What is the difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags?
The main difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags, other than the fact that tea bags come inside a bag (duh!), is the size of tea that is used (also known as ‘grade’).
When loose leaf tea is being processed from a fresh leaf to dried tea, it is treated in a way that keeps the leaf whole as much as possible. When steeped, loose leaf tea (also called ‘whole leaf’ or ‘orthodox’) typically gives a nuanced, often lighter or more delicate cup of tea.
Tea bags are generally made from smaller pieces of tea – either the broken and crushed leaves from loose leaf tea (you might hear the term ‘fannings’ associated to these) or through a deliberate process called Cut, Tear and Curl or Crush, Tear and Curl (CTC). CTC is a process designed to basically chop tea leaves into very even small pieces, so that when it’s steeped, it brews faster and you can extract as much flavour as possible out of tea leaves. This gives you a strong cuppa in less time, but the tea can lose some of the nuanced flavour notes that you can find in loose leaf tea.
NOTE: You will often hear that the tea used in tea bags is called “low-grade”, which can be interpreted as bad or low quality. But in tea processing, low-grade simply refers to the size of the tea leaves! Everyone enjoys their cup of tea a little differently, so there’s no judgment whether you prefer a quick, strong cuppa from a tea bag, or the slower-brewing, refined flavour from loose leaf tea. Or if you switch between them throughout the day!
Ok, now that that’s out of the way let’s get back to our main question.
How to brew loose leaf tea: a step-by-step guide
What you’ll need:
- Loose leaf tea: from herbal to oolong or anything in between.
- Cup, mug, or teapot: you’ll need something to brew and enjoy your tea in.
- Tea infuser or filter: your teapot might come with an infuser built in, or you can find paper tea filters or an infuser to keep those pesky leaves out of your final brew.
- A kettle: to heat your water. If you don’t have a kettle, you can also heat up water in a pot on the stove.
- Tea scoop, teaspoon or scale: using a consistent measure will help make your tea perfect (for your taste!) every time.
1. Heat the water
However you are heating your water, it’s always nice to start with cold, filtered water. But in practice, we all turn on the cold water on tap and fill our kettle, which is great too. Why make tea stressful?
The most important thing about heating the water is the temperature. Based on the kind of tea you are brewing, the ideal water temperature will change. Here’s a handy little water temperature guideline for different kinds of teas:
|Tea type||Visual temperature||Water temperature (Celsius)||Water temperature (Fahrenheit)||Brewing time|
|Black tea||Full bubbling boil||100°C||212°F||3 to 5 mins|
|Green tea||Steaming||79 to 82°C||175 to 180°F||2 to 3 mins|
|White tea||Steaming||79 to 82°C||175 to 180°F||2 to 3 mins|
|Oolong||Heavy steam (almost bubbling)||90°C||195°F||2 to 3 mins|
|Pu-erh||Full bubbling boil||100°C||212°F||4 to 5 mins|
|Herbal tea||Gentle bubbling||88 to 100°C||190 to 212°F||4 to 5 mins|
|Rooibos||Full bubbling boil||100°C||212°F||4 to 5 mins|
If you brew something like black tea at a lower temperature, the flavours won’t extract well and you’ll end up with a weak (dishwater-y) cup. On the other hand, if you brew a green tea in water that’s too hot it will be easily over-extracted and taste harsh and bitter.
Of course not everyone has a fancy kettle and thermometer system. Don’t fret! People have literally been making tea for over 4500 years. Just watch your water as it is heating up inside the kettle or pot. Depending on the kind of tea you are brewing, the water might be ready when it starts to steam, bubbles gently or is madly bubbling and boiling.
2. Measure the tea leaves
The rule of thumb* when measuring your tea is 1 teaspoon (2g) of loose-leaf tea per 6 ounces of water – one smallish teacup. Having said that, this is not set in stone and you should definitely experiment with different amounts to achieve the strength you want. Using a larger mug? Make that teaspoon heaped or add an extra pinch. Remember that it is all about personal taste and there is more than one way to make a perfect cuppa.
Tea measurement guidelines
- Black tea: 1 level tsp. (2g) per 6 oz.
- Green tea: 1 level tsp. (2g) per 6 oz.
- White tea: 1 heaping tsp. (2g) per 6 oz. *White tea is fluffy so you need a bit more!
- Oolong: 1 level tsp. (2g) per 6 oz.
- Pu-erh: 1 level tsp. (2g) per 6 oz.
- Herbal tea: 1 heaping tsp. (2g) per 6 oz.
- Rooibos: 1 level tsp. (2g) per 6 oz.
3. Infuse the tea
Once the water is at the desired temperature, it is time to infuse the tea leaves. Generally, it’s a better idea to pour the hot water over tea leaves instead of spooning tea leaves into hot water. This way you can be sure that the tea leaves are totally saturated to steep evenly and get the most flavour out of them.
If you’re choosing an infuser or tea filter, remember that loose leaf tea expands! The best infusers are the ones that allow the tea leaves to float around and for water to get all around them.
4. Wait for it…
Yes, wait! Don’t add your sugar or milk just yet – it will slow down or stop the steeping process! A perfect cuppa takes a little bit of patience.
The biggest question in this step is how long should you steep your tea?
Once again, the answer is “it depends”. The type of tea you are brewing will determine the amount of time you need to steep. Some teas require longer steep time to get the most out of the tea leaves while others can get bitter if left for too long. Refer to the table above for the ideal brewing time for each kind of tea. You can use this as a starting point and then find the right amount of brewing time for your own palate.
5. Remove the tea leaves
Once the tea has finished steeping, it is important that you remove the tea leaves from the pot or cup (yet another reason to use an infuser or tea filter!). Leaving the tea leaves in for too long can result in a bitter taste that may not be very pleasant.
6. Learn the rules, then break them
Making a perfect cuppa is as much art as it is science. Since everyone’s preferences are different — find out what works for you!
For example, I don’t like peppermint tea steeped for 4 minutes. I leave it for maybe 1 (and sometimes just do a cold brew directly from the tap). But I like to add milk to my black tea so I very often let it steep the full 4 minutes (or 5 or 6, or 15 if I forget and come racing back – can’t waste a cup of tea). Similar with rooibos: I find it can easily steep for 5-10 minutes and it never becomes bitter.
If you’re drinking a tea that is blended, you might also need to adjust the rules a little. For example, a tea that has green and black teas blended together might be trickier than something that is straight green or black. Try a time and temperature in between the two and then adjust based on what works. Or if you’re brewing a chai that has lots of spices, you might want to steep that tea for longer and at a hotter temperature (even simmer it on the stove) to really extract the flavour from the spices – especially if you’re planning to add some milk and sugar, which will offset any bitterness that might come out of the tea leaves.
*According to the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada