The Agony of the Leaves – To Steep, To Brew…

“The Agony of the Leaves” is a term used to describe the unfurling of the leaves during the steeping process, which is one of the reasons why loose teas are considered preferable to bagged teas — they allow the leaves to open and move without constraint, which can affect the quality of the resulting brew.

Tea (like wine, like coffee) is an umbrella word encompassing varieties so numerous that to describe one method of preparation would be remiss. Rather than over-generalize by telling you to brew all tea the same way, or try to describe the appropriate brewing process for every tea that exists, I would encourage you–especially if you are spending a lot of money on rare teas–to ask the seller what is recommended; or simply look on the box or tin where it should tell you what is appropriate for what you are buying. A good general guide can be found here.

Depending on the company you keep (and this is the most important ingredient when it comes to having a good time at your tea gatherings), the type of tea you serve shouldn’t be a source of stress. It should be simple and drinkable. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be unique. You should genuinely like it. I think that’s the most important thing. There should always be another option, be it lemonade or hot chocolate or even a big pitcher of water stuffed with citrus slices and mint leaves, for those guests that don’t drink tea or don’t drink that tea.

I have tasted some very fine teas in my life, and some have cost a lot of money. However, the tea that has given me the most pleasure in terms of its availability and drinkability is Barry’s. I had it in Ireland years ago, one bag thrown into a huge pot resulting in a strong brew.  Like most Americans, I grew up around Lipton’s and Rose’s–inconsistent thin teas that never seemed to be good for anything but iced tea. Twinning’s bagged teas eventually entered the picture, then loose teas of varying quality. My tea shelf is bursting with choices, but when I want a strong, even-bodied, consistent tea that can stand up to milk, sugar, lemon–or whatever you want to throw at it–I reach for Barry’s every time.

As for steeping, I do have a general set of rules I follow that keep things flowing when serving tea (especially to large groups):

  • Prior to steeping the tea, I warm the pots I’m using with hot water. This helps keep the tea hot as long as possible. You can use a tea cozy to help keep things hot, but I prefer a teapot warmer.
  • I use filtered tap water.
  • I make sure the water comes to a boil before pouring it over the leaves, but I don’t let it boil for long because the longer it boils the more oxygen leaves the water, which I find greatly affects the taste of the tea.
  • I remove the bags once the tea has steeped sufficiently.
    If using loose tea, I have two pots, one to steep in and one into which I decant the steeped tea.
    Both of these methods keep the tea from become too strong, or if you’re using a teapot warmer, from cooking the leaves and giving the tea unpleasant flavors. The two teapot method is also useful if you’re going to steep the same leaves over and over, which is common with a lot of teas whose flavor is best in the second or third “flush”.
  • For loose teas, I use approximately one teaspoon (5ml) of tea per cup (240ml) of water plus one for the pot.

That’s about it!