. You heat water in a tea kettle.
I like electric kettles, and because I drink many different kinds of teas, I have one that has a temperature pad on it, so I can always get it where I want it.
Here's a general guide:
- Black & Pu-Erh: 212° F (100° C)
- Herbal/Fruit/Tisanes: 212° F (100° C)
- Oolong: 195° F (90° C)
- Green & White: 170-180° F (75 - 85° C)
If you're using a kettle on the stove, or an electric one, without a thermometer or temp dial, you can bring your water to a full boil, then turn it off and wait about 5-8 minutes and it should be close to oolong temp, and a couple more minutes should be close to green tea temp (170).
Alternatively, if you can see the water as it's coming up to temp, then you can use this weird "eye measuring chart" (from Silk Road Teas)
Shrimp Eyes: The first, tiny bubbles that appear.
Crab Eyes: Slightly larger bubbles.
Fish Eyes: The temperature of the water will be in the range from 160° to 180° F. Good size bubbles will form; this is the temperature where delicate green, white and some of the yellow teas will brew well. Some oolong lovers (of the Dan Cong style) prefer to brew their leaf for longer steep periods in this temperature range.
String of Pearls: In this stage, the water is at a temperature between 180° F and 195° F and bubbles are beginning to break the surface and cling to the sides of the pan. Everyday green teas, many higher grade teas and some black teas do very well at this temperature.
Dragon Eyes: The last stage is a rolling boil. Here the temperature is between 195° and 210° F and large bubbles are breaking the surface. Very few green teas will yield positive results at this temperature, but black teas, oolongs and Pu-erhs can be steeped with this water.
Ok, now, on to the actual brewing
For most teas, you want to use 1 tsp per 6-8 oz of water.
But this is always adjusted to your taste preferences and with some trial and error, you'll find exactly how much matches your tastes. If you want a strong cup, use more, if you found it too strong or bitter, use a bit less.
For herbals and some white teas, you'd use 2 rounded tsp per 6-8 oz of water.
Put that in your steeping mechanism and now we'll add the water and set a timer.
- Black & Pu-Erh: 3-5 minutes
- Herbal/Fruit/Tisanes: 5-7 minutes
- Oolong: 4-7 minutes
- Green & White: 2-3 minutes
- Sencha: 1-1.5 minutes
After it's done, you want to remove the leaves from the water whichever way makes sense based on your steeping mechanism and then it's time to kick back, relax, and enjoy this beautiful cup of tea you made (after it cools a bit... burnt tongues are the worst!)