Some people are intimidated by the thought of brewing loose leaf tea, only because they've never done it before. It's easy; in fact, it's easier than making a pot of coffee. Always remember that the perfect pot of tea is personal to the drinker; you have the finest nose and palate, and the way you brew your pot of tea is the best for you. Do not get caught up with all of the hoopla about steeping time and water temperature -- just get to it.
Here's the short explanation of how to brew tea: Heat some water, pour a little of the hot water into a teapot, swish it around, and throw it away. Then put enough tea leaves in the pot to entirely coat the bottom of the vessel with a thin line of tea (unless you are brewing Oolong in which case you coat the bottom 1/3 with the Oolong). Not an inch of tea, but a thin line of tea (about a 16th of an inch). Let steep for two minutes or so, then enjoy.
Your vessel is defined as whatever touches your tea leaves during the preparation. So if you are using a tea pot, then the pot is your vessel. If you are using a strainer, then the strainer is your vessel and not the cup into which you put the strainer.
For those of you, who want a little more detailed instruction, just follow the suggested steps below:
1. Start with fresh cold water in a saucepan or tea kettle. Do not use hot water to begin the boiling process as this will affect the taste of the water.
2. Pre-heat your teapot: pour some of your hot water from the tea kettle or from the hot water spout in your water cooler into your teapot, swish it around, and then discard the water. You do this so that the hot (non-boiling) water will not cool down too quickly as it hits the tea, and to allow your loose leaf tea to open up and relax before pouring in the hot water. You see, tea is just like us. When we get into bed at night and the sheets are cold we curl up a bit and wait until we adjust to the coolness of the sheets and then stretch out. If tea leaves are placed into a cold vessel they do the same thing; they curl up and wait to relax until they adjust to the temperature. When we immediately add very hot water to the vessel, the tea leaves go into shock. As you can imagine, this will affect the smell and taste of the tea leaves (not to mention your enjoyment).
3. Then add your loose tea to the teapot or strainer as explained earlier. Do not use too much tea. You can always add more tea to your next steep.
4. Tea Balls: Most tea experts frown on the use of balls because they do not allow the tea leaves room to expand which gives tea its best flavor. This is the same criticism the commercial grade of tea bags receive. When you feel you need something else to make your tea, buy it. But there's no need for you to run right out and buy a bunch of tea accessories; I'd much rather you get started making tea with whatever you have on hand. If you do use the ball, please fill it only half way with your tea to allow for complete saturation and expansion of the tea leaves.
5. Pour your hot water over the tea and cover. Some people believe that the water has to be boiling (not boiled) when it hits the tea leaves and that if it's merely hot then the tea will be insipid. Wrong! Do not use boiling water, it destroys the flavor of the tea and lessens the flavors of your additional steeps.
6. Leave the lid off during the steeping (brewing) so as not to "stew" your tea leaves in the water. The lid will only serve to add additional heat and over cook your tea.
7. Steep your tea according to your taste. An easy way to remember the steep time is to start with steeping all teas for 2-3 minutes. You will always have a great tea and you can be thinking of the other matters in your life while the tea is steeping or maybe just close your eyes and concentrating on your breath for 2-3 minutes. If you feel the taste of the tea is too weak add more tea to your next steep. Do not steep the tea longer to make it stronger. If you do, you pull out all the wonderful flavor and leave less for the next steeps you make. If the taste is too strong reduce the amount of tea in your next steep.
8. While your tea is steeping, rinse your teacup or mug with hot water, the same way you rinsed the teapot.
9. If you like to drink your tea with milk in it, pour the milk into the cup before you pour in the brewed tea. This keeps the milk from curdling or coagulating. Now an important note for you milk lovers; there is now some controversy over whether or not it is good to put milk in your tea. A recent German study seemed to prove that putting milk in tea reduced and in some cases eliminated the antioxidants we need in our tea to assist with weight loss and good health. However, in an article titled "Brewing Up the Latest Tea Research," published by the United States Agricultural Research Service, Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, associate director of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging stated, "There has been only one study showing that adding milk decreased the bio availablity of catechins in tea. Those results were not replicated in any of several subsequent studies." And, in fact, a May 2007 Scottish study measured participants' blood levels for antioxidants after drinking tea without milk; and then did the same thing again after having them drink tea with milk. This study found that adding milk made no difference to the beneficial properties. So here's my advice: drink your tea the way you like it! And, if you are worried about adding milk, you might want to switch to rice or almond milk so you can preserve the antioxidants in your tea and still enjoy the milk -- like quality. Or, you can give your favorite tea its own milk-like flavoring by adding Tahitian vanilla beans or extract to your cup or pot (this is a great tip for people who can't have dairy).
10. Before pouring the tea, shake the tea pot a little and then let the tea leaves settle again. Now pour the liquid into your favorite cup or mug.
11. Taste the tea, and then add sweetener or lemon if necessary. You put the sweetener or lemon in last for the same reason you taste a meal before you add salt (you don't put salt at the bottom of the plate and then put your meat over it). Some teas are sweeter than others and you may not need to add anything at all. And every cup or pot of tea you brew will be different from the last--you may have added a pinch more or less tea, or let it steep for a few more seconds. These factors will change the taste. If you do use sweetener and don't want to use sugar, agave (from the cactus plant) or honey, I recommend and urge that you stay away from the chemicals in those blue, pink, and yellow packets and try Stevia, a non-caloric natural sugar substitute, instead, which you can find at any health food store.
By Dr. Tea, of Tea Garden & Herbal Emporium. Author of The Ultimate Tea Diet.
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