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How to Brew Leaf Tea

Five Easy Ways to Brew Loose-Leaf / Whole-Leaf Tea

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An image of various tea infusion/straining utensils.

There are many types of easy-to-use tea infusers available on the market.

Lindsey Goodwin

Making the switch from easy, convenient, portable teabags to flavorful, nuanced full-leaf tea can be daunting, even if you are aware of the quality disparity between most teabags and whole-leaf tea. However, with a basic understanding of how to brew whole-leaf or loose-leaf tea and an easy infusion method, the switch is easy. Here are five easy ways you can infuse tea at home, on the go, at the office and beyond:

Pre-Portioned, Easy-to-Infuse Teas

If you want your tea brewing to be as easy as “just add (hot) water,” you can still enjoy whole leaf tea. More and more companies are offering their full-leaf teas packaged into pyramid bags (pyramid-shaped bags) and tea pouches / ”tea socks” (basically plus-sized teabags made of cloth or paper-type materials), which allow for fuller infusions that traditional teabags. Likewise, some companies are launching lines of upscale teabags with higher grades of tealeaves than traditional teabags. They’re not whole-leaf, but they’re better than your average teabag.

Meanwhile, companies like Teance are offering innovative, high quality alternatives to teabags, such as the Freeleaf line. (Here’s a review of Freeleaf Jasmine White Tea.)

Tea Balls & Tea Pouches

Tea balls are classic and easy enough to use. However, they are flawed. Cheap tea balls tend to fall apart after a short period of use. I recommend investing a little extra in a good quality tea ball, Teastick or similar tea strainer instead of the dollar store varieties.

In a similar vein, you can also make your own tea pouches or “tea socks” at home. They’re basically teabags you fill yourself, so you can select the type, flavor and quality level that’s right for you. I like to fill some up before traveling, store them in an airtight, opaque package and then use them as needed. One caveat to the uninitiated – Don’t fill them up all the way or tie them tightly shut! I see this common error in coffee shops all the time. It keeps the tea from unfurling as it infuses, negating much of the point of selecting whole-leaf over teabags from the grocery store.

In-Cup Tea Infusers

In-cup infusers are fantastic for new tea drinkers and for less-than-convenient brewing situations (such as at the office or while traveling). There are many types of in-cup infusers on the market, but the basic principle is the same across all types:

  1. Take a cup
  2. Drop in an infuser and some tea
  3. Add hot water
  4. Steep
  5. Remove the infuser (and, thus, the leaves)
  6. Enjoy your tea
Some in-cup infusers come with a “drip tray” for the infuser to rest on after brewing. Some come with the cup itself. There are different sizes of in-cup infusers available, so make sure the size you select fits your favorite mug (isn’t too big to fit or too small not to fall in) and has enough space to allow your tealeaves room to infuse. (It should hold at least two to three times the volume of the dry leaves you plan to add.) The best infusers are made from one or more of the following materials:
  • Finely woven non-reactive metal (such as gold-plated metal wire)
  • Micro-perforated non-reactive metal (such as food grade stainless steel)
  • Non-leaching/BPA-free food grade plastic
  • Closely woven wood that doesn’t impact the tea’s flavor (such as traditional bamboo strainers)
Gaiwans

With a little practice, gaiwan tea infusers are an easy, portable way to drink tea anywhere, anytime. Gaiwan sets usually consist of two to four parts: a cup, a lid, a saucer (optional) and an extra cup (optional).

The easiest way to brew with a gaiwan is to add tealeaves and water, brew the tea, and then use the lid (tilted at a slight angle on top of the cup) to strain the tea as you pour it into a cup.

There’s also a more portable way to use gaiwans. You can actually drink from them, too! Here’s how:
  1. Use the lid to stir the leaves away from you before each sip. (This helps the leaves infuse, cools the tea and makes straining the leaves as you sip easier.)
  2. With your right hand, lift the cup, lid and saucer.
  3. Using your left hand, hold the lid at a slight downward angle on top of the cup. (Alternately, you can skip using the saucer and just lift the cup and lid with one hand.)
  4. Sip from the cup, using the lid to strain the tealeaves.

With this method, you can also pour sips of tea into the lid to cool it down quickly or share it with others.

For more information on the gaiwan style of steeping, see this Q&A on Chinese tea ware with Jennifer Leigh Sauer.

Similarly, large-leaf teas can be simply placed in a bowl with hot water and drunk for multiple infusions. Within a few bowls of tea, you'll get used to keeping the leaves out of your mouth, and you will likely find it to be a great way to get to know your teas better!

Travel Infusers / Tea Thermoses

If you’re brewing full leaf tea from teabags, check out the Mighty Leaf Tea Top Brew Mug or just use a quality Thermos-style container. Otherwise, there are a few good options for loose-leaf tea brewing on the go.

Personally, I prefer the Eight Cranes Perfect Steeper. It’s very easy to use, it’s available in glass (rather than plastic) and it doesn’t require that you remove the leaves to stop steeping.

The Bodum Travel Press works like a regular French press and is also a good option. However, I advise against brewing teas that get astringent when over-steeped in it, as it tends to continue steeping somewhat after the plunger is depressed.

Other infusers tend to require that you remove the leaves when you’re done brewing. (I hated this when I lived in New York City and wanted an easy way to brew on the subway. If you’re brewing during your commute, I suggest selecting one of the easy infusers above.) If that doesn’t bother you, then one of these brewers may be for you. The best ones are made from durable, non-leaching plastics (and/or flavor neutral metals) and have lids that double as drip trays (trays for the infusing basket to rest on when you’re done brewing). For more information, check out these travel mug and Thermos reviews.

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