Getting Started with Brewing Loose Leaf Tea Western Style

I want to approach brewing as many people new to the world of tea approach it. Very few people go from drinking tea bags to gongfu style. If you’ve gotten a full setup based on my last education post, Getting Started with Loose Leaf, you already have a mug, an infuser, some tea leaves, and a way to heat your water.

Now what?

A Note on Standards

They’re bull crap. I can give you some guidelines on where to start, but it’s ultimately your palate you’re aiming to please. The high priest or the premiere sommelier of tea can tell you to steep all black teas at 212 degrees, but if you prefer them at 205, brew them at 205 and enjoy without guilt. Be unapologetic in your preferred tastes! This is actually pretty decent advice for life as well. I feel like I could go on an entire philosophical rant about this, so I’ll just leave it at that.

But the suggestions I am going to give here are good places to start if you’re unsure of how you like your tea. Feel free to make adjustments as necessary. As a matter of fact, I encourage you to play around with temperatures and steeping times. Though you can get a general sense of what certain types of teas will do with you play with steeping temperatures and times, teas can sometimes surprise you and improve outside of traditional parameters.

Brewing Parameters

Each tea type has different optimal brewing methods to bring out “the best” of their flavors, but these are highly subjective. It’s possible to turn a tea from “meh” to “wow” just by adjusting how you’ve steeped it. Brewing a tea for hotter or longer can give the brew a stronger flavor, bring out more bitterness or astringency, or highlight different flavors. Shorter or lower temperature steeps subdue certain flavors, reduce bitterness and astringency, and highlight other flavors. Even the material, size and shape of the vessel you’re brewing in can affect the taste of a tea, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The reason I’m being so vague in is because each tea is going to react differently. It’s best to play around and find out for yourself.

Amount

So you have your tea leaves, and your preferred infuser is all set up in your mug and ready to go. How much leaf should you put in your infuser? If you have a small infuser, like the snappy spoon or a noveltea infuser, the decision is already made for you. Fill it up about half way to allow for room for the leaves to grow as they rehydrate. There’s not a lot of room for experimentation with these types of infusers. Otherwise, start with a teaspoon per 6-8 ounces. I like my tea to be a bit stronger, so I will usually do 1.5–2 teaspoons per 6 ounces.

Heating the Water

If you have a kettle that tells you the temperature of the water, congratulations! You can skip this section. If you’re using a less precise method, such as a stovetop or a microwave, and you don’t have a thermometer, you’re going to have to make a guess. And that’s okay if you’re just starting out and deciding if you even want to be a tea drinker. But once you’re hooked, I recommend at least getting a thermometer—a kettle if the bug has really bitten you.

Anyway, if you’re using a microwave or a stovetop and you don’t yet have a thermometer of some sort, it’s easiest to start from boiling. Then take the water off the heat (or out of the microwave) and wait for it to cool some. The amount of time to wait for it to cool is obviously going to vary greatly depending on what vessel you’re holding the water in, but you’ll want to wait 1-3 minutes for it to cool down. I know that newbies especially are obsessed with “getting it right” when first starting out, but going by feel and instinct is really the best thing for you (she says as she sits down next to her electric kettle that has a continuous reading of the temperature of the water). It’s how the Chinese did it for centuries before electricity.

Times and Temperatures

So here are the temperatures and times I am recommending for these teas. For the ten millionth time, feel free to adjust these to your taste. I find that sometimes I even go outside these parameters based on how a tea looks. Greener teas tend to prefer the lower and shorter end of the spectrum while darker teas tend to prefer the higher and longer. For second steeps and beyond, I use the same temperature and add 30 seconds to a minute to the steep time. And use your nose! The aroma will tell you when the leaves are ready to be pulled.

I’ll definitely go into greater detail about each type of tea in a later post. For now, we just want to get you steeping!

  • Black: 205º-212ºF for 2.5-4 minutes
  • Green: 140º-170º for 1.5-3 minutes
  • Oolong: 180º-195º for 2-4 minutes
  • White: 160º -180º for 1.5-2.5 minutes
  • Mate: 190º -205º for 3-4 minutes
  • Puerh: 180º -212º for .5-3 minutes
  • Rooibos: 212º for 4 minutes
  • Herbal: 212º for 4 minutes

There are other teas, like yellow and purple teas, but the beginner is unlikely to casually run across those. And don’t forget that you can always look up the suggested brew time and temperature on the vendor’s website to see what they recommend.

Now enjoy your tea until the next post comes along!

Happy teaing!

Getting Started with Loose Leaf Tea

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.

Tea Leaves

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.

Grocery Stores:

Packaged Tea at Market District

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.

Loose Leaf Tea at Market District

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.

Online Dealers:

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.

Infusers

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.

Noveltea Infusers

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.

infuser
Source: wikipedia.com

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.

mugs

Tea Baskets

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.

Heating Method

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.

Microwave

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.

Stove

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.

Kettle

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.

Tea Community

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!

Happy Teaing!

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Teamail Day: A Beginner’s Guide to Yunnan Sourcing

This post is written specifically for yunnansourcing.com, but it really applies to any overseas tea site that has ten thousand teas to choose from.

I got my first HUGE shipment of Yunnan Sourcing in last week—all black teas, which excites me to no end. There’s something addictive about teamail; it’s like Christmas that can come at any time of the year. And don’t get me started on the smell—so tasty.

Milche with Shipment
My mail guy likes to take days off and lie about it on tracking, so this is actually three teamails that arrived on the same day: Yunnan Sourcing and 2 eBays.

This shipment has been making its way to me for the last two months because it was big enough to need boat shipment instead of an e-packet. My first piece of advice to you: don’t do that. No matter how patient you think you are, 2 months crawls by. As you can see, I got some teaware as well, which is what made the shipment heavy enough to need boat shipping. Don’t do that; separate your teaware and tea into separate shipments. (I should note  that the green pitcher and the kettle were ebay purchases that came in on the same day. They aren’t from Yunnan Sourcing.)

YS Shipment
SOO many black teas! Green pitcher and kettle from eBay.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m still relatively new to the world of “advanced tea drinking.” I started out on reddit, so I have seen all 300,000 posts relating to “Where do I get high quality teas?,” which all seemed to be answered with “Yunnan Sourcing.” I remember thinking to myself, “Great! You’ve made it easy for me!”

. . . until I actually visited Yunnan Sourcing. There are hundreds of teas on the site, all named after regions that are pretty much meaningless to a new person who isn’t familiar with what regions and tea types taste like. So I want to cover a few thoughts into the steps I took to getting brave enough to do an order from YS.

  1. Don’t shop at Yunnan Sourcing at first.

Personally, I wasn’t ready to shop at Yunnan Sourcing when I first heard about it. I didn’t know what I liked yet, and it would have cost a billion dollars to try a sample of everything I hadn’t tried yet.

  1. Get at least a general idea of the kind of teas you like.

Between tea trades, buying from stores, buying stash sales on reddit and Steepster, know what kinds of teas and flavors you’re into. Use the teas you currently own to trade out small quantities of other flavors to diversify your collection. Keep an eye on r/teasales for sites that have sales, and stick to buying teas at 25g or less. Don’t be afraid to connect with the community and offer to trade what you have for what you’re interested in trying. r/teaexchange is less active, but still a good resource for looking into.

  1. Concentrate on one tea type at a time and wait for a sale.

YS seems to have a sale every 15 minutes, usually on certain tea types. Since Chinese blacks are my favorites, I waited until their black teas went on sale. It greatly narrowed the field I had to look at to decide on purchases.

  1. Trust the general flavor profiles on the site at the very least.

Once I had my focus on black teas, I went ahead and opened every black tea on the site and looked through the flavor profile. I already knew that I can’t really pick out fruit flavors, and I hate citrus, so I avoided anything that mentioned those. Sites that use common language tend to be more accurate (tastes like minerals, malt, chocolate, red fruits) than sites that tend to use beautiful marketing language (tastes like fresh baked croissant with amish butter and spring honey flavored with the first blueberries of the season).

  1. If you’re still overwhelmed by your choices, try yunnansourcing.us.

Shipping is faster because it’s within the US, and there is less to choose from. The reduced inventory might make it easier for anyone that’s overwhelmed.

And don’t hesitate to reach out to the tea community for trading and advice. They really are an amazing group of people. They’re happy to help anyone that isn’t trying to leech free tea!

Happy teaing!

BONUS: Teaware Picture!

I love Yunnan Sourcing for teaware. It’s cheap, and so nice!

YS Teaware
There’s a fish in my pitcher! Also a great matching easy gaiwan and cup set from YS with a cake breaking tray.

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Are reviewers pointless?

The entire world is based on opinions these days: social media, blogs, and comment sections on practically every packet of information available. Every human being in the world is shouting out their own point of view as loudly as possible, and it makes you wonder if anyone is even taking the time to truly listen and understand.

But even when people are listening, opinions are so different that you may or may not start to wonder in the dark recesses of your mind if your opinion is the only one that matters. These are the kinds of thoughts I’ve had when reading reviews against teas I’ve tasted:

  • Everyone says that this tea is fantastic, but I think it tastes like soap.
  • This tea is called French Toast, but to me it tastes like vanilla pudding.
  • Everyone says this tea is fruity, but it tastes malty to me.

So how do we make the most use out of reading reviews to choose teas we love and avoid teas we hate? How do we make our own reviews most helpful to others? What I have to keep in mind when reading and writing reviews is that the taste of a tea is subject to so many factors…

Taste is based on memories, psychology, and life experience; it’s subjective as hell.

People tend to judge the flavors of tea through the filters of their own experience with other foods and drinks.

Let’s start with lavender first as an example. A lot of people love blends that contain lavender, especially earl grey. I’ve tried so many blends that have lavender in it, and I’ve really hated them all. I don’t see how people can drink lavender tea. It took me a while to figure out why. I’ve been using lavender bath products since I was a kid, and I just don’t think my brain is capable of separating the lavender smell from the idea of soap.

Then there’s the ubiquitous pumpkin spice. Think about pumpkin spice really hard for a moment; do you really, really ever taste the pumpkin part of the pumpkin spice? Be honest with yourself, because if you think about it hard enough, there really is no pumpkin flavor in about 95% of pumpkin spice flavored things. I’ve even run across “pumpkin flavored” items that are actually just pumpkin spiced items. So why are people tasting pumpkin in pumpkin spice? Why the hell is it even called pumpkin spice if there’s no pumpkin in it? It’s because of tradition; in American cuisine, those spices usually only appear in that combination in pumpkin pie, which does contain pumpkin. Since much of my experience with these spices together centers around pumpkin pie, my brain automatically fills in the pumpkin. This can happen with other foods too.

Another issue is food experience and culture. Someone growing up in the southern part of the U.S. is going to have a very different take on flavors than someone growing up in Japan, but we don’t even have to go that far. A poor person will have different references for taste than a wealthy one. People of differing ethnicities living next door to one another will have different references. No matter how much a tea tastes like longan fruit to someone, the person who has never even heard of that fruit is going to have difficulty relating, and will most likely describe the tea completely differently.

And then there’s just the simple fact that despite everything, our brains interpret flavors differently even when differing social circles don’t factor into it. No matter how many black olives I make my husband try, he’s never going to like black olives, which obviously makes him insane. How some people don’t like black tea is beyond me; even when it’s malty and bitter, it’s still fantastic. I still get incredulous exclamations of “HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE CHOCOLATE?!” when I tell people I am just not a fan of milk chocolate. It just happens.

Also, another quick point to I want to tack on here, experience in the tea world itself matters. It’s difficult for someone to know that a bad tea is bad if they haven’t even had the good stuff yet.

Brewing parameters can change the taste of a tea drastically.

These are all factors that can make a sweet tea into a sour, soapy gut bomb, and not all of them are in your control at all times:

  • Weight to water ratio
  • Water temperature
  • Water hardness/softness
  • Steeping time
  • Brewing vessel

This post is already long enough, so I’ll save the details on these points for another day.

The smallest thing can affect your taste buds.

As a reviewer, it’s even possible to lie to and mislead yourself, which pretty much means that there is no hope for us to be 100% reliable as taste reviewers. Your own day-to-day experiences can make a tea taste drastically different from one day to the next:

  • How long it’s been since you’ve eaten and how hungry you are
  • What you’ve eaten that day
  • What kinds of smells you are surrounded by as you drink
  • What kind of mood you’re in
  • What your surroundings are: weather, indoors, outdoors, forest, city, bathroom, etc.

How to read and write reviews to everyone’s advantage.

So how do I find reviewers I trust? What strategies do I use in writing reviews to make them more accessible to people? I don’t always succeed in these endeavors, but I do try to keep them in mind when I read and write.

Find people with similar tastes to yours.

Most bloggers and reviewers are pretty easy to pin down as far as what directions their preferences face. Some bloggers will only review certain kinds of teas. Try looking up some of your favorite teas on Steepster and follow those people that rate them highly.

Read tea reviews to find a common thread.

This is a pretty simple one. Look up the teas on the business’ website, if the website allows for users to give feedback. Keep in mind though that some sites only feature positive reviews. You can also go on Steepster to find unbiased reviews on a tea.

Chances are, if 10 people says that the tea tastes like library books, it probably tastes like library books.

Watch your language!

Because readers are coming from so many different backgrounds, I try not to be too exotic when describing the flavors I am getting. I have had some teas that taste exactly like green peanuts pulled fresh from the ground, but how many people know that flavor? So while I might use that phrase, I also try to add in simpler flavors as well to help out. Green boiled peanuts have an earthy, dirty taste to them, but with a nutty kind of beaniness that balances the earthiness with a sweetness. While this may not be as concise a description as green peanuts, it does make some headway into helping translate. And yes, I do have a tendency to make up words like beaniness when writing reviews.

I have to admit that I am not always successful at this, but I try to step back in a review and give an emotionless account of a tea’s flavor before giving an actual opinion. That way people can decide for themselves if they want to try it. It’s not fair for me to vent about the terrible flavor of a sheng if I hate sheng, so I try to identify the flavors I am tasting instead before reacting to them. I try to keep in mind that someone might actually like the flavors I am reacting badly to, so I describe them instead of just saying that a tea is terrible.

Hopefully this advice will help you newbies out there find sources and opinions that will lead you to more great teas and fewer awful teas.

Happy teaing!