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What's In Store: Tea Totally

Exploring the Pleasures of Loose Tea by Marie Hofer

Before I moved next door to a loose-leaf tea enthusiast many years ago, I was a hard-core tea bagger. Loose tea seemed too mysterious and messy — how much do you put in the pot and how do you prevent debris in the cup? Since those days, the loose-tea experience — warming the pot, watching the leaves unfurl, inhaling the aromas, and better yet, enjoying delicate taste notes never achievable with a tea bag — has become a way to create a tiny time-out in a busy day. And there’s the satisfaction of knowing this pleasure is good for you: Tea has been credited with anticancer and anti-atherosclerotic properties. Thanks to my neighbor, I’ve found that having a wide assortment of loose teas on hand is the first ingredient of a delightful ritual.


Most teas are divided into three types — black, green, or oolong — distinctions based on the way they’re processed. Black tea, an amber-hued, full-bodied brew, has been fermented; oolong, a paler, more delicate drink, has been through a brief fermentation; and green tea, which produces a yellow-to-light green brew, has not been allowed to ferment.

There are at least 2,100 varieties of the tea plant. Then there are countless herbal blends that contain no tea but are rich in other plants, including hibiscus, jasmine, hawthorn, and chamomile. Throw in the myriad of tea blends, tea-herbal combinations, tea-fruit-spice-nut mixes, and the possibilities are endless.  . . .


The adverturesome may want to try unglazed Yixing (yee-shing) pottery, which requires curing with several infusions of your best tea before use (available at Holy Mountain Trading Co., $30 and up; 888/832-8008). The clay is a blend of iron, quartz, and mica found only in China’s Jiangsu province. For heat retention, ruggedness, and Zenlike simplicity, I love the Water Bead Teapot. . . .  The pot is cast iron lined with glazed enamel. Watching your tea infuse can be part of the pleasure. Bodum offers both cylindrical and round glass teapots with plastic infusers ($20 and up for 32-ounce size; available at specialty shops).

Some Like It Hot

When making black or herbal teas, you don’t have to be picky about the water temperature. Just bring the water to a boil, and pour immediately into a preheated pot or cup that has been rinsed beforehand in hot water. With green teas, however, boiling the water cooks the leaves and extracts bitter compounds. For the best flavor, heat the water to between 165° and 190°; oolong teas need water at 205°. The Republic of Tea’s Brewing Thermometer ($9) has an easy-to-read thermometer at the end of a convenient wooden handle.

Steep, Don’t Stew

Brewing time depends on the leaf size and the type of tea — green, one to two minutes; full-leaf black, three to five minutes; small-leaf oolong, seven to 10. Within those limits, teas relinquish their best flavors. More than the allotted time, however, and many teas, such as Darjeeling and Assam, become bitter and astringent. Package directions will recommend the best steeping time, but you’ll want to experiment a bit to find the perfect point that best suits your taste.

Keeping Out the Dregs

The biggest problem with using most tea balls to infuse tea is that their small chamber doesn’t allow for thorough tea-water circulation; additionally, a certain amount of dregs usually passes through. One of the best is Norpro’s stainless-steel tea ball, which comes in 2-1/2-inch and 3-inch diameters ($1.39 and $1.78 respectively; available at specialty shops). An alternative is the People’s Brew Basket ($4.50; from The Republic of Tea). The basin of this polymesh infuser fits inside almost any mug (and many teapots). It allows for maximum leaf and water contact, and its tiny pore size allows minimal debris to pass through.

Marie Hofer is garden editor for HGTV Ideas magazine and has written for Fine Gardening and Time-Life Books.

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