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So, you’ve decided to take the leap, to ditch those tea bags and dive into the wonderful world of loose leaf tea. That’s great, the only problem is that the world beyond just black, green and herbal tea bags can seem a little daunting and it can be difficult to know where to start. But with a little bit of guidance, it will be easy to delve into a world of complex flavors and aromas that is steeped (literally) in history and tradition. Here is a beginner’s guide to getting into loose leaf tea.
You already have your favorite tea or coffee cup, the next thing you’ll need to do is get a strainer. These can be purchased for just a few dollars from most tea or grocery stores. If you are looking for something artisanal and handcrafted, you will find gorgeous brass strainers in our teaware section. If you’re resourceful, then a lid, slotted spoon, or sieve can also work. The second thing you’ll notice is that without the teabag, you’ll need to decide how much leaf to put in your cup. So let’s keep this simple:- use one heaped teaspoon (2-2.5g) for each 4-5 oz (½ to ⅔ cup) of filtered (but not distilled) water for all teas. If you want to be precise, buying a small inexpensive gram scale is extremely helpful. First let the water heat to a near boil (let It cool for 1-2 minutes if steeping green or white tea), pour into your cup with the loose leaf tea in the strainer, then steep for 1-3 minutes, remove the strainer from the cup and enjoy. This method is commonly known as the western style.
When it comes to choosing your first non-teabagged tea, generally speaking it is best to start with a loose leaf version of something you already know and like. The tea world can be full of complicated names, terminology, and even language barriers so sticking to something similar is a great way to start. For example, if you are accustomed to English Breakfast, or an Earl Grey, seek out a loose leaf version of one of these and see if you can notice the difference. In addition to tasting the teas, try smelling the dry and wet leaves. If you rip open a tea bag, compare the shape of the loose leaves to the small dust particles.
Once you are comfortable steeping a loose leaf equivalent of something you know, you’ll want to expand your horizons. To fully classify a loose leaf tea, you’ll generally consider 1.) the type of tea, 2.) the style within that type, 3.) the country in which the tea was produced, and 4.) the tea garden/farm on which the tea was grown. An example could be a black (type of tea), second flush Darjeeling (style within the type), India (country), and the name of the garden/farm. This can get very overwhelming very quickly so the best thing to do is to start broad and then focus as you gain more experience. Start by exploring one or two examples of each of the six types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and fermented) and maybe a couple loose leaf flavored blends. Many tea companies including ours provide samples of their tea that allow you to prepare just a few cups. This is a very cost effective way to sample many teas before you find what you like (and don’t like) and commit to larger orders. It’s also best to avoid buying high end expensive teas straight away, the nuances may be lost on someone just getting started and it can be a waste of money until you have developed your palette a bit. A good starting selection of our loose leaf teas would be, for example, Darjeeling White Peony (white), Nilgiri Green Twirl (green), Heritage Moondrop Oolong (oolong), Assam Tippy Reserve (black), Jasmine Black Tea and Floral Fusion Green Chai (natural artisanal blends). Where possible it is always preferable to do side by side tastings of different teas to really notice the differences in the flavor and aroma profiles as well as the body of the liquid and the aftertaste. Keeping tasting notes is also highly recommended if you are so inclined.
Once you have a feel for the differences between the major types of tea, then you can focus on exploring styles within a type of tea. For example, you may wish to explore the differences between lightly oxidized, medium and heavily oxidized oolongs, or between an Indian, Ceylon, Chinese and Kenyan black tea. Or perhaps you could compare an Assam black tea well known for its malty notes, with a Darjeeling second flush muscatel black tea, with a brisk Nilgiri or Meghalaya black tea.
It is around this point you may also wish to explore different steeping styles and methods. Try playing with the amount of leaf, the temperature of the water, and the steeping time and see how you can extract different flavors depending upon these combinations. Higher temperatures will extract more bitterness and caffeine but are necessary to get the best out of oolongs, black tea, and fermented teas. Lower temperatures will reduce the bitterness and astringency and give more sweetness to the tea and are better suited to green and white teas. More leaf can lead to a stronger concentration of flavor but can lead to an unpleasant pungent taste if steeped too long. Take your favorite tea and experiment with the steeping parameters, it’s fascinating the differences these can make.
You may also wish to experiment with gong fu style steeping (the traditional Chinese method). Here, you use a high leaf to water ratio (~5g/100 ml) in your steeping vessel and perform numerous short steeps (10-30 seconds). In contrast to western steeping style, which extracts all the flavor from the leaves in one or few infusions, Gong fu style extracts parts of the leaf content with each steep, leading to a more nuanced and concentrated infusion which changes with each steep. Be warned, however, this method works best on whole leaf teas and can produce strong bitterness and astringency in broken leaf teas.
Finally, once you feel you have an understanding of the 6 types of tea and the styles within those 6 types, then try comparing the exact same style of tea but from different countries, regions, tea gardens, or even from different plots and/or seasons within the same garden. You’ll be amazed at the difference! It takes some time, but you’ll get used to the terminology and notes associated with each style, type, and country the tea is produced. Soon enough you’ll be hooked and sharing your knowledge and passion for tea with all your friends and anyone who’ll listen.
Now you have a broad plan for getting started with loose leaf tea, try out our marvelous collection of loose leaf teas