The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Level Three

(or “Getting fancy with gong fu cha”)

Now you’ve explored a bit of the world of higher-quality loose-leaf tea. You can make yourself a pretty nice mug of tea. Perhaps you’ve even bought a few different options for teaware, like a teapot and an infuser mug. And you’ve tried a few different kinds of teas. No big deal, but you want more.

Well, this is where I want to talk about gong fu cha, or brewing based on the Chinese tea ceremony. Gong fu style brewing involves steeping a relatively large amount of tea leaf in a smaller amount of water for a series of short brews, rather than putting a small amount of leaf into a mug for a few minutes. It yields a tea session, rather than a cup of tea, and can be a wonderful way to really get to know a tea.

Before we really get into this, I wanted to point out that I am in no way an expert on the Chinese tea ceremony, nor should this be considered a guide to really “authentic” or traditional gong fu brewing. For more information about the context and history of formal gong fu cha, you can check out this article or see if there is somewhere near you to experience a Chinese gong fu tea ceremony. It’s worth noting that, in China, most people brew their tea much less formally, either grandpa-style or in a modified grandpa-style by throwing tea leaves in a pot and letting them brew as they serve it, refilling with water as needed.

Anyway, back to gong fu cha. The name means “tea with great skill” and it is, at its essence, a method of steeping tea with precision and control over the factors. This is the level at which I find it the most beneficial to consider adding things like a temperature-controlled kettle and a small scale for weighing tea. Yes, you could absolutely buy these things sooner, but if you want to have a good gong fu session, you’re definitely going to want to have more precise control over the temperature of your water and exactly how much tea you’re using.

One note on the style of this level: I’m going to talk about the techniques and general equipment, and give a sort of “buyer’s guide” at the end, rather than interspersing vendor recommendations with the instructions. You can also check out my previous post about “Getting Started with Tea on Amazon Prime” for some recommendations on teaware that I use.

So here are the basics: You take a small vessel, usually around 3-5 oz. (90-150ml) and fill it approximately ⅓ of the way with tea leaf, and then fill with water. You steep the tea for seconds, maybe 10-30 seconds at first, and then strain it into another vessel to serve. The steeping is repeated as many times as you get flavor out of the tea, typically adding on 10-15 seconds to each steeping. It is also not unusual to rinse the tea before the first steeping. Typically Chinese tea cups are much smaller than Western tea cups, sometimes only an ounce or two in volume, so a 150-ml teapot can yield tea for more than one person (or you can drink the whole thing yourself). It is important to note the difference in vessel size so that you’re not surprised by the size of your teaware when it arrives. When my husband bought me a 60-ml teapot recently, he thought he’d been sent the wrong thing at first when he saw how absolutely tiny it was. Yes, it’s supposed to be that small — you’re brewing a tea session, not a single cuppa to linger over.

The essential tools for gong fu brewing are a vessel for steeping and a vessel for drinking. The classic example of a steeping vessel is the gaiwan. This is a small cup, usually made of clay or glass, that has a cover. The cover helps keep volatile oils from evaporating during steeping, and also serves as a way to strain leaves out of the tea when you move it from the steeping vessel to the drinking vessel. The drinking vessel can be anything, although if you have quite a small brewing vessel, straining into a large mug can look and feel a bit silly. That said, I routinely use a gaiwan for steeping and strain it into an English tea cup.

From there, you can add elements to make your tea brewing experience more refined. Some people like to strain their tea more than the lid of a gaiwan allows, and use a mesh strainer over their drinking or serving vessel. Some prefer to strain into a serving pitcher and move it to drinking cups from there (this is particularly useful when your cup is slightly smaller than your brewing vessel). And going further, in the most formal tea ceremonies, tools such as picks, scoops, and tongs are used to handle the tea and teaware to avoid the oils and dirt from your hands from contaminating the tea. Finally, since gong fu brewing can involve a fair amount of spilling and discarding liquid, some people choose to use a tea tray with a draining base so they can simply pour the liquid through. Personally, I either use a discard vessel, or else brew outside on my wooden deck, which acts as a sort of giant tea tray.

Additionally, not all gong fu brewing has to be done in a gaiwan. There are also small Chinese teapots that can serve as a brewing vessel. While glazed porcelain is common, some pots are unglazed and made of materials like clay or silver, which are thought to alter the taste of the tea in interesting ways. Unglazed clay can also supposedly pick up a kind of season, and when used for one tea or one type of tea, and impart complexity and additional flavor as they take on more of that kind of tea. Personally, I have two teapots that are unglazed on the inside, one for oolongs (particularly bug-bitten “honey” oolongs) and one for ripe pu-erh, but I generally brew in glass or glazed porcelain so that I don’t have any concerns about using any teaware for any tea in my cupboard.

Alright, so let’s imagine that you’ve just received your first gaiwan. Time to brew some tea, right? Not so fast. I highly recommend you practice moving liquid into and out of your gaiwan, without the pressure of actually steeping a cup of tea (and the hazard of hot water). There is a bit of a learning curve with gaiwan brewing, and I had my fair share of spilled tea and burned fingers when I started out. Indeed, even after years of practice, I have bad days where I just can’t seem to strain from the gaiwan properly. This will also give you the chance to get an idea while gaiwan “hold” you like best. The trick is to be able to hold the edge of the pot and keep a finger on the lid to keep it from falling off, all with one hand. The two basic holds are holding the edges of the bowl with your thumb and middle finger, while keeping your index finger on the lid, or holding the whole thing (with saucer, if you have one) in your hand, while keeping your thumb on the lid. These holds are demonstrated in the photos below.

Okay, so you have a gaiwan and you know how to use it. Time to steep some tea! Wait, no. There are still two more tools you should consider getting: a temperature-controlled kettle and a digital scale. As I said earlier, you can absolutely buy these things sooner, but for gong fu brewing I find them more necessary. The whole point of gong fu cha is having control over the brewing of the tea, and it’s important to know how much tea you’re using and how hot the water is. On a more practical level, I’ve definitely had trouble eyeballing how much rolled oolong tea to use and ended up with a gaiwan so cram-jam full of leaves, once they’d expanded in the water, that I can barely get water into the gaiwan. Weighing your leaf gives you a better idea of how much tea you really need. For reference, this photo shows the same weight of three different teas:

Finally, now can we brew some tea? Okay, you’ll want to start by determining how much tea you need and how hot to heat your water. Again, the amount of tea, the temperature, and the steeping time are all things you can play around with to get your favorite iteration of a particular tea, but I find that a good starting point for amount of tea is to use approximate 1-1.5 g of tea per ounce (30 ml) of water. So for a 150-ml gaiwan, you would use about 5-8 g of tea (for reference, the typical tea bag contains about 2 g of tea, which makes an entire mug, so this is a lot of tea for a small amount of water).

Water temperature will vary by tea type, and generally it’s good to start brewing black teas at 200-212 F (95-100 C), oolongs at 180-200 F (80-95 C), greens at 160-180 F (70-80 C), and white teas at 180-195 F (80-90 C). Ripe pu-erh teas can handle boiling water, while raw pu-erh teas benefit from being treated a bit more gently and may prefer water at 195 F (90 C). From there, you can follow the troubleshooting in previous levels to adjust water temperature (or tea amount).

The steeping method is often called “flash infusion” as the tea is brewed for a very short time. It’s usual to give the tea a rinse, particularly for rolled or compressed teas. The rinse gives the dry tea a chance to take on some water and start to open up, and in the case of aged teas, can help rinse off any dust that may have settled. To rinse the tea, pour some hot water over it in the brewing vessel, swirl it once or twice, and strain it into your other vessels. I like to use this rinse to warm the teaware. Then, discard the rinse (or taste it, if you want).

Once you’ve rinsed your tea, it’s time to start steeping. Start with 5-30 seconds. It sounds like an absurdly short amount of time, but it really does give you a fuller picture of how the tea opens up. I like to stick to this guideline the first time I try any particular tea. For black teas and pu-erhs, I definitely stick to the 5-10 seconds for a first steeping, but for green and white teas, I usually extend the first steeping to 20 seconds, and for rolled oolongs, I start with a 30-second first steeping. It is a bit frantic, particularly if you haven’t perfected your gaiwan hold, but do the best you can to steep it and strain it quickly.

Then, taste the tea. This isn’t tea to gulp. You’re brewing this way to get to know the tea, so take your time. Smell it. Write things down. Write down exactly how you steeped your tea and how it turned out.

Then, repeat, adding 5-10 seconds onto each subsequent brewing. The flashest of flash steeping sessions is the method recommended by the company White2Tea, where you rinse, and then steep the tea for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds, and so on, for up to ten steepings. Personally, I tend to start with 10 seconds for a first steeping because I don’t often find a tea where that first 5-second steeping doesn’t just taste like a second rinse.

As you take notes, you can experiment with brewing parameters. Some teas want to be pushed. Some teas release a lot of flavors quickly and could be pulled back with a shorter steeping. I’ve actually salvaged some green teas that I thought were unpalatable at first by cooling off the water and steeping for shorter times at first. Play around with it, but write things down, so you can repeat the sessions you enjoy.

Alright, now I want to talk a little bit about where to buy your teaware for gong fu brewing. While I’ve mentioned my Amazon post, I don’t actually prefer to buy most things from Amazon. The two things that can definitely come from somewhere like Amazon or Target are an electric kettle and a digital scale. I prefer a scale that is precise to at least 0.1g (both of mine are precise to 0.01g), so that I don’t have to worry about the precision of the scale affecting my steepings. I have this one at home and this one in my office.

Kettles are a whole different rabbit-hole. Personally, I’ve never bought a fancy gooseneck kettle, though I can see how the control could be helpful with filling smaller teaware. But I’ve used the Chefman programmable kettle my husband bought me for Christmas for the last couple of years. Before that, I think I just picked something up from Target. But any decently-rated kettle that allows you to control the temperature to within 10 degrees Fahrenheit should work fine. It’ll probably run you at least $25-50.

Okay, now onto the fun stuff. The thing about teaware is that there is just such a wide array of beautifully-crafted things that you can use to make tea. You can choose to get matching pieces or sets, or you can pick and choose and put together an eclectic collection. I can’t get into all the artists that I’ve patronized over the years here, so definitely check out my YouTube channel to see my teaware collection in action. But a good starting point is Teaware.House and Yunnan Sourcing. Both have a large variety of teaware at a variety of price points, and tend to be very up front about the volume of the pieces they sell, so you can put together a set that works for you.

I would recommend starting with at least a gaiwan and a cup that is approximately the same volume as the gaiwan (or a gaiwan, a pitcher, and a smaller cup). A good starter gaiwan size is 100-150 ml. A smaller gaiwan will allow you to experiment more while using less tea, while a larger gaiwan will allow you to get a little more tea out of a single steeping and perhaps give you the chance to linger over each cup a big more. You can also start with a “travel” or “easy” gaiwan set, which fits together so that the cup is like a lid for the gaiwan. This incorporates the two essential items of gong fu brewing into one set and is very convenient. If you’re picky about leaf debris getting into your cup, you can also pick up a strainer (though I rarely use one), and if you’re serious about gong fu cha, there are further tools that you can check out in the article I linked earlier about the traditional method.

As far as sourcing teas, there are some good resources in Level Two, but here is where I would suggest checking out one of the more daunting tea sellers, like Yunnan Sourcing, or their sister site Taiwan Sourcing, for Taiwanese oolongs. I find that gong fu style brewing works particularly well with Chinese and Taiwanese tea, probably because the brewing techniques originated with those cultures. If you want to dive into the pu-erh rabbit hole, Yunnan Sourcing has a huge variety, but I also have enjoyed what I’ve gotten from White2Tea. They also sell other types of tea, which I’ve tried and reviewed in the past. One note: Yunnan Sourcing in particular can be incredibly intimidating to order from. If you don’t have a tea style in mind, or you’re not the kind of person to just try things blindly, try one of their samplers or contact Scott. He’s extremely nice and helpful and pretty responsive over email and Instagram DM. He also has a great YouTube channel where he posts videos of himself and his wife (and guests) tasting and discussing various teas that they sell.

Once you’ve bought your first gaiwan and started experimenting with gong fu brewing, it will probably be a matter of time before you’ve developed a bit of a collection of both tea and teaware. So perhaps, also consider thinking about getting a new cabinet to store your newfound hobby tools in. But that is a discussion for another time. There is so much more to say about the world of tea, but I will leave this guide there and allow you to explore from there.

Level Three: The Brief Takeaway

  1. Gong fu cha (“Tea with great skill”) is based on the Chinese tea ceremony and involves the precise brewing of tea.
  2. A larger volume of tea is steeped in a smaller vessel for a shorter amount of time, and resteeped to experience how the tea changes over time.
  3. You need a steeping vessel and a drinking vessel, though further elements can come in handy. This is also the point at which you want to consider getting a digital scale and a programmable kettle.
  4. Chinese teaware is much smaller than Western teaware, with brewing vessels being around 100-200 ml.
  5. The classic brewing vessel of gong fu cha is the gaiwan, which is usually around 100-150 ml. Practice handling your gaiwan before you add hot water to the equation.
  6. Start with 1-1.5 g of tea leaves per 30 ml of water.
  7. Start with water temperatures of: 200-212 F for black tea, 180-200 F for oolong tea, 160-180 F for green tea, 180-195 F for white tea, 212 F for ripe pu-erh and 195 F for raw pu-erh.
  8. Rinse the tea and then steep for 5-30 seconds at first, then increase each subsequent steeping by 5-10 seconds. Steep until you stop enjoying the tea, sometimes as much as 10 times.
  9. Take notes on how you prepared the tea and what the result was for each tea session.
  10. To start your tea collection, take a look at Teaware House and Yunnan Sourcing for a variety of Chinese teaware at different price points.

Coming Soon: Bonus Level! Some tea techniques that don’t fit into the basic primer…

NB: All vendors mentioned in this post are vendors that I have used and liked, and I have received no compensation for recommending them.

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The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Level Two

(or “I’m ready to try loose-leaf tea” or “What do I do with this tea someone bought me?”)

Alright, so perhaps you have an idea about tea. Maybe someone bought you loose-leaf tea, either as a gift or maybe as a souvenir. Or perhaps you’re just ready to move up in the world (I kid). Well, making the leap to loose-leaf tea is a big step in the tea world. You’re no longer clinging to the convenience of tea bags and you now have not only a whole world of new teas you can try that simply aren’t available bagged, but you also have choices to make concerning tea ware. At this level, I’m still going to stick to Western-style brewing, but you’ll be able to have a bit of fun with your tea ware.

First of all, nothing really changes about the type of tea you can brew. The main categories are black, green, white, oolong, and pu-erh. But because different varieties of tea are often not sold in bagged form, you have a world of new varieties open to you. Tea is grown primarily in Asia, with some grown in Africa, and North and South America. Most of my favorite teas come from Asia (although one of my favorite black teas comes from Tanzania). For the novice starting out, I would recommend trying black teas from India, Africa, and China; green teas from China and Japan; and oolongs from China and Taiwan. Pu-erh is a tricky category because, technically, all pu-erh comes from Yunnan province in China, though other regions make teas processed in the same way.

When trying black teas, the classic black teas are Darjeeling, Assam, and Ceylon from India and Sri Lanka, as well as Keemun from China. I also am quite partial to Dian Hong from China. For green teas, I recommend trying Long Jing and Mao Feng from China and Sencha from Japan. Oolongs are a rich and varied category of tea, but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say that Tieguanyin and Wuyi oolongs from China, as well as Dong Ding and Alishan oolongs from Taiwan are a good place to start. For white tea, my first white tea was Silver Needle. There is some disagreement about whether or not this is a good starter white tea, but I quite liked it. Pu-erh is quite a more daunting category of tea, and honestly, I find most pu-erhs are more suited to Chinese-style brewing, which I’m saving for the next level.

But where do I get these teas? Well, one of my favorite places to look for all different types of tea from around the world is a company called What-Cha Tea. They’re based in the UK, but shipping to the US isn’t terrible. And they have one of the most generous minimums for free international shipping. They offer tea from all over, though the variety can be daunting. But I’ve loved everything I’ve gotten from them, and in fact, that’s where I got my very first white tea (and how I fell in love with white tea). Another place for the new tea-drinker to get Chinese teas is Teavivre, which I featured in part two of my guide to getting started with tea available on Amazon, because they have a number of teas available on Amazon Prime. For Taiwanese teas, I also really love the Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company. And Rishi Tea has some good loose-leaf offerings, particularly if you can find them in your local grocery store. For Indian and African black teas, I also like Harney & Sons.

Now, let’s talk equipment. The simplest way to brew loose-leaf tea would be something that has come to be called “Grandpa style” among Western tea enthusiasts, a term coined by blogger MarshalN to describe how his grandfather drank tea. This is also how a lot of my Chinese and Korean colleagues over the years have drunk their tea. I’ve talked about it before, but simply, you put the tea in the bottom of a large mug and add hot water, and then drink the tea with the leaves still in it, adding more water as the tea gets too strong. Obviously, this will not work for all kinds of teas, and I’ve found it best suited to certain oolongs and very delicate green teas that don’t oversteep easily. I’ve never tried it with pu-erh, personally, but I’ve heard good things. The benefits are that you don’t need much in the way of equipment — just a mug — but the drawbacks include the fact that it can be a bit odd to drink your tea with the leaves still in it.

So what if you want to strain the leaves out of your tea? Some people like to use something like a “tea ball,” which is basically like a refillable metal tea bag that you fill with a little tea and dip into the tea to steep. Personally, I find that these don’t really allow the tea enough room to expand and move around in the water and prefer a larger, basket-style infuser. My number one recommendation for a first loose-leaf infuser mug is the FORLIFE Tall Curve Mug. It has a nice big basket, and the lid doubles as a coaster for your infuser so you can keep it close for a second (and third and fourth…) steeping. I started out with a FORLIFE Asian-style Curve mug and and switched to the Tall Curve mug because I found the handle-less design got a bit hot for my hands. I used Curve mugs for years, though, before I ever got any of my fancier teaware. If you’d rather steep your tea in your favorite mug, FORLIFE also offers just an infuser that can sit in basically any mug.

Okay, but what if I really want to brew my tea in a teapot and pour it into a dainty cup and saucer for sipping? Well, something like the FORLIFE Stump or Curve teapots is nice, depending on how much tea you want to brew at a time. Remember, if you get a 24-oz. Teapot, you’re basically brewing 2 mugs (or 3-4 cups) of tea at a time. These have the benefit of having a removable brewing basket so you can brew the pot of tea, remove the tea leaves once it’s steeped, and then cover and keep the pot warm while you drink it. Something like a tea cozy is helpful for this, but in a pinch, a knit winter hat will work (in fact, my tea cozy is one that I made by modifying a hat pattern to include holes for the spout and handle).

You can also get a teapot without an infuser and strain the tea into the cup using something like this over-cup strainer, but the drawback to that is that you can’t remove the tea leaves from the rest of the pot and later cups of tea will be stronger than the first. Personally, I deal with this when I use my vintage tea pots by refreshing my cup of tea before I’ve completely finished it, and then adding more water when the tea is just too strong, kind of like a modified version of grandpa-style brewing, actually. I find this works best with black teas that I also like to drink with some milk or sugar because I can add more milk as the tea becomes too strong, or else when I’m making tea for a large group and I know we’ll finish the whole pot at once when I serve everyone and can just re-brew for the next round.

One last question remains: How much tea do I use? Well, at this point, I’m still trying to keep things away from being the most complicated they can be, so I’ll offer suggestions on measuring tea volumetrically. The standard “one teaspoon per cup” rule doesn’t really work if you have teas that are varying levels of fluffiness, but you can estimate. Basically, “one teaspoon per cup” tends to work best with Indian black teas like Darjeeling or Assam. They have smallish, curly, but not tightly-rolled leaves. If you’re using a fluffier tea, use more like two teaspoons per cup. And if you’re using a tightly-rolled tea, use a scant teaspoon per cup. And remember that if you’re using a big mug like the Curve, you probably want to consider that at least two cups.

So, as an example, if I’m making myself a cup of standard black tea (perhaps the lovely Darjeeling blend from Harney & Sons) in my FORLIFE Curve mug, I would add about two teaspoons of tea leaves to the infuser in the mug, and then pour boiling water over it. I would let it steep for three minutes, and then remove the leaves, setting the infuser on the upside-down lid to serve as a coaster. After I’d finished my cup of tea, I could return the infuser to the mug, add more boiling water, and let it steep for four minutes this time before removing the leaves and enjoying another cup of tea.

Our trouble-shooting techniques are largely the same, with one addition: If your tea is too weak, you can now also add more leaf. Adding more leaf will also give you a better shot at getting multiple infusions out of a tea. Personally, I like to use nearly a tablespoon of most tea leaves for a mug of tea. If I’m drinking a particularly fluffy tea, I’ll use a rounded tablespoon, and for tightly-rolled teas, I’ll use a scant tablespoon. It’s honestly amazing to see how much these tightly-rolled teas will expand over the course of a few steepings. And look at your tea — if it has hardly expanded or unrolled at all after the first steeping, you can still get plenty more goodness out of it. A tea shouldn’t be spent until you can see that it has fully expanded into an almost-fresh-looking tea leaf.

Level Two, the Brief Takeaway:

  1. If you opt for loose-leaf tea, you have a world of varieties open to you! Try some of everything.
  2. What-Cha is a great place to try teas from all over the world. Other good places to check out are Teavivre, Rishi Tea, Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company, and Harney & Sons
  3. If you don’t mind sometimes eating a leaf, you can brew your loose leaf tea grandpa-style.
  4. If you want an infuser, a good choice is a mug with an infuser basket, like the FORLIFE Curve mug. If you definitely want a teapot, a teapot with an infuser basket, like the FORLIFE Stump teapot will be easy to use.
  5. Start with about one teaspoon of tea leaves per cup of water, adding more volume if you’re using fluffier tea and less if you’re using tightly-rolled tea. Remember that a large mug or teapot counts as two cups and adjust tea leaf amount accordingly.
  6. Now you can troubleshoot your tea by adjusting how much leaf you use, in addition to the methods in Level One.

Next Week: Level Three, or “Getting fancy with gong fu cha”

NB: All vendors mentioned in this post are vendors that I have used and liked, and I have received no compensation for recommending them.

The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Level One

(or “I’ve only ever tried supermarket tea bags”)

I want to start this section off by saying that there is not necessarily anything wrong with supermarket tea bags. I will even make myself a cuppa from a standard tea bag every now and then (usually when traveling). If what you’re after is a strong brew that can stand up to plenty of milk and sugar, standard tea bags might be the best thing for you. But they do not contain the best quality tea. And paying more for “fancy” tea bags is often not worth the money.

Generally, tea bags are filled with what are called “fannings.” In order to understand what these are and why they aren’t great, it’s necessary to explain a little about tea grading. In the British system of tea grading, teas are graded by leaf size and whole-ness. So basically, leaves are placed in a series of progressively finer sieves, where the larger full leaves sit at the top and the smaller leaves and broken bits fall to lower levels. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the fannings and dust, which are the lowest size grade of tea. Now, none of this takes into account the initial quality of the leaves being sorted, but in general, larger, whole leaves behave differently in water than more broken leaves, and these fannings are the lowest grade of that.

When tea leaves are broken up, the brewer begins to sacrifice control over the brewing process because more leaf surface is exposed to water, making flavorful compounds come out into the water faster. The problem comes because not all flavorful compounds are full of good flavors, and when you brew fannings, you will extract the less pleasant flavors with the good flavors more quickly. This can lead to an unpleasantly bitter or tannic cup of tea that is best covered with some dairy and sugar. These unpleasant flavors can also overpower the more delicate flavors in the tea.

So I’ve convinced you that tea bags are the worst and you want to stop using them. Well, not so fast. Most commercial tea bags sold in the supermarket are full of fannings and dust and don’t really exhibit much flavor nuance unless they have other flavorings added. But not all of them are so. And I recognize that not everyone wants to jump right into loose-leaf tea.

This is where full-leaf tea bags come in. These are tea bags, yes, but they are filled with higher-quality, whole tea leaves. Sometimes called “sachets” to differentiate them from standard tea bags, they are often made in a pyramid shape, so that the tea leaves have more room to expand as you steep them and they swell in the water, allowing for a better extraction of flavor without sacrificing control over the steep by breaking up the leaves.

One of my favorite brand of full-leaf tea bags is Rishi Tea. I purchased these to serve at my wedding and it’s what I carry with me when I travel. They have a nice variety of teas and herbals available in pyramid-shaped bags, and can give the tea novice a nice introduction to the world of teas, though most of their bagged teas are flavored in some way. That said, they have one type of unflavored black tea and two types of standard, unflavored green tea available in sachets (plus their Matcha Gyokuro, which might be a bit odd for a novice tea-drinker – I’ll talk more about matcha in a future post!).

Another brand that offers tea bags is Harney & Sons. Again, many of their bagged offerings are flavored, but they have a decent selection of pure teas, for those just getting started. I also like Mighty Leaf Tea sachets, which are large but not pyramid-shaped. They offer a hojicha roasted Japanese green tea in a bag that would be great to try, particularly if you’re a fan of roasted flavors. Additionally, Teatulia offers a variety of bagged whole-leaf teas, including unflavored offerings of black, white, green, and oolong teas.

If you’re keen to try pu-erh tea and want to stick with bags, Teavivre offers bagged pu-erh teas. They offer a plain ripe (shu) and raw (sheng) pu-erh, as well as varieties flavored with rose, chrysanthemum, or rice. For more variety of oolong teas, my friend Nazanin of Tea Thoughts found some high-quality bagged oolong tea from Esteemed Tea Co. for her “Steep It Real” tea gift box. One thing to note with these oolong teas is that they are all unflavored and the “honey” oolong refers to the natural honey aroma that occurs in some types of oolong tea.

Of course, you may want to try some of those flavored teas. I would highly recommend you start with more traditional flavorings and leave the blueberry-vanilla-mango tea for a bit later on in your tea explorations. Traditional flavorings are things like Earl Grey, which is a good black tea scented with bergamot, or masala chai, an Indian blend of black tea with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, and ginger. For green teas, I like jasmine green tea, though it can be difficult to find a tea that isn’t cloyingly floral-scented. Other classic flavorings for teas are rice (such as in genmaicha green tea, which is often served in sushi restaurants) and chrysanthemum. For my wedding, since they are generally crowd-pleasing, I served Earl Grey and Jasmine Green teas from Rishi Teas. But it is a good idea to get a variety of pure, unflavored teas to get an idea of what the teas themselves taste like.

Now that you have the tea bags, what do you do with them? Well, in order to make tea, you need tea leaves and water. In most cases, people generally prefer to have some way of removing the tea leaves from the water after the tea is brewed. In the case of a tea bag, the removal of leaves is trivial, so all you need is a cup of some sort in which to brew your tea, along with water of the appropriate temperature.

Ah, temperature. The perpetual question and battle of the tea novice vs. the tea master. You may ask, is the temperature of the water really that important? The answer is yes and no. Basically, tea comes with certain brewing instructions that tend to vary by the type of tea (although plenty of brands use the same instructions on the packaging of all of their teas). But these instructions are not rules. I like to say that brewing instructions are like the pirate’s code: they’re really more like guidelines.

So with bagged tea, the things you can control are the tea bags you choose, how much water you put in, the temperature of the water, and how long you leave the tea in the water. All of these will affect your final brew, although it’s not always about better or worse. I think the first rule of tea is to make tea the way you like it. If you follow the instructions to the letter and you don’t like the result, try something a bit different.

One of the main questions I get asked is how I know what temperature at which to brew the tea. The short answer is that it depends on the tea. The longer answer is that more robust, oxidized teas tend to like hotter water, while more delicate, less-oxidized teas like cooler water. But, like all of these guidelines, they’re not set in stone. And you can fine-tune a tea by playing with water temperature alone a lot. Cooler water will extract the flavors more gently, and I’ve actually found that steeping a black tea that tends towards bitterness in a slightly cooler water will yield a smoother brew.

Okay, but what are the starting points? Well, black tea and ripe pu-erhs like full boiling water. Green and white teas will want water that is considerably cooled off from boiling, and oolongs will fall somewhere in the middle. After trying a tea at a given temperature, if the tea feels harsh, I’ll drop the temperature. If I feel I haven’t gotten enough flavor out of it, even after a long steeping, I might try hotter water. In the case of green teas in particular, sometimes too-hot water will yield a tea that tastes quite a bit of bitter, boiled spinach. Dropping the water temperature even more often helps. One thing that can be helpful to remember, if you’re watching your water boil, is this rough correspondence between temperature and bubble size in water.

But what exact temperature do you mean? Well, at this first level, I would say that precision might not be that important. In fact, when I first started out, I didn’t have a temperature-controlled kettle. I would boil my water and let it cool off to get under-boiling water. I would set a timer and let the water cool off for a bit, and if the resulting tea tasted off, I would let it cool off more next time. It’s imprecise, but for the new tea-drinker, just letting the water cool off from boiling, rather than chucking boiling water over your most delicate teas will already be an improvement.

The other part of the equation is how long your tea steeps. This will vary by the steeping method, but for tea bags, I’m assuming brewing will be done “Western-style,” which involves a relatively small amount of leaf brewed in a large-ish (8-12 oz.) vessel for minutes, rather than tens of second (oh, stay tuned for later posts for that). From there, try brewing your black teas for 3-5 minutes, your green and white teas for 2-4 minutes, and your oolongs for 3-4 minutes. Ripe pu-erh can go for five minutes or more because good pu-erh stays silky smooth even with the longest brew time and bad pu-erh will be horrible no matter what you do with it. Again, if something seems off, fiddle with the brewing time. Longer brewing times will yield stronger flavors and shorter brewing times will mellow odd flavors.

One final note about good-quality, full-leaf tea: It can and should be brewed more than once. Remember how I said that whole leaves allow flavors to be released over time? Well, that can mean even longer than a single brew. I always brew my full-leaf tea at least twice, with the second steeping getting 30 seconds to a minute longer than the first, for Western-style brewing. So save your tea bag in a little dish and make a second cup of tea with it when you’ve finished the first. You can even try brewing it again and again, until you feel you’ve gotten all the flavor out! So if you’re the type of person who drinks a few cups of tea per day, you might be able to get away with one tea bag for the whole day, which will help soften the blow of the cost of good-quality tea a bit.

The Brief Takeaway, Level One:

  1. Switch from standard, dust-filled tea bags to full-leaf tea bags. Some places to check out are: Rishi Tea, Teatulia, Esteemed Tea, Teavivre, Mighty Leaf, and Harney & Sons.
  2. Pay attention to the temperature of your water, but remember that “brewing instructions” are just guidelines.
  3. Start with boiling water for black tea, and then less-boiling water for oolong tea, and even less-boiling water for green and white tea. You don’t necessarily need to know the exact temperature, but remember how you heated your water so you can experiment if needed (or so you can reproduce a good brew later!).
  4. If you’re brewing your tea in a mug, start with 3-5 minutes for black tea, 2-4 minutes for green tea, and 3-4 minutes for oolong.
  5. If your tea is too weak, try hotter water or a longer brewing time. If the tea is too strong or tastes off, try cooler water or a shorter brewing time.
  6. You can brew your full-leaf tea more than once! Add on some time for each subsequent brew.
  7. Above all, make tea the way you like it!

Next week: Level Two, or “I’m ready to try loose-leaf tea”

NB: All vendors mentioned in this post are vendors that I have used and liked, or that come recommended by those I trust, and I have received no compensation for recommending them.

The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Prologue

(or “So you’re interested in tea…”)

I think my ultimate goal with this piece is to end up drawing in readers who google “How to tea?” or “How do I even tea?” or “What to do with this tea?” As someone who has been drinking tea in various forms for at least thirty of my thirty-five years, I’ve had a varied evolution to the gong fu-brewing, matcha-whisking tea enthusiast who graces the pages of this blog. And many people in my life and who read my blog simply aren’t interested in the nuances of sheng vs. shu pu-erh or the terroir of oolong tea. Many of them just want to try something nicer than Lipton’s tea bags, or want to know what to do with this loose-leaf tea their friend gave them, or want to know what they really need to get started trying better-quality teas.

A note about motivation: If you’re here because you want to switch from a different source of caffeine to tea because you think it’s somehow healthier, this is probably not the place for you. I can’t teach you how to enjoy tea, and I can’t speak to any particular health benefit of tea over coffee. I personally made the switch from drinking primarily coffee to drinking almost exclusively tea, but I had been enjoying tea for decades before that. I merely made the cost-benefit analysis for my own personal body. I actually love coffee, but it doesn’t love me back, so I limit it to once a week (unless I am in Europe, in which case, I suffer the consequences with wild abandon). And I feel absolutely no deprivation because I also love tea.

But if you’re here to find out how to dip your toe into the tea, I hope you find this helpful. This primer will be organized into layers of tea enthusiasm, from least to more complex (I don’t claim to be a tea expert and couldn’t possibly write about the most complex layers of tea). I’ll start out talking a little bit about tea and what it is, though this will hardly be an exhaustive education. If you’re interested in more about the processing that goes into making the different types of tea, I highly recommend A Little Tea Book, or else check out Sebastian’s website, In Pursuit of Tea, where he offers a brief description of tea types in his “Tea 101” section.

Okay, so. Tea. The first thing is that, while “tea” can colloquially mean the infusion of pretty much any plant matter in water, what I mean when I say “tea” is an infusion of the leaves, buds, and/or twigs of the Camellia sinensis plant. True “tea” comes from one species of plant, which is why I generally refer to herbal brews as “infusions” or “tisanes.” I love my herbal infusions as well, but they are not tea, to my mind. So with that in mind, what follows is a guide to the levels of enjoyment of Camellia sinensis.

Despite only coming from one species of plant, tea comes in many different types. Most westerners are familiar with “black tea,” which is made with tea leaves that have been completely oxidized before being heated to stop this process. That said, green tea, which is heated to stop the oxidation process before being dried, has also gained popularity in recent years. Additionally, white tea has also appeared on the mainstream tea scene in the US recently. White teas are only dried and are not heated at all after harvesting. Rounding out the main types of tea are oolong tea, which is oxidized to some extent, and pu-erh tea, which are aged or fermented.

Much of a tea’s flavor profile will come from its processing. Black teas are often described as richer, fuller-bodied, with flavors of tannin, malt, and dried fruits. Green teas are generally more delicate, with flavors of green vegetables or grass, while white teas can be intensely floral, belying their light colored brew. Oolongs have a wide variation, because “oolong” can describe a wide variety of processing techniques, and can range from creamy “milk” oolongs to floral-honey bug-bitten oolongs to cannabis-y roasted oolongs. Finally, pu-erh comes in raw or ripe and can range in flavor from similar to white teas to redolent of damp earth and mushrooms.

When choosing starter teas, you’ll want to consider price, convenience, availability, and your own personal tastes. If you like really funky Islay whisky, consider giving ripe or shu pu-erh a try (despite the fact that a colleague of mine refers to it as “shoe” tea because of the aroma of earth and leather). If you’re a green juice fanatic, you might prefer to start with green teas, and if you’re a staunch traditionalist, the world of available black teas is hardly basic. Personally, I came late to the oolong and white tea games, so I tend not to think of them as starter teas, though they absolutely could be. The trick is to find decent examples of them for a reasonable price and without having to look too hard.

Before we begin, I want to say something about how I’m setting this up. I’m calling the various chapters of this primer “levels,” but not as a way of denoting superiority. It’s more like the levels in a dungeon-crawling game. Just because you’ve “passed” one level doesn’t mean you can’t revisit it. And you should feel free to spend as much time on any given level as you’d like. Don’t worry about being a completionist.

From there, the main question is: Now what do I do with these dried leaves? And that, gentle reader, is where we begin.

Next week: Level One, or “I’ve only ever had supermarket tea bags”

Getting Started with Tea and Amazon Prime, part two: Tasting Teas from Teavivre

So last week, I shared some of my favorite teaware purchases on Amazon Prime as a way of helping someone get started with loose-leaf tea more easily and accessibly. In that post, I mentioned that I’ve also bought some quality loose-leaf teas off Amazon recently from Teavivre. Teavivre is a company that sells teas from China and is pretty consistently ranked in the top 10 among the User’s Choice Vendor List on Reddit’s Tea subreddit, r/tea. Since they have an Amazon storefront, with options available through Prime, they’re also really, really convenient, especially if you’re impatient like me.

Now, a note about shipping: Most of the vendors I use charge shipping, and shipping can add up, especially when you’re sourcing teas directly from the country of origin. If you have a hard time getting over paying almost as much for your tea again for shipping, it would help to read this post. One thing to note about buying items through Prime with “free shipping” is that they will probably be priced higher than the same item on Teavivre’s own site because companies work shipping prices into their item prices when they decide to offer free shipping. In fact, I’ve bought matcha from one site that had low prices and charged a lot for shipping, only to find that, ultimately, if I bought a couple of things, it was much more economical to buy from them than from a site with free shipping. And the matcha was excellent. But I do like free Prime shipping when I just want to try one thing and don’t feel like putting together a large order. It’s about your shopping and drinking habits. Anyway, on to the tea. I’ve chosen to try one each of black, green, oolong, and white teas to review here, so you can get a sense of what they offer. I didn’t get a puerh because I’m still working through the samples I got from white2tea a while ago!

Organic Bai Mu Dan White Peony white tea: This was the first tea I tried, and I actually showcased it in a sunrise tea session video a while ago. I’d never tried a white peony before, but it had a pretty standard non-silver-needle white tea profile, if a little straw-y for my tastes. It brews up nicely in gongfu and lasts for at least five infusions. This is a very fluffy tea and will probably seem like a lot of leaf if you measure your tea by weight.

Tieguanyin oolong tea: I’ve spoken at length about my love of oolongs, and Tieguanyin is one of my favorites. This is a great example of this style of oolong, still quite green and light, but with a satisfying slight creaminess and honey-floral character that I adore. I got 100g of this and it’s my go-to, can’t-decide-what-kind-of-tea-to-make, I-need-a-nice-cuppa-to-perk-me-up tea.

Premium Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea: I got this tea simply because I keep seeing “the green tea with the big leaves” on Instagram and I wanted to try it for the novelty. But it’s quickly become one of my favorite teas for a lazy, warm morning. I don’t know how much I’ll drink once the weather (finally) cools off, but it’s pretty much what you’ll find me drinking on work-from-home days and weekends. I just put 2.5g in my double-walled tumbler and drink it farmer-style, and it’s a delightful classic Chinese green tea. It’s a bit light in flavor, but it has distinct notes of grass, green leafy vegetables, and just a tiny touch of the sea.

Yunnan Dian Hong Golden Tip black tea: Wow, I saved the best for last here. With the aforementioned weather cooldown, I’m finding myself more drawn to black teas, and I was curious to try a Dian Hong. This Dian Hong is absolutely wonderful, with notes of dried fruit and syrup. It doesn’t get too tannic or bitey, and I just find it a lovely mellow tea to sip on a rainy or cool morning.

So that’s my round-up of some teas I’ve tried at Teavivre, all purchased through Amazon. Do note that I wasn’t given any incentive to write this post, nor are any links affiliate. I hope you’ll consider them a way to get started with some great teas without needing to navigate all the different tea vendors out there. Of course, once you find teas you like, definitely branch out and see how different vendors’ offerings differ, but the beginning shouldn’t be daunting. I hope this helps at least one person feel a bit less intimidated by loose-leaf tea!

Getting Started With Tea Using Amazon Prime

I know that Amazon as a company is controversial, and you’re probably going to find better quality tea and teaware going through one of the smaller vendors I’ve talked about before on this blog and my YouTube channel. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people find it daunting to get into loose-leaf and gongfu-brewed tea, and I thought I might share some of the tea and teawares I’ve gotten off Amazon Prime that have been helpful in informing my journey.

My most recent tea video features my first gaiwan, which was an Amazon purchase, but that I found out after filming the video isn’t available on Amazon any more, sadly. So, to make up for that, I’ve put together an Amazon idea list of all the various tea things I’ve gotten off Amazon and liked, that still look like they’re available. Note that this doesn’t have affiliate links, since I’m not an Amazon affiliate. I thought I’d call out a couple specific items that have served me well through my tea journey.

FORLIFE Curve Infuser Mug: This was one of my first go-to brewing vessels when I made the conscious choice to stop drinking coffee most days and switch to tea, almost exclusively. I knew I would use loose-leaf tea, which I generally got from my grocery store, but I needed a simple, non-fussy way to brew it. This is definitely a vessel for brewing Western-style, with a few teaspoons of tea leaves to a large mug. I still get multiple steepings out of a single batch of leaves with this mug. I don’t use it as much anymore, as I actually do steep gongfu-style at work, but for years, this was my constant desk companion, and it’s a great starter infuser for anyone looking to make the switch from tea bags to loose leaf.

Hario Glass Kyusu: This was my only teapot for small-leaf Japanese green teas for a long time. It has a nice fine mesh, and the shape is such that I can fill it halfway with hot water and brew a little less tea. And you get to see the color of the infusion, which is nice.

The Fish Teapot: This is a perennial favorite on my Instagram, so I thought I’d share its origin. This was actually on my Amazon wish list for ages, and my husband bought it for my for my birthday one year. This is a great way to brew gongfu-style at work because the pot holds only slightly more liquid than the cup, so as long as I don’t fill the teapot completely to the brim, I don’t need a sharing pitcher. And it’s just so darn cute.

Of course, there’s more than these three things on the list, but these are some of my most-loved and longest-used items that originally came from Amazon. If you’re looking to get started with loose-leaf tea or gongfu, you can get started with the basics quickly and then take your time looking for more interesting pieces to expand your collection. Unfortunately, the gaiwan that I originally got off Amazon is no longer available, but this gaiwan is from a company that I’ve purchased from before and liked their teaware, and it is reasonably priced for the gongfu beginner.

As far as the tea itself goes, I’ve recently started buying some teas from Teavivre, which has an Amazon storefront, with Prime options. Because I am impatient, I like the convenience of Amazon Prime sometimes. So far, I’ve tried one white, one green, one black, and one oolong tea from the store and have been pleasantly surprised with the quality. I’ve already reviewed their Bai Mu Dan white tea on my YouTube channel, but I’ll share my thoughts on the rest sometime soon.

Tea Review: My First What-Cha Tea Haul

About a month ago, I posted an unboxing of a tea order from What-Cha. I was inspired (enabled) to order after an extended conversation on Facebook about white tea and jasmine pearl tea, and considered asking if he wanted to join me in an order so we could make the free shipping minimum more easily. And then I looked at my basket and I had already made free shipping. Oops. But of course, I was running low on some things, and I wanted to try some things, so while it was maybe a bit more of a “haul” than I usually indulge in, I went with it. I looked up some reviews and saw that the company, based across the pond from me, usually took a couple weeks to ship, so I promptly decided to forget about it until it showed up as a pleasant surprise. And then it showed up a week later, which was an even more pleasant surprise.

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I was immediately touched by the handwritten note tucked in by Alastair from What-Cha. Not only does he have beautiful handwriting, but it really made me feel like the order was given a bit of a personal touch. I wondered if the samples and mystery tea in my order were selected based on considering the other things I’d ordered, rather than just tossing in whatever they had a crate of. So far, I’ve tasted almost all of the teas included, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

Sticky Rice oolong: This was the first tea I tried from the order and it was actually the free sample they provided. It is a rolled oolong that smells of sticky rice (or popcorn, to me). And it really does smell like popcorn. I brewed it in gaiwan and shared my first impression on my Instagram Story and anyone who caught that knows that I found the popcorn scent completely enchanting. It has a nice flavor, mellow and characteristically oolong. It’s a fun little tea.

Tie Guan Yin heavy roast oolong: This is a pretty representative Tie Guan Yin oolong. It brews up into a heady tea with notes of wood, cannabis, and oak in the nose and a creamy smokiness in the flavor that I really enjoyed. I also brewed this in gaiwan and it does well there.

Yunnan Jingmai light roast oolong: I first tried this on my birthday. I bought it because I wanted to try an oolong that was rolled into what they call “Dragon Balls.” It’s basically a little ball of tea leaves, about 3/4″ in diameter. It seems like it would be a good amount for a standard tea pot, but I found that using one dragon ball in my little gongfu set produced a brew that sent me bouncing off the walls of my office. So I cut one dragon ball in half and use it for two brewing sessions. And this does give you a session. I can easily get ten steepings out of this, starting at 30 seconds and going up to a minute with no flagging in the flavor coming out of the tea. I tend to stop steeping out of exhaustion (or over-caffeination) than out of depletion of the tea itself. I find this tea also benefits from a bit of a rinse, as the first cup is otherwise a bit insipid until the dragon ball softens and opens up a bit.

Sencha of the Summer Sun: This is a standard, lovely Japanese green tea. I’ve actually taken to drinking it from my English bone china tea-for-one set instead of faffing about with my kyushu set because it just handles suboptimal conditions so perfectly without becoming bitter or unpleasant. It’s a sunny little tea and, though not ground-breaking, perfectly enjoyable.

Jasmine green tea pearls: I have only tried this one once, so I don’t have a lot of notes on it, but this is a lovely jasmine tea. It is jasmine-scented, rather than flavored with jasmine petals, but the scenting is not heavy-handed and it makes a delightful cuppa.

Silver Needle white tea: This is such an amazing tea. I will admit that I had never tried white tea before. It all seemed rather a gimmick to me and I didn’t really know that there would be much difference between white and green tea. Well, there is. First of all, the leaves themselves do look like large pine needles, and have a soft, delicate, velvety texture. I just want to pet the leaves before I even steep them. But if I can bring myself to steep them, they yield a brew that is not as subtle as I was expecting, and very, very floral. It almost tastes as though they have jasmine or magnolia scent added to them, even though they don’t. I brew this in my gongfu set for 1-3 minutes and get several steepings out of it.

The last tea is the Mystery Tea that I selected. I was curious what would come of it, so I selected the option that let them give me anything: green, oolong, or black. I ended up getting a kukicha tea that looks interesting, but that I haven’t tried quite yet. I suppose I shall have to report back when I have tasted it, but I will likely post it on my Instagram, rather than taking up blog space. Please do follow my Instagram and check out my Stories for tea reviews and first impressions.

NB: I purchased of these teas with my own money and was not offered any compensation for writing this review.

Simple Loose Leaf: An Update and Something New and Exciting

It’s been a few months since I last talked about my tea subscription. I’m still a member, which says something, as I usually tire of subscription services in a couple months. While I do get at least one tea every month that I could do without, I’m still finding the “ooh, this looks interesting”s outnumber the “meh”s.

In fact, Boyfriend often snickers at me when I open my new month’s box, as I start looking at teas and end up with a progressively-increasing level of oohs and ahhs. I’ve found some new favorites that I’ve ordered full ounces of. I’ve also determined that 3 oz. of tea will last me roughly a month of work days, so I’ve been placing an order approximately once a month with one green, one black, and one oolong tea to keep at work, and then using my samples on the weekend. This system has been working pretty well, although I’m currently out of oolong tea at home, which is not beneficial for anyone. Anyone who is interested in trying the club can either visit the website directly, or click my personal referral link. Hint: They ship to both the US and Canada.

This month’s box had a Genmaicha green tea (sushi restaurant tea), an Assam black tea (the muscatel note of Assam teas goes well with autumn’s chill), a toasted Mate, and a citrusy herbal blend. While I’m not the biggest mate fan, I know my sister is, so I may see if she wants to try any of my collection of mate samples. But the other three will go quickly, I think, as they are well-suited to the season and my own tastes. I’m still working my way through some of last month’s samples, including a decaffeinated Sencha that I just tried yesterday when I wanted my first cup of tea of the day in the afternoon. It had all the delicate appeal of a cup of Sencha, but I slept rather well that evening without the caffeine.

But Simple Loose Leaf is not content to have a solid monthly tea subscription that appeals to a wide audience of mostly tea purists. No, they want to ensure everyone gets the tea they enjoy with even more precision. To that end, they’re prototyping a personalized subscription, where you can choose up to three out of four options. If you hate anything but plain black tea, you can just subscribe to the Traditional Black Tea club and get only unflavored or traditionally flavored (think Earl Grey, not Mocha Strawberry madness) black teas. Or those who eschew caffeine can choose the Herbal or Caffeine-Free clubs.

They plan on launching this club on the first of January, but only if they have enough interest. So if you are at all intrigued, I encourage you to head over to their website and pre-order one or more of their monthly tea clubs. The link above will give you the option to either join their current tea of the month club, or pre-order a customized tea membership. If they get enough pre-orders, we get our boxes, but they won’t charge us if the experiment doesn’t generate enough interest.

Also, remember that tea club members receive 50% off purchases in their store, so I’ve been able to keep myself in tea for half-price.