So you want to get into loose leaf tea, but don't know where to start…

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Cat Caffeine
Cat's caffeine altar!
Cat's caffeine altar!

My hubby and I started drinking tea a few winters ago while trying to cut down on sugar and pop, and it's been a huge hit in the house ever since.

Unfortunately it did take some trial and error to figure out the best ways to buy and brew a variety of loose leaf teas. So here is what you need to know about getting into loose leaf tea without breaking the bank, or winding up with a bunch of tea you hate (I swear I didn't just throw out three tins of two-year-old tea that had only a couple of cups used…)

Sourcing Tea

Depending on where you live getting tea is probably pretty easy. Most cities, at least in Canada, have several tea shops to choose from. If you're not sure if there is one in your area, Google is your friend. If you're not the "go out and shop" type, there are also plenty of online options. However, I caution against ordering online if you're just getting into tea, as the smell and taste of some teas do not live up to their ingredient list. For online shops I use David's Tea and have heard amazing things about Mountain Rose Herbs.

At the Tea Shop

So you've found your local tea shop and you decide it's time to visit them in person. Great! Most shops are set up with a long counter, behind which are rows and rows of large tea canisters. Wander up and have a look. If you see something that looks interesting, just flag down a sales person and they'll bring over the canister for you to look at and smell. If you like it they'll ask you how much you'd like, and this is where it gets a little confusing.

Most places I've shopped list their price for 50 grams and offer the tea in 50 or 100 gram bags or tins. That can be a lot of tea to drink, especially if you've never tried that flavor before. I suggest getting a few different teas in 25 gram amounts. That ends up being enough tea for 6+ cups and doesn't leave you feeling like you've wasted money if you don't like that flavor.

DSCN0687While at the tea shop, it's also probably a good idea to pick up a strainer or tea bag sleeves. The type you pick up is completely personal, there are tons of cute ones available as well as ones big enough to steep entire pots of tea. I love the giant mug and strainer set I picked up at David's Tea because the stainless steel doesn't stain as easily as many of the mesh strainers, and I forget to empty my strainers frequently.

I also keep a box of tea bag sleeves around for serving tea to guests or tossing into my travel mug when I go to school. I've found that travel tea tumblers are quite expensive and my plain travel mug works just fine with the disposable tea bag sleeve.

Steeping

Every tea is different in how it steeps. Thankfully most tea shops include directions on each individual package. You can even get tea timers and kettles that heat water to specific temperature if you're a true connoisseur. I however am not, most of my teas steep until they look like tea with water that has been left for a minute after boiling. That part is really trial and error for me and I've had a few cups of tea over the years that are bitter from being steeped too long. When that happens I note the type of tea and double-check the instructions, usually it's a black tea that I've let steep too long, by cutting back on the steeping time it's usually great. A cellphone timer or kitchen timer works just as well as a $20 electronic timer in my mind.

A good rule of thumb for most teas I've found is about a tablespoon full of loose leaf tea per standard size mug/cup. For larger cups increase the volume of tea, not the steeping time or water temperature.

White Tea: 180F/80C — 1 tablespoon — 1-3 minutes
Green Tea: 180F/80C — 1 teaspoon — 2-3 minutes
Black Tea: 206F/93C — 1 teaspoon — 3-5 minutes
Oolong Tea: 185F/85C — 1 tablespoon — 3-5 minutes
Herbal Teas: 206F/93C — 1 tablespoon — 5-7 minutes

DSCN0690

Once your timer goes off or you're happy with how your tea looks/tastes drain the strainer over your full cup and set aside on a small plate/bowl and enjoy!

  1. Great article! I love loose leaf tea and I think it's the lack of knowledge that keeps some people away. When it comes to straining you can buy little metal/ceramic utensils with holes in them. They're easy to clean and super portable. This is my preferred method, but leaves can and will escape.

    Incidentally, if you need a conversion for grams into ounces (that's how my shop sells tea):
    http://www.asknumbers.com/OuncesToGramsConversion.aspx

  2. A friend of mine got a cup similar to this and I thought it was ingenious. The tea and water hang out together in the bottom, then there's a strainer (the silver layer) then the lip of the cup. It also comes with a lid. So simple but so awesome.

    • I bet this would be great for herbal / rooibos, and maybe for some green and white teas, but I feel like it would tend to lead to over-steeped nasty bitter black tea β€” or maybe others are just better than I am about drinking their tea in a timely manner. :-p

      • I have this tea thermos: http://retailshop.libretea.com/Libre-Large-p23.html

        I like it because it's huge, and I always put my tea in the bottom because I love strong tea, no matter what kind it is.

        But if you want to control the steeping time with black tea you can put it in the top (between the lid and the strainer), and pour the hot water through it. Then you can turn it upside-down to steep it if it needs more time, and when it's done you just turn it right-side-up and the water is separated from the tea leaves. Voila! Perfectly controlled steeping.

  3. For my fellow homies in and around Kitchener/Waterloo or Stratford, I cannot recommend Distinctly Tea highly enough! They have three stores (one on King St. in the Bauer building (between John St. & Allen St.) in Waterloo, one at the St. Jacob's Farm Market, and one in Stratford β€” and apparently they sell online, too…), and their tea is the best I've ever had. They have a huge selection, and they have jars of tea around the walls of the store, so you don't need to ask someone if you want to smell the tea! Their prices & service are also better than the larger chains that have stores here. They sell tea in 10g, 50g, 100g, and I think even 500g and 1kg quantities (although we've never bought anything larger than 100g). The 10g is great if you just want to try something out, and larger sizes are great if you find something you really like, since they're cheaper per gram.

    • Yes yes yes!

      I have actually bought tea in the 1 kg quantity because we used it for wedding favours (we actually needed 2.5 kg).

      They have amazing tea, and a huge selection.

  4. Don't forget that you can mix different kinds of loose leaf tea (I especialy like mixing herbal teas with white or green tea)! When you do this, I usually keep my steeping time to the shortest of the two types of tea, and it works well.

    For one-cup steeping, I really like this Teavanna thingy: http://www.teavana.com/tea-products/tea-makers-infusers/p/teavana-perfect-teamaker
    Basically, you steep your tea in this thing, then set it on top of your cup and it strains through the bottom. It's dishwasher-safe, too, which is a necessity for me. Plus, Teavanna has a nice, free tea-timer app, which gives the common times for most types of tea, but allows you to adjust the time as you want.

  5. If you're into this sort of thing, wash your tea leaves. That's a thing (trust me on this, I live in Taiwan, a major tea producer, and have my own tatami-floored Japanese tea room that I use frequently).

    Don't use water at boiling temperature, let it cool a bit (high 80s C is good), strain one cup of tea but don't let it steep, instead, after about 2 seconds, remove the leaves and pour out the water. You may pour it from your pot to your cup to keep it warm while the real tea steeps, and dump it from the cup only then (if you're making a pot).

    For oolongs, I actually think 3-5 minutes is far too long. I'd probably leave it for 30 seconds for a cup or Chinese teapot (not a large Western tea pot). Not joking. That's how it's done in Taiwan and that's how I feel you get the most fragrance and flavor, by not overdoing it.

    Oolong teas are great because they can be steeped more than once. You'll probably get 2 brewings out of a green or white tea (for white I recommend Longjing and Bi Luo Chun by the way, although Taiwanese don't drink them, they call that "foreigner's tea" – as in tea from China), and 3-4 out of an oolong. It varies for black.

    For oolongs, try High Mountain Oolong – if you can get some from Taiwan's Fushoushan or Lishan (Alishan is also OK) you'll have something great, Wenshan Baozhong (hard to get abroad), or for really unique flavors try Oriental Beauty (Dongfang Meiren) or Iron Guanyin. You probably won't find Taiwan Pinglin Oolong or Xueshan but if you do, grab it. Steep high mountain oolongs and Wenshan Baozhong for longer (maybe a minute) and Iron Guanyin and Oriental Beauty for less time as they are stronger.

    Then there are whole other categories – matcha, pu erh, jasmine/xiangpian…

    I actually do recommend that, if you decide tea is really your thing, you eventually invest in a Yixing clay teapot or cup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yixing_clay) or another good clay pot. Brew only one category of tea in it (any green, or any oolong, for example, but not both). After about a year your tea will start to taste really amazing.

    I have one of these: http://steepster.com/teas/teavana/21174-yixing-travel-tea-tumbler – not a cheap thing, but if you go whole hog on your tea, I recommend getting one. Mine is for oolong as most Taiwanese tea is oolong, and I love it.

    • I love Bi Luo Chun!

      And totally agree about steeping times, especially if you're planning to infuse multiple times. I have a Yunnan black that I was steeping for 4 minutes, then realized that if I start with 1 minute it's tastier for a lot more infusions. It takes some experimentation, but generally increasing the time and sometimes temperature slightly for each infusion works really well. So with the Yunnan I'll start with 1 minute, then 2, then 3.5, etc. Green and oolong start with shorter time (like 30 seconds, as you said) and increase from there.

  6. Also, don't be afraid to describe to your sales person what you're looking for! Assuming they know their job…they'll be able to pick out a few teas that may suit your needs. I'm a loyal David's Tea customer (they seem to have the best variety at decent prices, and the best blends). But there's also Teaopia who are very knowledgable and Teavana.

    I went into a David's Tea and was looking for a tea to put me to sleep (was having some sleeping issues back in the fall), and the sales person immediately brought down "Mother's Little Helper", which I now love and is a staple in my tea cabinet. They also introduced my husband to a Matcha-Genmaicha blend, and help me find a higher-end organic green tea.

    I now just go in with an idea of what I want and ask the sales people to help me find what's best (unless I'm getting something very specific that I already know of). I think my next search will be a good tea for pregnancy (bloating, nausea, fatigue, soothing, etc).

    • Teaopia doesn't exist anymore. Teavanna bought them last year, and then Teavanna was scooped up by Starbucks.

      Teavanna was keeping some of Teaopia's teas, but once Starbucks bought them, they dropped them.

  7. And I'm gonna be THAT jerk: if you're a tea newb and you steep a tea all wrong and at the wrong temperature, it will probably taste off and so you may (wrongly) think you just don't like that particular tea. But the cup isn't going to suddenly turn into a very angry mountain troll that slaps you in the face repeatedly with a herring. It's always best do to it properly, but stuff happens! πŸ˜›
    I find if a tea is a bit bitter, I like to add a bit of milk and lemon in a pinch. Otherwise, a tiny sprinkle of baking soda will counteract the tannins a bit and lessen the bitterness. Adding sugar/honey/sugar substitute probably won't help.

    • "Otherwise, a tiny sprinkle of baking soda will counteract the tannins a bit and lessen the bitterness."

      Uh, whoa. Could this potentially work on wine's tannins as well? I must open a bottle tonight and experiment with this.

    • Though I dislike milk and generally take my tea straight up, when I was in England this summer I thought, "Well, when in Rome…" and added a splash of milk to my tea. I was shocked to discover that even just a TINY bit of milk takes away the bitterness! Who knew? πŸ™‚

    • My sister had a roommate who used to make terrible tea. My sister couldn't figure out why it tasted so awful, until she realized that her roommate was pouring cold milk into a mug, throwing the teabag in on top of that, and then pouring the boiling water on top.

    • It's a relief. I do hate when mountain trolls repeatedly slap me in the face with herrings.

      I'm going to try the baking soda, I usually put honey or sugar and it ends up tasting like honey and water.

  8. Strainers and that really annoy the bejeebers out of me for some reason, so I just got an extra French press for use with loose tea. I've a notion that Fair Trade tea may be less expensive loose, is why.

    Here's hoping it works well! I have a friend who also uses a French press this way, so odds are good I think.

  9. I was just going to say, French press for tea! πŸ™‚ got one for Christmas and can't believe how well it does the trick…especially for things like a rooibos, which I find escapes my mesh tea balls. Also, coffee filters make excellent disposable tea bags…I made about 200 for wedding favours and they work like a charm. We used this tutorial (http://www.teanewsdirect.com/2011/11/loose-tea-bag-from-a-coffee-filter/) because it was less wasteful than some out there, but they all work essentially the same way.

    • I would probably have thought of the French press sooner, but I'd never seen one before this Christmas when my husband got me one (coffee n00b here!). I just began drinking coffee within the past year and a half and had never even seen one before.

      Now I'm returning the favor with one for him – he does NOT drink coffee – for his birthday. And a collection of yummy-smelling loose teas. We've both been tea drinkers for ages and ages.

  10. Here is how to make a great breakfast while you make your morning tea if you use an electric kettle. (At least if you're making black tea.)

    Put two whole raw eggs in the bottom of your kettle. Make sure there is enough water to leave an inch of water covering the eggs after you've poured out your cup of tea.

    Once the water is boiling, pour out the water for your tea. Leave the eggs and remaining water in the pot and set it aside. When the tea is done steeping, the eggs are medium boiled and lovely.

    If you want a real kick in the ass to start your day with, float some coconut oil on top of your tea. Red Bull has nothing on that.

    • Any reason this wouldn't work with an regular kettle? Assuming we're starting with cold water in both cases I can't figure a difference…

      • I've only ever done it with an electric kettle, but I guess you're right – it shouldn't make a difference. You should try it and report back (I would but I don't have a normal kettle)

  11. One thing that really revolutionized my tea drinking was when I got a variable temperature electric kettle. Mine is from Breville and has settings for green tea, white tea, French press coffee, and black tea (boiling). You hit the button and it heats the water to the desired preset temperature. It's really great for us because I love green and black tea and my boyfriend is really into white tea, while his dad (who lives with us half the year) drinks French press coffee. We noticed the biggest difference in quality with the green tea, even with the pre-bagged stuff.

  12. I don't work for Zhi or anything but they're the best IMO. Loose-leaf, organic, and Fair Trade. Many varieties too. http://www.zhitea.com/ And I second the move to a variable temp brewer. Mine's from Breville also and I saved up for-ev-er for it but it's the shiz and for as often as I make tea (4-5 pots a day sometimes), it's worth every penny.

  13. Hubby works at Teavana – it's a good place to start, and they have stores everywhere.
    Some of the tea can be a bit expensive, but the staff (in general) is super-knowledgeable and friendly.

    They even have samples you can try in the store. πŸ™‚

  14. I love Adagio Teas. They have great little sample bags, that usually brew from 6-10 cups for about $3-$5, so they're fairly low risk.
    I've found that I love all of their Earl Grey blends.

    • I will second Adagio! I can't believe only one person has suggested them. For getting started, they are fantastic! I always order the sample size for like $2-$4 for about 5 cups of tea I have never tried before. The bags (or tins if you order more) come with instructions for that particular tea. They are also the best priced from what I've found looking around. Plus they have a point system that builds up to $X money off a purchase & if you use facebook (or have friends into tea) you can get a free sample with every order just by posting or emailing a link. My mother in law buys my teas from Mountain rose herbs and I can tell you they are also fantastic tasting teas!

  15. I have several kinds or tea at home and I wonder about your time charts. While I steep green or black tea for a very short time (2 min top), my white tea is best steeped for a very long time (7 to 20 minutes), otherwise it really doesn't taste much.

  16. Tea lover here! I found this company Tea Leaf Co. http://tealeafco.com/ that sells organic loose teas you'd want to keep stocked in your cupboard. What I love is that there isn't any fake flavoring and the teas can be steeped repeatedly – that's how good the quality is. Their site is so easy to navigate and makes it easy especially for those who are just getting into loose leaf teas. They're also Toronto based. πŸ™‚

  17. I just launched http://www.teaselector.com which should definitely be worth checking out! The tea selector chooses from a range of the best teas out there (organic, authentic, handmade & rare teas) and ships directly from the source which means you'll get the very best tea at the best price possible.

    We specially source loose leaf tea from passionate micro-producers who typically grow tea in bio-diverse locations with more environmentally sensitive methods. As apposed to a typical monocrop plantation, this method guarantees that our teas are grown as traditionally and natural as possible. I guess you could call it free-range tea.

    It not only produces the worlds best organic tea, but it also promotes long-term environmental sustainability, protecting both our farmers and their valuable land from nasty petrochemical pesticides and fertilisers.

    Many of our tea farmers use traditional and hand-crafted techniques and work on tea farms which have been passed down from generation to generation (In much the same way that a vineyard would be passed down through family in Italy or France) so you can ensure it's authentic and that you are supporting tea farmers who are passionate about what they do and love making tea.

    We've also made sure to select tea from every price range from under $7, through your more modest priced $7-15 teas right up to $30+ teas so it caters for everyone.

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