Tea IQ: Basics of Brewing

tea iq: brewing

Tea IQ is a series that explores how to be a smarter tea drinker. Today, Lizzie from Bedford Cottage Tea House (who is a tea and baking aficionado and also studied abroad in Oxford with me) shares some tea brewing wisdom.

Hello, think fruitful readers! This is Lizzie from Bedford Cottage Tea House, a blog dedicated to tea and tea parties. Today I am going to talk about some of the basics of brewing tea. Although there are a myriad of teas and tea ingredients out there, there are only a few ways to brew it. Essentially all tea breaks down into two primary categories: bagged or loose leaf.

Tea Bags

First let’s talk about bags. Tea bags have been around since the early 20th century, when they were hand sewn from silks and other fabrics. Most of the tea bags you will find on the market today are made from paper, plant starches, or recyclable plastic. While I personally prefer to stay away from the plastic ones, there are pros and cons to each type.

tea bags

Paper bags are the most common and the cheapest to make. The quality of these bags, however, wildly differs. The tea inside is usually cut very small and can be rather dusty in appearance and taste. The benefit is that you can usually do a quick steep and always end up with a consistent cup. I have heard that some of these bags use glue that contains gluten in the sealing process, so be sure to look for heat-sealed bags. Another thing to consider is the shape of the bag. The flat round or square bags are convenient, but they do not allow much space for the tea to expand. The traditional flat-bottomed tea bag is the best of the paper styles, as it will unfold and expand in the water, allowing for maximum flavor extraction.

The plant starch bags are my favourite style of tea bag for a few reasons. They tend to be made in a more forgiving shape, generally a loose pyramid. This allows for bigger pieces of tea and better water circulation. These bags can fit a larger variety of ingredients in a more whole state, which improves the flavor and allows for a greater subtlety in taste. They do benefit from a longer steep, and each bag will be ever so slightly different in flavor, although few people would notice. Knowing these bags are biodegradable is a plus for me, as I hate the idea of the plastic bags sitting in the landfill but personally dislike most paper bags.

If you do choose tea bags as your primary brewing method, I recommend using a large mug. The bag will benefit from being bobbed a bit, as this will help shift the contents for an even brew. I also like performing what I call the “green tea rinse,” for bagged teas of primarily green and white. Pour a smidge of water onto your tea bag, just enough to soak it through, bob it a few times, then discard. This will remove a lot of the harsher flavours that can develop when more delicate teas are cut fine.

Loose Leaf Tea

loose leaf tea

Now let’s delve into the world of loose leaf. I switched to using primarily loose leaf tea around 7 years ago and haven’t looked back since. Loose leaf tea can be green, white, black, herbal, or a mix. Essentially it just means any tea that is not pre-measured and ready to steep. Think whole dried chamomile flowers; long, skinny, white tea leaves; green tea scented with jasmine rolled into pearls; black tea with whole pink peppercorns and dried strawberry pieces; the list is endless. Most flavoured teas that you find in bags have to use oils and flavorings to achieve their desired combination, but that is not the case with loose leaf.

There are a few ways to brew loose leaf tea, and I usually switch between them depending on what tea I am brewing. The one I use the most often is my trusty French press. It’s easy to clean, I can empty the leaves into the compost when I am done, and the built-in filter makes sure I get a leafless cup. I can vary the amount of tea and water I use depending on how much I want to drink, and the plunger helps keep the residual tea from oversteeping. The French press is good for virtually every type of loose leaf, although you may notice a little sediment from time to time, depending on how finely cut your mix was.

Sometimes if I know I want a lot of tea, or am making tea for a group, I will use a teapot. Most teapots do have a built in strainer between the body and the spout, but I have found them to be mediocre. If you’re not afraid of a few leaves in your cup, you don’t need a secondary strainer, but I generally use one anyway. This can be anything from a small kitchen strainer, to the more fashionable bamboo steepers, to vintage silver strainers like mine. As long as it functions, it’s good.

Another option for brewing loose leaf is to turn it into your own tea bag. Most grocery stores and tea retailers sell large format tea bags that you can fill and steep like regular bags. These are great because they do tend to be much roomier, so you get the loose leaf flavors with the bag convenience. I generally only use these when I need tea on my way out the door, or will be brewing large amounts of tea multiple times. If you’re a novice to loose leaf brewing, however, they are a great place to start. Be aware that sometimes the bag itself can benefit from that “green tea rinse,” since they can be a little fibrous and dusty on their own.

I have tea of all types sitting on my shelves, so I won’t judge anyone for sticking to their preferred methods. I hope everyone has learned a little something and feels compelled to either try something new or tweak their brewing method to achieve a cup just that much better. There are still tea types and methods I haven’t mentioned, and I would urge you tea lovers to explore these on your own. In the meantime, happy brewing!

See more of Lizzie’s amazing tea parties on her:

Check out the first Tea IQ post, too!