Beginner's Guide to Looseleaf Tea

Maybe you recently tried some looseleaf tea and liked it. Maybe you've heard of all the health benefits. Maybe you just want to see what all the fuss is about. Whatever the reason, you've decided you want to try some looseleaf tea, and that's awesome!

Darling Darjeeling

Darling Darjeeling, an example of premium looseleaf tea.

We sell fine artisan teas, and it's important that you know how to prepare them properly - The wrong method, amount, temperature or steeping time can lead to a horrible tasting cup of tea, and we'd hate for you to not experience how amazing our teas can be. If it sounds complicated, don't be discouraged - we've created this guide to help you get started, and it covers everything you need to know to make fantastic, world-class tea at home.

Picking A Tea

At any given time, TeaMonger sells over 100 different tea blends across 7 different primary categories, and so picking a tea is no simple feat. The type of tea that most tea novices are familiar with is 'black tea'. Black tea is the most common type of tea in the western hemisphere - it is rich and velvety, with a distinct texture and strong, full-bodied taste. We carry two of the most famous types of black tea:

Orange Pekoe is known as a 'straight' black tea. This means that there are no added flavors or ingredients, it's just pure tea. Earl Grey, on the other hand, is 'flavored' black tea. That's because there are added ingredients for flavor - cornflower petals and oil of bergamot, a citrus extract. We've gotten very creative with flavors, and when browsing our teas, you can select your favorite flavors or ingredients to narrow your selection, using the panel on the left of each category page.

What should I start with? Because of its familiarity, many people prefer to try black tea to start. Studies have found that anywhere between 60-80% of people prefer black tea, but we suspect that almost none of the people surveyed have even tried Rooibos or other teas. In our opinion, your best bet is to get small quantities of several different categories of tea rather than one big batch, so you can compare and contrast for yourself.

For more information about each class of tea, click the tea types under our logo near the top of every page (Black, White, Green, etc) to learn a bit more about each type, or read our types of tea guide for a more comprehensive overview.

Brewing Information and Concepts

Fundamental "steeping" concept. No matter how you make your tea, there is a fundamental concept that is always at play (with some rare exceptions) when making tea. First, water is heated and added to a teapot or a cup. The tea is then added to the hot water, usually in some kind of a filter like a teabag or an infuser. After a few minutes, the tea is removed from the water and discarded, and the tea is ready to drink. This process is known as 'steeping'. The tea leaves sit in hot water while their essence is pulled out into the liquid, and then the leaves are taken out and either used for future steeps or thrown away.

No matter how you choose to brew your tea, there are some important numbers you need to be aware of. Each tea we sell is different, and comes with its own instructions. For example, the Orange Pekoe black tea discussed earlier has the following 'preparation instructions', located on its product page:

Temperature: The first icon represents what temperature the water should be at when you add the tea. This is important because different flavors and compounds of the tea will release at different temperatures: A green tea, for example, may become bitter-tasting if steeped at too high a temperature.

How do you know what temperature your water is? The cheapest way is to use a tea thermometer. There are also fancy kettles that allow you to specify a temperature. It may be tempting to skip this step and just use boiling water, but don't expect very good tea if you do!

Time: The next icon is the amount of time to steep the tea in the water for. It's important to be precise here: like with temperature, if the tea spends too long steeping, it may become bitter and unappealing. If it spends too little time steeping, it will taste weak and watered down. It is usually a range of time (in this case, 4 to 5 minutes), and this is because there is a degree of personal preference involved. Steep for the full 5 minutes if you like strong, full-bodied teas, and 4 minutes if you like milder, weaker teas.

Amount: The final icon is how much tea to steep per 8 ounce cup, in teaspoons. If you're making a large mug, tumbler or teapot, upscale accordingly. In the example we're following, for a single cup of tea, 1 teaspoon is a good measure. If we were using a 32 oz. teapot, we'd use 4 teaspoons of tea, with the same time/temperature recommendations.

Steeping Devices

The Difference Between Individual Teabags and Looseleaf Tea

Before we begin to talk about different looseleaf brewing and steeping, you should understand that you have two options when shopping at TeaMonger. You can buy your tea loose in a tin, or you can opt to pay a bit more and have it put into individual paper tea filters known as 'teabags'.

When you go to the grocery store and buy brand-name teabags, you're getting the worst-quality bits & byproducts like stems and bitter seeds. It's all ground up so you can't tell, but you're sacrificing quality for convenience.

With TeaMonger, you can have the best of both worlds, since we use exactly the same high-quality tea leaves. For more information, see our packaging options.

Before you make your mind up, we strongly suggest that you give one of the looseleaf methods described below - many people find that the experience of preparing tea is rewarding, fun, and leads to a more enjoyable cup of tea!

No matter what device you use, the fundamental concept is always the same. We're going to outline some devices below, from the common to the revolutionary. You can choose the one that fits your style and budget!

Chain mesh tea ball infuser

An affordable, effective infuser.

Chain Mesh Ball Infuser

Probably the most affordable option you have when you make tea regularly is to use a mesh ball infuser. Slide the ball open, and insert a suitable amount of looseleaf tea. Lock the ball closed, and drop it into your teacup or mug. Fill the cup with appropriately hot water and wait an appropriate amount of time, following the measurements described for the tea you're using. You can use the pinching clasp at the end of the chain to secure it to the cup. Once the steeping time has passed, take it out - you're ready to drink!



Curve Tall Mug (Lime)

A built-in cup infuser.

Curve Tall Mug with infuser

Fundamentally, this product is exactly like the mesh ball infuser described above, except it's been custom-designed to fit in a mug. Underneath that lid sits an infuser basket that holds the looseleaf tea. Add the tea, pour water over, remove the basket when steeping time has passed. These mugs come in a variety of colors and are easy to clean.



Monger Tea Filters

Self-service teabags.

Monger Tea Filters

Diehard tea-bag fans will be happy to know that you can purchase empty tea filters. These tea filters won't affect the taste of your tea like inferior teabags will (a lot of teabags contain dyes and other materials that bleed into the tea). The downside to this method is that the bags aren't reusable, and if you drink a lot of tea, these filters become expensive. To use, simply fill with your favorite un-ground looseleaf tea, fold the cuff over the top firmly to seal, and drop the bag into your cup. After steeping, remove and discard.



Curve 24oz. Teapot

The traditional teapot. Sort of.

Teapots

If you're preparing tea for more than one person (or, if you just feel like being fancy about it), you use a teapot. The concept is identical to the infusers discussed above, it's just a bigger infuser with more water. Pop the top off, fill the infuser basket with looseleaf tea, add appropriately hot water, wait, and remove the infuser basket. Teapots come in several sizes: We carry the Stump 16oz. teapot, the Curve 24oz. teapot (pictured), and the Curve 45oz. teapot, among others. If you want to serve tea, you might want to invest in some teacups as well.



Grosche Madrid French Press

The French way.

French Press

French presses are normally associated with coffee, but sacré bleu, they do a great job with tea as well. Fundamentally they're the same idea as infusion, except instead of removing the tea leaves from the water, you're removing the water from the tea leaves. After steeping, you push down the plunger, which forces all the water through fine stainless steel filters, but keeps the tea leaves pinned below. When you get to the bottom, you pour the tea out, and the tea leaves stay put. The french press is one of our favorites - it's beautiful, effective, and fun to use.



Breville Tea Maker

The ultimate tea appliance.

Tea Appliances

As artisan tea consumption becomes more popular in North America, there's an emerging market for sophisticated tea appliances that take the hassle out of preparing tea. The aptly named Tea Maker by Breville is the ultimate example of such a device. Simply load your tea in, press a few buttons, and like magic your tea emerges, perfectly brewed. Because these machines are new and cater to a niche market, they're expensive. Really, very expensive. The other downside is they rob you of the experience to prepare your tea, which to many tea lovers isn't a chore at all. That said, these machines are rather amazing, and watching them go is a zen experience all in itself.



And more! This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few common examples. You'll find variants on these ideas in our tea accessories section!

Tea Additives

Many tea drinkers add some kind of creamer—like milk, cream or soy milk—and/or some kind of sweetener—like sugar, honey or agave—to their tea. While there is a puritan school of thought that suggests tea should be unadulterated and drank pure, most tea lovers think that tea is improved with the additives of your choice.

There are no right/wrong options when it comes to additives. There are certain trends, but for the most part, you should experiment and see what you like! We're going to run through some of the most common sweeteners, and talk about how they affect the taste of the tea.

Sugar Stones

Sugar Stones

Sugar, but fancier.

While they may look unusual, these 'stones' are just unprocessed, unrefined lumps of cane sugar. Many tea drinkers prefer the taste of cane sugar to granulated white sugar, though the difference is subtle. Compared with the other additives, sugar stones are as subtle as it gets, adding sweetness without substantially changing the flavor of the tea. This allows you to get a more-or-less unmodified taste of the tea's flavor. There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to additives, but we find these sugar stones are perfect for super-premium straight teas like Monkeyfist or Fujian Silver Needle.

Honey

Tea Honey

Bees know best.

Honey has become a common tea sweetener, but it's a relatively new idea. Most 'proper' British tea lovers scoff at the idea, but it has become beloved by tea drinkers in North America and around the world. Honey has a rather distinct taste, and that flavor gets combined with the flavor of your tea when you add it. If you're a fan of the way honey tastes, this is a good thing—it'll augment your drink to new levels. If you haven't been much of a honey fan in your life thus far, odds are you should pass on this one.

Dig a little deeper into it, and you find that there are actually lots of varieties of honey with subtle, nuanced differences. We carry Savannah Bee Company's Tea Honey, so named because it has a relatively mild taste and texture that complements tea very nicely. While this is not strictly necessary, you may not experience optimal results if you add your everyday honey to your tea.

Agave Nectar

Agave Nectar (Clear)

The new kid on the block.

There's been an explosion in popularity recently in the use of Agave (pronounced Ah-Gah-Vey) nectar in tea recently, and it's no surprise why - agave nectars are similar to honey but with their own unique taste, and they are less viscous and sticky for a mess-free experience. Made from the juice of the agave plant, the nectars are organic and all-natural, with an even sweeter taste than sugar so you need less of it. It doesn't cause the spikes in blood sugar that sugar is known to do, which presumably makes it a safer choice for diabetics (although we are in no way qualified to dispense medical knowledge).

Best of all, it comes in several varieties. The Clear agave nectar is refined the most, for an incredibly sweet nectar with a relatively subtle taste, closer to sugar than to honey. The Amber nectar adds delicious sweet butterscotch and caramel overtones to your tea, and the Raw nectar adds velvety-rich brown sugar and molasses overtones. Amber and raw go great with flavored teas like Drizzled Caramel and Sweet & Salty Coconut. As if that wasn't enough, we've also got Maple Agave Syrup, an all-natural syrup made with agave nectar and maple syrup, for a delicious maple twist.

And more! Once again, these three sweeteners hardly represent all the options you have out there, but this guide can only be so exhaustive. We didn't even get to talk about Stevia, an all-natural sweetener that's 30-45 times sweeter than sugar! You can see all the options we carry in our tea accessories section!

More Variants

As you browse our store, you may see some sub-types pop up that may be unfamiliar to you. Here's a quick overview of the two you're most likely to come across.

Matcha

This powdery tea creation is a Japanese invention made from green tea known as Matcha. Unlike normal loose-leaf tea which is steeped and removed, this tea is mixed in with the water like hot chocolate and drank as-is. There are some who are predicting matcha is the next big superfood craze - It's simply finely powdered high-quality green tea, but because you drink it completely, it's way more nutrient-packed than regular green tea (which is already quite nutrient-packed). It tastes remarkably good, and many people who aren't generally fans of green tea seem to prefer matcha.

To learn more about matcha, please read our Matcha-Making Guide.

Chai

In India, the word 'chai' simply means tea. When we use the word though, we're using it in its adopted North-American meaning, which is short for 'Masala chai', which means 'spiced tea'. More specifically, Masala Chai is a type of flavored black tea that seasons with a collection of spices. The exact spice list isn't set in stone, but it typically contains ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and star anise. The result is an intoxicating, aromatic blend that has become popular worldwide.

While we do sell what we consider to be a traditional Masala Chai, we've also played with the concept and have come up with a whole slew of Chai-derivatives. View a full list of our Chai teas, or check out our new Chai collection!

Iced and Sweet Tea

In the US, an overwhelming 85% of tea consumed isn't the hot mug of steaming liquid the word 'tea' makes you think of, but iced tea (or one of its subsets known as 'sweet tea'). The general methods for producing iced tea are the same as for producing hot tea, except generally you produce larger quantities, and the tea is refrigerated or iced to cool it down after brewing.

Certain teas work better than others for icing, and there are several different methods and deviations; for more information on brewing iced or sweet tea, please see our Iced Tea & Sweet Tea Guide.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you made it! if you're reading this, you've managed to get through our entire beginner's guide to looseleaf tea. You've gone from novice to expert in one fell swoop - how does it feel? Hopefully, armed with this new knowledge, you're prepared to start experimenting with teas, finding the exact combination of tea, brewing method and sweetener that works for you. There's a reason tea is the second most popular drink in the world (water being the first). Enjoy!