Home Cook It Yourself A Beginners Guide to Exploring Loose Teas

A Beginners Guide to Exploring Loose Teas

by Erika Nicole Kendall

If you grew up like me, you were far-too familiar with that damned Lipton tea bag. All your teas tasted the same – Lipton-flavored, and with enough sugar to rival your last batch of Kool-Aid.

It didn’t really have much flavor, but boy… put that sugar in it, and it was a wrap! That was all I needed!

But now, as an adult, I’m realizing just how rough that was on my insides. All that sugar… and I’m a recovering emotional eater? For my own good, I had to let it go. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

That is, until one dark December night, Eddy and I took Mini-me to the Holiday Market at Union Square… where we saw this:

Of course, not knowing anything about what I was looking at, I became curious. What’s with the dried fruit? What’s the black stuff?

Ohhh, boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Tea is little more than the byproduct of boiling things in water – it’s the leftover broth. You could say that tea must come from specific kinds of leaves, but then what about those of us who might like a “hibiscus strawberry” or “samurai chai blueberry” tea? And, you could say that tea is only dried herbs and fruits, but those of us who make raw ginger tea – the epitome of epic homemade tea-making – would probably laugh at you. Loudly.

You can make a flavorful broth out of just about anything, but how? You can do it the old school way, like my mother-in-law, who just just toss some chopped ginger in a cup with some hot water and let it sit with some honey… but that doesn’t work with everyone or for every tea. What do you do?

Meet… my tea ball.

..at least that’s what I call it. The mesh strainer is often used in the same way you’d use a colander or a cheesecloth – the goal is to keep some things in and other things out. There are lots of ways to enjoy loose teas – there are even special pots and thermoses that cater exclusively to the loose tea drinker – but the mesh strainer is most accessible across the US, and also offers possibly the best value: you can use it beyond teas, even adding herbs and black peppercorn to it and tossing it in water, to make a quick stock without having to fish it all out afterwards.

We can definitely discuss different tea pots and brewing methods, but for beginner’s purposes, I’m talking about balls.*

For this, you’ll need your mesh strainer, your cup, your tea, and your means of heating up your water. That could be a tea pot, a saucepan, a microwave (although, I’d really rather you didn’t; aside from the fact that microwave tea is always scalding hot, it’s just not ideal), an empty coffeemaker or Keurig. Whatev. Your choice.

Loose tea is… fun. The possibilities are so, so endless. There’s totally nothing “new” to it – I’m fully admitting how terribly behind the curve I am on it – and lots of people have been making tea without “tea bags” for ages. Your mesh strainer serves as your “re-usable tea bag” in this instance – remember how I told you clean eating helps save the environment? – and gives you countless cups of tea.

There’s also the matter of flavor. With bagged teas, both the strength and flavor of the tea are determined by the manufacturer. What if you want an extra-strong ginger tea? What if you want a chamomile tea, but don’t want to spend your entire day snoozing? Unless you’re going to put two bags in your tea instead of one, or unless you’re going to put your bag in weak water – and don’t both of those options feel like a waste? – you don’t get much of a say. Using your own mesh tea strainer with your favorite teas will make a huge difference.

Also, should you deign to go beyond the typical flavors of teas, you’re going to be paying an arm, a leg, a first born and quite possibly an eyeball. When I purchased chamomile tea – clearly, I’m a major fan of chamomile – with lemon zest in bags, it was $13 for 1.65oz. The loose canister of tea I’d purchased from a local joint was $11 for 1.5oz. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you think about the fact that the weight of the bagged teas…includes the weight of the tea bags. Hell, how much actual tea am I getting? How much of my money is paying for stuff I can’t drink?

Loose teas it is.

Loose teas can often be found in the tea and coffee section of your favorite grocery store, and have tons of different flavors that can be enhanced with herbs (basil, sage, rosemary), juices (lemon, orange, lime) syrups or different kinds of sweeteners (stevia, maple syrup, honey, kinds of sugars.) We can explore that later. Just the basics today.

Boil your water. Once your water reaches your desired temperature, pour it into your cup. Put your designated sweetener in your water. Prep your balls.*

Fill your tea ball with your loose tea. If you have a strainer like mine, ensure that the latch is secure so that your strainer doesn’t open up in your drink. Nothing better than drinking tea bits unintentionally. Slowly place it in your water.

Secure the chain around the handle of your mug, just because it gets kinda frustrating fishing your ball out of your cup. Squeeze your stuff in it, pour in your drink, and you’re ready.

Pour it up. Get your sip on. (And – coming soon – use it to make your own soda pop!)

And it’s that simple.

Go forth and find blends that tickle your fancy! They can be sweet, floral, subtle, smoky, and sleepy-time. If you’re wondering where I get my own teas here in NYC, I hit up Harney & Sons (Broome St. in SoHo), Kalustyans on 28th and 2nd in Murray Hill, or McNulty’s Tea and Coffee Co. near the Sheridan Square stop on the 1. During the holiday season, I check out Spices and Tease in the Union Square Holiday Market.

What are your favorite tea blends? What tea suppliers did I miss? What more should we talk about when it comes to teas? Let’s hear it!

*You girls are so silly.

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marie June 7, 2013 - 6:05 AM

Yeah a post about tea! My all time favorite drink!
I converted away several years ago from juice and soda by drinking tea and never looked back… (just need to figure out how I can convert away from alcool… lol)

What I learnt as a beginner:

Black, green, rooibos, herbal tea have totally different flavors (yes sometimes it’s not so obvious when your addicted to bag tea)
In order to enjoy properly your tea you will need to choose carefully the temperature of the water. ie completely boiling for black tea or rooibos and lightly simmering or even just really warm water (turn the power off before it boils) for green tea gives a totally different flavor to it.
You can also decide as per your personal taste whether you want your black tea extra strong or extra light by letting it infuse the appropriate time.

My favorites:
Dammamm Frères black tea with almond,
Mariage Frères Black tea with vanilla and almond, black tea with orange and cinammon or apple and cinnamon, green tea with violet favor or rooibos with red fruits. Palais des thés (for green tea I quite like what they do, especially hamman tea, with rose and other flowers, or the cherry blossom green tea)
As per herbal tea (ginger, thyme…), I just buy the leaves at the farmer’s market, so no brand..

Dalila June 9, 2013 - 10:48 AM

I go to Teavana. They have them in most malls in the suburbs.

My favorite flavor is the Raspberry Lemonade. It serves as a nice “snack” at night. lol

Kami June 10, 2013 - 8:59 AM

I will be expirementing with teas this summer. I love drinking tea. I saw this place. Would you be posting recipes. I will be adding this to my menu. I need to buy a strainer.

thelady June 12, 2013 - 12:13 PM

I got my tea strainer from IKEA, now I just need to buy some loose leaf tea.

Alex Zorach (teacology) June 12, 2013 - 4:52 PM

I think it’s great that you’re encouraging people to get into loose-leaf tea. Loose tea offers so many great opportunities…it’s cheaper per cup, more sustainable, and most of the highest-quality teas are only available in loose form.

If you or anyone shop at Teavana, there are a lot of other companies I recommend checking out, because a lot of companies have better prices and less pushy sales. I couldn’t possibly list them all (I post reviews on RateTea if you want more) but some of my favorite companies are Upton Tea Imports (especially for black teas), and Rishi Tea (for fair trade+organic). Adagio Teas also has a good selection and a very fun website. I love Harney & Sons too…I see you are already on to them, and they are another of my favorites!

Erika Nicole Kendall June 12, 2013 - 5:23 PM

I mentioned Teavana just because I know they’ve got stores in different parts of the US, and I think its important that people try to see out that in-person experience when they’re trying something new, too. I’m not entirely opposed to pushy salespeople, so long as you’re going in moderately informed.

I’d love it if you could share a few more online resources for loose-leaf teas, though. I’ve got my few stores that I go to, but I realize that in NYC I have a bit more than I have when I go back to the Midwest. It’s not entirely fair to just list a bunch of NY resources, you know?

Alex Zorach (teacology) June 12, 2013 - 10:32 PM

Yeah! That makes sense about more options available in NYC (one of my favorites there is the Ten Ren store in Chinatown, and there are many stores there that I’ve heard people rave about that I haven’t even visited!)…

Hmm, more of my favorites…a tiny company called Life in Teacup, which specializes in Chinese (and Taiwanese) teas…TeaVivre is another one that specializes in Chinese teas, that one direct-ships from China–slightly slow and pricey shipping but it’s worth it because the tea is so fresh and high quality. Yunnan Sourcing is another that ships directly from China–great if you want to buy Pu-erh or other teas from Yunnan province. Teaspring is another great one for high-quality Chinese teas. For some really high-end, unusual (rare) Chinese teas, Wild Tea Qi is another great company.

For bulk herbs, great for blending your own tea, I recommend Mountain Rose Herbs. I also like Frontier Coop, which is available in many natural food stores and coops.

Arbor Teas is one of my favorites, with a focus on fair trade + organic. It’s mainly a wholesaler, but Teas Etc. also sells retail online, and their teas have been consistently good, I also have met the family that runs them personally and they are very nice!

A brand you can sometimes find, loose-leaf, in stores, especially middle-eastern import stores, is Ahmad Tea. Their loose-leaf black teas offer exceptional value: they are very inexpensive but the quality is like that of much pricier teas.

And for people who live in its limited geographic range, Wegmans supermarket sells great loose-leaf teas. I think some of them are sourced from Ito-EN, which is a good provider of Japanese green teas. I haven’t tried them personally, but people whose judgment in tea I trust have told me good things about Den’s Tea, a smaller online company.

Yet another company, newish, and an offshoot of Republic of Tea, is Rare Tea Republic. They are very good if you want to go with Himalayan teas (i.e. Darjeeling, Nepal, etc.). But if you really want to go all-out with those sorts of teas, I recommend looking into Thunderbolt Tea…they have a big selection of single-harvest teas.

And one other company I like is Simpson and Vail. They’re a little bit like Upton Tea Imports in their focus, but I find they are more likely to carry unusual / rare / hard to find offerings, like they were the only company to sell tea produced in Bolivia, for some time.

That’s a lot of tea companies! I think that covers most of the companies I prefer though! Most…haha…I’m sure I left out some! I’ve tried TONS of teas!

Jame June 12, 2013 - 11:50 PM

I like David’s Tea. They are just expanding to the US but available online. I like tea for a dessert option. Another good spot is Lupicia. Available online and in a few stores.

Carla Brown June 28, 2013 - 2:30 PM

Hi Erika!
So glad you decided to do a post on loose teas!
I have been drinking loose teas for a couple years but living in the South I’m limited to Teavana unless i want to order online. I have ordered from necessiteas.com, which I actually found on IG. I am always searching for great teas and tend to like fruity, refreshing teas in the morning and spice teas that I can add milk to at night – Indian Masalas are my favorite!

I will definitely be looking at some of the sites that have been recommended.

Delariean July 21, 2013 - 6:29 PM

LOVE tea…..got into Teavana around 1997 when they first came out….love their automatic tea maker…it cost a pretty penny but it boils my water to the perfect temp for my loose leaf teas……

Got me to explore with other loose leaf teas from other stores….

Nicola October 12, 2013 - 9:36 PM

I’ve found spots here and there in Charlotte but the best tea place I’ve ever seen was in Pike’s Place in Seattle. It was fabulous!

Dee January 30, 2014 - 11:19 AM

My mom is a huge tea drinker (my dad and I still prefer coffee) and collects tea-for-ones. I bought her a robot-shaped infuser (which she refuses to use, saying it’s “too cute”) and a collection of geek-themed looseleaf teas from Thinkgeek for her birthday. This year, I’m buying her this: http://www.thinkgeek.com/product/96bb/

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