Having come a long way from its birthplace in ancient China more than 5,000 years ago, tea has become one of the most widely consumed beverages on the planet, second only to water. Though there are only four main categories, tea as a whole has evolved and grown to encompass more than 1,500 unique types.
Loved for its myriad of flavors ranging from subtle to robust, and the countless health benefits different types offer, tea is a now a household staple that can be found in the cabinets of homes across the nation. Whether you’re just dipping your toes into the vastly diverse world of tea, or you’ve been enjoying the delicious benefits for many years, in this article, we’re going to be exploring the deceivingly simple process of steeping.
So, if you’re ready to take a dive into the aromatic waters of steeped tea with us, read on and learn how to brew the perfect cup every time.
What is Steeping?
Steeping is the process of soaking tea (either ground or loose leaf) in hot water to extract the flavors and nutrients contained within. If that sounds awfully familiar to another widely popular beverage, it’s because coffee is brewed in very much the same way.
Though the methods used to process tea exceeds the scope of this article, there are actually multiple steps involved to bring tea from freshly plucked leaves and buds to the finished product you find in stores. Depending on the type of tea being made, different processes are used which is why you’ll find so much variance from category to category.
However, regardless of the type, the finished product will always be dried leaves and buds with concentrated flavors, aromas, and nutrients. When exposed to hot water, the dried tea will begin to expand and release its concentrated properties, creating the finished beverage we’ve all come to love. Still following along? Good. Next, let’s talk about the difference between loose leaf and bagged tea.
The Difference Between Loose Leaf and Tea Bags
While it truly comes down to personal preference, it’s been said for a long time that, if you want a “true” cup of tea, you’ll brew it using loose leaf. So, to help settle some of the confusion in this ongoing debate, we’ve gathered, digested, and broken down all of the information so that you can easily understand the key differences between bagged and loose leaf teas.
One of the biggest reasons tea drinkers opt for loose leaf over bagged teas is due to the quality difference. The cut, tear, and curl method used to make bagged teas produces a very fine finished product that, in turn, loses some of its flavors. Loose leaf teas, on the other hand, are processed more carefully and allow the leaves to remain fully intact, maintaining a more robust flavor profile.
Even though tea is inherently dry, when exposed to oxygen for prolonged periods of time, it’s prone to becoming stale. This is a common problem with many popular bagged tea brands that are often left on shelves in-store for extended periods, resulting in stale tea that’s lost flavor. Loose leaf typically comes in a sealed package that helps preserve freshness and flavor.
Bang for Your Buck
When steeping bagged teas, each cup requires the use of a new teabag. While this is perfectly normal and strongly recommended (reusing tea bags produces a very weak drink), over time, you can actually end up saving money on loose leaf teas despite their initially higher price tags. Most loose leaf teas are able to be re-steeped as many as 3-4 times while continuing to produce robust, flavorful cups of tea.
Brew Time & Flavor
Because bagged teas are cut and curled into a very fine finished product, they’re going to have greater surface area exposure when steeped, resulting in a faster brew time. This will also allow them to impart maximal flavor in the shortest period of time. On the other hand, loose leaf teas take slightly longer to steep and open up, while also imparting complex, nuanced flavors you typically won’t find in bagged teas. Again, this all comes down to personal preference.
Different Types of Loose Leaf Tea
Now that you’re well acquainted with the differences between loose leaf and bagged teas, it’s time to figure out which variety will best suit your tastes.
Green tea is easily one of the healthiest and most popular types of tea in the world. Given its green color by a reduced oxidation process, green tea can range from having a yellowish hue to bright green coloring and vegetal tasting notes. If you like “green” flavors and aromas, as well as some fruity, green tea is an excellent choice to experiment with.
Black tea has been on the rise in popularity for some time, largely due to its higher caffeine content and versatility as a beverage. Characterized by an appearance ranging from reddish to dark brown, black tea is the most oxidized of the tea types which is why the leaves and buds are so dark. If you like bold tasting teas that handle sugar and other ingredients well, black tea may be your to-go.
Falling somewhere in the middle of green and black, oolong tea can come in an enormous variety of flavors and appearances depending on where it’s grown and how it’s processed. Similar to fine wine, oolong tea tasting experiences will vary greatly from brand to brand, making for an exciting adventure with each and every cup.
Given its name due to the “white” appearance it gains from being harvested early, white tea is considered the most delicate of all teas. Characterized by light flavors and aromas, white teas are still highly revered due to the rare tasting notes found in those produced by truly artisanal tea masters. If you like subtle flavors and a more refreshing tea, you should try some of these.
Why is Herbal Tea Different?
Though they’re still called teas, herbal teas (also known as tisanes) aren’t considered “real tea” due to the ingredients used to make the tea itself. Traditional tea is made using nothing but the leaves of the tea bush, while herbal teas, as the name implies, are made using select herbs and herbal combinations.
Many herbal teas are made by steeping not only leaves, but the stems, roots, bark, flowers, and even rhizomes of whatever herbs are being used. In order to obtain a particular aroma or flavor, herbal teas are also commonly mixed with a variety of other plants and spices.
That being said, you may come across some herbal teas which actually use real tea leaves in addition to the other ingredients. These are called herbal infusions. While herbal teas aren’t considered “true teas” by tea purists, they remain a popular choice by many and can be made using the same process we cover below.
How to Prepare Tea For Steeping
All right. So you’ve selected your tea of choice and you’re ready to steep the perfect cup, now what? Even though mastering your steeping skills will take a bit of trial and error, below, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about steeping tea into easily digestible steps.
Unless you’re a diehard tea drinker, you can get away steeping tea with a few easy to acquire, very affordable tools. The first thing you’ll need is a pot or kettle to boil some water in. If making tea for multiple people, you may want to pick up a teapot or infuser so you can bang them all out at once rather than cup by cup. When brewing individual cups, you can let the tea leaves steep directly in the mug itself!
With that out of the way, the next thing on your list is something you can use to filter the steeped leaves out of the tea itself. While you’re welcome to drink your tea with leaves and all, we recommend filtering for a more enjoyable experience. This can be done a few ways.
The most common way is by using a mesh tea ball (or tea bag) that keeps all the leaves neatly contained during steeping. Another alternative is purchasing a kettle with a built-in mesh strainer so you can just pour directly into your mug. Lastly, if you’re an avid coffee drinker with a french press laying around, you can use it in very much the same way you would make coffee.
And that’s all the equipment you need to steep tea!
2. Water Temperature & Steep Time
Tea leaves, especially loose leaf, are delicate in nature and can burn easily if you use water that’s too hot. By that same token, using water that’s not hot enough can result in weak tea that hasn’t steeped enough.
For the best results, we recommend letting the water come to a rolling boil, removing it from the heat source for 1-2 minutes, and then pouring it into your mug or infuser. When doing this, it’s best to pour the hot water directly into the tea leaves so that every surface can infuse flavors and aromas over the steeping period.
Since we are on the topic of water, using purified, bottled water can ensure no chemicals alter the taste of your tea. Using lower quality water such as tap can greatly alter the overall taste and ruin finer, nuanced flavors that develop during the steeping process.
Getting steep time down can be a little tricky. While most teas will have recommendations directly on the box or container, depending on personal preference, you can experiment with shorter or longer steep times. Just keep in mind that under-steeped tea will taste weak, while over-steeped tea will taste bitter. Find the balance you like.
In case the tea you purchased doesn’t have recommended steep times listed, below, we’ve provided some general recommendations for each type of tea.
– Black tea should steep for 3 to 5 minutes whether using bags or loose leaf.
– Green tea should steep for 2 to 4 minutes if using loose leaf, and 1 to 3 minutes if using bags.
– Oolong tea should steep for 5 to 7 minutes if using loose leaf, and 3 to 5 if using bags.
– White tea should steep for 2 to 3 minutes if using loose leaf, and 30 to 60 seconds if using bags.
3. Enjoy Your Tea
Once the tea has steeped for a long enough period of time in either your mug or diffuser, it’s ready to enjoy. Simply remove the leaves from your tea and give it a taste. If you’re trying to work on your steeping skills, we recommend writing down brewing details such as the number of tea leaves used, the amount of water, and the length of time it steeped for so you can hone in on the perfect cup.
Quick Steeping Tips
Now that you’re a tea steeping expert, before you go, we wanted to provide a few quick tips that will help you on your journey to becoming a tea master.
1. You Can Control Caffeine Content
In addition to determining how much flavor your cup of tea will have, steep time also controls caffeine content. If you need an extra boost in the morning, simply letting your tea steep for a little longer than usual (but not too long!) will increase the amount of caffeine.
2. Step Up Your Tea Game
If you find yourself becoming a full-blown tea addict, one of the best ways to expand upon your new hobby is by stepping your game up with new tea equipment. While you can easily get away with a few kitchen essentials that most people already have, investing in tea-specific gear can make things a lot more fun, and a lot easier when you’re in a rush.
3. Quality Over Quantity
That’s right, this timeless piece of advice even finds a home in the world of tea. As with many foods and beverages, you’ll get the best tea experience when you invest in higher quality leaves. As great as popular supermarket brands are for getting an affordable fix, spending just a few extra bucks for quality tea leaves can make a huge difference in the mug.