Okay, you’ve been drinking some bagged tea for a while now, and you’re tired of the same stale flavors. Maybe you’ve been told that you need to lay off the coffee. Maybe you’re just interested in something new and different. Regardless of your reasons, you’re ready to start venturing into the world of loose leaf tea. What supplies do you need? How much is it going to cost? What is the absolute cheapest way to get started?
When I first wanted to get into espresso, I learned that if I wanted good espresso, I was going to have to drop a good $1000-$5000 for a setup. The threshold for a neophyte looking for a quality, well-crafted beverage was pretty much impassable to anyone on a budget. If I’m patient enough, I can probably get a prosumer setup for under $1000, but I’m still working on it. Anyway…back to tea.
The great thing about tea is that you can get started for less than $10 and have an advanced setup for less than $100. There are also plenty of opportunities to spend thousands of dollars, as there are in any industry, if that is your wish.
The tricky part about getting tea leaves is getting the balance right between quality and ease of availability. Price tends to vary wildly at all levels of availability and quality, so I left that out of the mix.
Easily accessible, lower end quality (depending on your store)
Usually, you’ll find a few loose leaf brands in your grocery store, and don’t forget to check the bulk section. Brands like Twinings, Republic of Tea, and Rishi sell loose leaf tea in grocery stores. Davidson’s sells lovely loose leaf teas in the bulk section of our local Giant Eagle Market Districts. As you can see, I am fortunate enough to live close to one of these Market Districts, with their entire aisle dedicated to packaged teas and bulk loose leaf tea bar.
Brick and Mortar Tea Stores and Coffee Shops:
Not quite as easily accessible, medium quality
If you live in a somewhat larger city, you may have a dedicated tea shop or tea room that sells loose leaf tea. Much of the tea that I have had in places like these are miles above what I have tried from bagged tea, but still nowhere near the best I’ve had. I’ve never had Starbucks or Teavana loose leaf teas, so I can’t speak to those. But I can say that most private tea shops sell from the same wholesaler. These aren’t the best and highest quality teas I have ever tried, but they are a good opportunity to look, smell, and try a variety of teas that I would have never otherwise given a second thought. And they are still miles above those tea bags you may have been drinking.
Places like this might be a good place to start. I would name some names, but it would only be helpful for those who have traveled in my little section of the United States. Try typing “tea” into Google Maps and see what shops pop up.
More difficult to access*, low to high quality
I say that online teas are more difficult to access because the sheer number of vendors available online, their varying quality, and their dizzying array of choices tend to make the newcomer freeze with fear and give up. If you can help it, I wouldn’t start with an online vendor if I were you. If you aren’t sure what kinds of teas you like and from what regions, it can be difficult to choose which teas to buy without spending well, well over $100. For some guidance on navigating these sites, see my post about Teamail Day. There are very few online vendors I have tried myself, but I have loved them all: Yunnan Sourcing, Taiwan Tea Crafts, Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company, Soleil Tea, and Liquid Proust Teas.
I’m going to skip brewing vessels for now. It gets too complicated too quickly. Are you brewing Eastern or Western style? How many people are usually sitting down to drink? What kind of tea are you brewing? I’m keeping it simple in this post because this is meant to be for those just starting out. Leave out the pots and kyusus and gaiwans for now. Brew tea directly in your mug. Everyone owns a mug or can get one for very cheap.
I know it’s a lot of fun to have infusers that look like “manateas,” sloths, rubber duckies, and fish, but these infusers are generally too small to allow the tea leaves to expand. If the tea leaves can’t expand, the water doesn’t flow between them properly. If the water can’t flow, you’re choking the flavor out of the tea.
If you absolutely must have a little infuser, I recommend these little snappy spoons. You fill up the bottom half, leaving enough room in the top half for the leaves to grow. They are easier to clean than the balls on the chains, since you can just snap them open and closed over the trash and then under running water. You can get them for $2 at IKEA. I wouldn’t use these for full, high grade loose leaf tea though. I typically keep these on hand for when I drink CTC blends, or leaves that look like little crushed balls.
Mugs with Built-In Filters
I used these for quite a while, and I still sometimes do. These are the ceramic mugs with the lids and the ceramic filters that all stack into one piece. These are great for larger leaf teas, but you’re going to need a backup plan if you drink CTC tea. I don’t use them as much anymore because I either want to brew with an easy gaiwan or I want a huge mug of tea (for which I use my filter). Still, even in my “more advanced state,” I find plenty of use for these. I got these particular mugs at a local Chinese grocery store.
My favorite infuser is this Rishi tea basket. I’m actually brewing some Jin Jun Mei right now with it. I’ve seen this same style of filter made under several names, but I just happened to get one by Rishi. You can use this thing with practically any size mug or pot, and it allows for plenty of leaf growing room, even for those rolled oolongs that seem to expand to infinity. I’ve used this thing with all kinds of tea, from large leaf to CTC, flavored to non-flavored, and I’ve been satisfied with everything I’ve made from it.
This can be the most expensive area to drop cash on for this hobby if you’re just starting out. I would start with something cheap or free if you aren’t sure you’re going to keep up with it. Otherwise, try to get the highest level that you want right now so you don’t have to pay each step up the ladder that you go.
Well, it’s free, but it’s not the best method. It’s incredibly easy to overheat the water for your tea. Black tea can tolerate boiling water pretty consistently, but many people prefer greens, whites, and even some puerhs at lower temperatures. You might want to invest in a thermometer if you’re going to go this route, or you might end up with some oversteeped, overheated leaves. Still, it’s how I started. It’s no surprise I didn’t like any other tea but black, though.
I’ve actually never made water for tea on the stove top. From what I’ve been told, it’s easier to get a consistent temperature throughout the entire body of water, and it’s easier to take it off the stove the second it starts to boil. This sounds to me like a better way of preparing your tea, but it still gets dicey trying to hit those 180º temps for green teas without a thermometer.
This is my preferred method for heating water. If you get a variable temperature kettle, you know exactly how warm or hot the water is—no guessing! I’ll do a post on different kettles soon, with their pros and cons, but for now, I’m loving my Bonavita variable temp gooseneck electric kettle. You might think that you have to drop $100 or more for a nice kettle, but if you’re patient on eBay, you can pick up a used, but perfectly decent, model for half that, or even less. Places like Craigslist and consignment shops are also good places to look.
This post is meant for those just starting their journey into loose leaf tea. There is still quite a way to move up from the techniques, gadgets, teas, and sources I’ve talked about here. Don’t forget to reach out to the community for help, or continue to read this blog as I create more posts!