Oh, The Humani-Tea


Before moving to California, I worked for a chain of tea stores that shall go unnamed.  I would just cut out the middle man and call them Voldemort, but I feel like that’d be unfair because prior to an also-unnamed chain of coffee shops that actually deserves a villainous snake-faced moniker buying them out and shit-canning or forcing almost everyone in my store out of their jobs despite promising us that we wouldn’t have to worry about such things and giving us all a measly $3 gift certificate for coffee on our way out the door like that was supposed to make up for it, they were an incredible company to work for.  The atmosphere was great, the people I worked with were amazing, and most importantly, I learned how to make a bitchin’ cup of tea.

Tea is, in my opinion, the most misunderstood beverage out there.  Most people just don’t know how to brew it, which isn’t a slight against them — unless you’ve grown up in a family of loose-leaf tea drinkers or worked somewhere that serves tea, the only way to learn what to do is to read up on the subject, and with most of the tea you’ll find in non-specialty stores being the cheap dunk-in-water-and-go bagged variety, there’s really not much exposure to it in the first place.  I’ve found that whenever someone tells me “I don’t like tea,” it’s due to improper preparation or one of the many misconceptions floating around out there:

  • “Drinking tea is gay.”  I apologize in advance for even typing out this abhorrent reasoning, but sadly, it’s been one of the most common negative perceptions I’ve heard.  It’s disgustingly offensive and small-minded.  Tea does not have a gender.  Tea is a beverage.  If you are trying to impose gender roles on your drink, then you’ve got much deeper issues than simply being a bigot.
  • “Tea tastes disgusting.”  Bitter tea is a direct result of using a water temperature that’s much too high or steeped it for too long.  Weak tea means you haven’t added enough tea leaves or haven’t steeped it long enough.  Plus, there’s multiple flavors and varieties of tea out there, just like wine — certain types of tea have certain characteristics that may or may not be palatable to you.  One hundred percent of the time that someone has said this to me, I’ve managed to brew them a cup of tea that has absolutely blown their minds.  Go to a tea shop and ask for a recommendation based on flavors you like; I guarantee whoever’s behind the counter will be more than happy to help.
  • “I’m a coffee person.”  Coffee and tea aren’t mutually exclusive!  There’s no rule that says you can’t enjoy both.  There’s even some blends, like JavaVana Mate, that actually contain cappuccino and chocolate in addition to the tea itself and serve as a really nice “crossover” option (it’s not just for the music charts anymore).
  • “I only drink iced tea.”  Loose-leaf tea doesn’t just mean “hot tea.”  It’s just as delicious and easy to make iced as it is hot!
  • “It’s way too expensive!”  At first glance, yes, it’s going to seem pricey, and some super-rare teas will come at a premium cost… but most loose-leaf tea can be re-brewed between 3 and 5 times using the same leaves, and some even more than that.  Your average cost for a medium-range tea will come out to about 20 cents per cup, which is significantly cheaper than hitting the coffee bar.  Tea bags are cheaper, but the ingredients they contain are far inferior to loose-leaf, meaning you don’t get as much reusability from them and you’re sacrificing a great deal of taste and potential health benefits.  Spend the extra few cents to get the good stuff.  It’s the most affordable luxury you’ll find.
  • “It’s too hard to brew.”  Most tea shops will sell any number of brewing devices for loose leaf tea, whether they’re a one-cup maker that sits on top of your mug, the infamous “tea ball”, or a fully-automated appliance like this one that I would sell my first, second, and thirdborn to get my hands on.  You can put the kettle on while you do stuff around the house, or if you’re lucky, your workplace will have one of those instant hot water spigots.  Wait a minute or two for the tea to finish steeping, which you’d do anyway with a tea bag, and enjoy.  All you have to do is know how hot your water needs to be, how much tea to put in, and how long to let it brew, which is made even easier thanks to the advent of things called “post-it notes” and “refrigerator magnets.”
  • “I need something with a caffeine boost.” or “I can’t have caffeine.”  The vast majority of teas out there contain the same amount of caffeine as a cup of decaf coffee — yep, surprise, decaf actually contains about 20% caffeine — or less.  There are multiple 0% caffeine options in the world of tea, as well.  If you absolutely need the pick-me-up, there’s options out there for you, too.

I’ve been intentionally vague on a few points thus far simply because I’ll be explaining them in further detail a bit later on.  Welcome to Tea-Brewing 101.  There will be a test, but you get to drink the results.

Why Tea Bags Suck

Once upon a time, I, too, fell victim to the Celestial Seasonings trap.  It was extremely cheap, and they had a ton of flavors, so why not?  At that point in my life I’d never had loose-leaf tea, so I had nothing to compare it to.  Even after drinking my first “proper” cup of tea, I didn’t notice much of a difference… until I went home that night and brewed myself a cup of the bagged stuff.

It was so awful that I spit it out and poured the rest down the sink.  Once you go loose, you’ll never… reverse?  (With rhymes that sick, just call me T-Rabbit.)

The most significant difference I’ve found is between bagged green tea and real green tea.  The tastes are worlds apart, no matter how high-end the bags claim to be.  After reading the ingredients for several different brands of green tea bags, I concluded that this was because most of the time, you’re not even getting green tea.  You’re getting a blend of black, white, and just a sprinkling of green, or the mysterious “natural tea blend” which could contain actual dirt, for all we know.

The other varieties of tea out there, however, are not immune from the Taste Gap.  Even in the rare event that the ingredients check out, cut open a bag and look at what’s inside.  It’s a powdery mess that’s been ground up so finely you can’t immediately identify what it once was.  Contains “orange peel” and “jasmine flower?”  Maybe so, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it.  For reference, this is what good loose-leaf tea will resemble:

From The Cozy Leaf on Etsy. It's so pretty.

This is the one time you actually *want* something you’re about to consume to resemble potpourri.

Not only is it prettier, but you can presumably identify the ingredients.  The tea leaves themselves haven’t been chopped into oblivion, meaning they can actually open up in the hot water, allowing the natural oils that give tea its flavor to spread more evenly and provide a significantly more delicious taste.

Bagged tea also tends to go stale much more quickly due to its packaging, guaranteeing even further loss of taste.  The flimsy cardboard boxes and paper envelopes they come in won’t keep sunlight and air out reliably, which is a must in the eternal…

Storage Wars

Before I go any further, I should probably remind everyone that I no longer work for any tea companies and am, in fact, an unemployed bum at the current time.  Thus, I am not being paid off by anyone to make recommendations or write this article or spread bullshit to drive up their sales — I’m writing as a tea drinker, not a tea vendor.  With that being said…

Buy the damn tins.

If you’ve ever been to a Teavana, you know what I’m talking about — they recommend that you purchase one of their air-tight, light-tight tins to protect your tea from going stale (which will happen in less than a week with the paper bag they give you, versus a year or more if you snag a tin).  This isn’t a lie.  I learned this the hard way, myself, the first time I bought tea from them.  I was certain that it was just a sales tactic to get an extra few bucks out of me without really giving me anything in return.

Fast forward two weeks as I’m making myself a cup of my new favorite tea.  The first thing I noticed upon opening the bag was that the smell wasn’t quite as good as it had been in the store and during the previous week.  It only took one sip of the finished product to hammer home the point that I, Overlord of Bunnies, had screwed up royally by not getting a tin to keep it in.  Yes, it would have meant shelling out an extra few bucks, but the tins themselves are reusable, so for a loyal tea drinker like myself, it’s really a one-time investment.

You do not have to purchase the tins specifically from Teavana or whatever store you happen to be buying the tea from if you’d rather get a cheaper option.  Any container that prevents light and air from getting in will suffice.  Tupperware and glass will not work.  If you can see through it, it is not light-proof, and it will affect the tea’s freshness.  While you’re buying your tea, however, check any clearance or sale sections, because they frequently mark down decorative and “older” style tins.

As an added note, if the tea you’re buying contains orange peels, lemon peels, or any kind of citrus, be sure that your tin is specifically approved for citrus, otherwise the seal can swell and make it either extremely difficult or completely impossible to reopen.

Brewing Options

Obviously, you can’t just dump loose-leaf tea into the bottom of your cup and drink it — well, you could, but I operate under the rule that the only tea you should be chewing is boba tea.  There’s plenty of options out there as far as nifty gadgets to make sure you get all of the tea with none of the mess.

  • The One-Cup Tea Maker.  Almost every major loose-leaf tea company out there has its own version, but they all work the same.  Put your tea leaves (and sugar, if you so desire) into the device, then pour in the hot water and let it steep.  When it’s done, simply set it on top of your mug, which will activate a pressure plate that allows the liquid to empty out but won’t let the leaves themselves through the strainer.  Some of them are dishwasher-safe on the top rack, and all of them are easy to wash by hand.  Adagio Teas sells one through ThinkGeek as well as in their own stores, and Teavana has the PerfectTea maker, which is also available in a 32-oz version if you’ve got multiple tea drinkers in the house or just really like tea.
  • Tea Infusers.  The most famous incarnation of the tea infuser is probably the tea ball, but many companies have started selling adorable versions like this rocket ship or, if you’re of the nerdier persuasion like myself, you can pick up a Death Star infuser, complete with the most delicious exhaust ports ever.  A quick Google search of “tea infuser” brings up a myriad of other results to cater to almost any taste or fandom out there.  As adorable as they may be, however, they are prone to a couple of problems; hinges and latches can become loose or unreliable after repeated use, meaning there’s a chance of the tea spilling out into your drink.  Finer-leaf teas, such as Earl Grey or green tea, may also slip through the holes on some models, unlike the one-cup makers which utilize a very fine mesh that will act as a barrier against the most delicate of teas.  If you tend to prefer chunkier blends and aren’t a daily tea drinker, or just want something cute to bring out when company’s over, these are good (and cheap) options.
  • Tea Strainers.  Basically like the one-cup tea makers, but with less engineering.  These sit in the top of your cup filled with tea leaves, then you pour the hot water over and let it brew (the bottom of the strainer basket has to actually reach the water, however, to be effective).  Since most are made using that super-fine mesh, the size of your leaves won’t be such a concern, but whereas the one-cup makers will work with nearly all mug sizes, these are a bit more specific.  If you use novelty mugs which may be smaller or larger than “standard,” you may find that the strainer doesn’t fit.
  • Infuser Mugs, Thermoses, and Tea Pots.  Infuser mugs are essentially a mug and tea strainer all in one bundle and usually made of ceramic (including the actual infuser itself), but share the same problem as many tea infusers — the holes are usually too big to use with smaller tea leaves.  For those who want something for the drive to work or are looking for a more portable option, many companies offer travel thermoses with built-in mesh infusers, although finding a place to save or dump your leaves once it’s done brewing can be problematic if you’re in the middle of traffic or don’t want to have to take along a spare bag or drip cup.  Infuser tea pots are best for entertaining — company, not Beauty and the Beast — or for keeping a steady supply at hand if you know you’re going to go back for a second cup, but they cannot, I repeat, CANNOT BE PUT DIRECTLY ONTO THE STOVETOP.  Use a kettle to boil your water, then pour it in.  If you put the tea pot itself onto the stove to boil, it will melt, explode, combust, or do any other number of awesome-sounding verbs that are great in a Michael Bay movie, but not so much in your kitchen.  Similar to the tea pots are the infuser pitchers, which I find work absolutely perfectly for iced tea.
  • Tea-Brewing Appliances.  If you have money to burn and no shits to give, there’s the One-Touch Tea Maker that is, quite simply, the most glorious thing I have ever laid eyes on.  Press buttons, reap rewards.  No watching the clock, no boiling a kettle or worrying about water temperature.  About the only thing it doesn’t do is massage your shoulders and whisper sweet nothings into your ear, but there’s only one Tom Hiddleston and I hear he’s otherwise engaged so it’s a great substitute, anyway.  If it’s a bit out of your price range, but you still want the added convenience that comes with having a quasi-robotic tea servant, Zojirushi makes several varieties of water boilers that will heat your water to whatever specific temperature you need.

How To Tea Like A Boss

Congratulations!  You’ve overcome your prior prejudices against tea, bought your storage tins, assembled your supplies… and now have no idea what the Hell to do.

There are several common varieties of tea that you’ll find, each with different perceived health benefits (NOTE: not a doctor), flavors, and brewing requirements.  There’s also a few handy tips and tricks that apply to all of them:

  • For preparation, tea leaves are measured out in heaping teaspoon units, so dig through your baking supplies and find one to ensure the most accurate (and delicious) results.
  • Don’t microwave your water, ever.  Buy a cheap kettle and boil it the old-fashioned way.  Microwaving water will affect the flavor and, if you’re drinking tea for health reasons, may lessen or remove any purported health benefits.
  • If you’re adding sugar to your tea, I recommend putting it in with your tea leaves to allow the water to naturally stir it through for better flavor.  Add honey into the bottom of your mug before pouring the brewed tea in, then stir.  German rock sugar, which is crystallized beet sugar and water, will add sweetness without altering the flavor like table sugar can, but is slightly higher in calories (25g per teaspoon) and has the same glycemic index, so it is not safer for diabetics!
  • Don’t stir your tea while it’s steeping.  It can damage the leaves and affect the quality of the brew.
  • Teavana sells digital tea timers with pre-programmed, color-coded buttons depending on what kind of tea you’re brewing.  I highly recommend picking one up, or, if you’re brewing at your desk, Adagio Teas has a free desktop app for PC users that will keep track of time for you.
  • To make a single serving of iced tea, fill your cup (not glass!) to the top with ice and use double the normal amount of tea leaves with half the normal amount of water.  Pour the hot tea directly into the ice-filled cup, top off with ice to replace what’s melted, and stir.  Voila!  No waiting to cool required!  You can use the same concept to brew a whole pitcher for immediate consumption.
  • Want stronger tea?  Add leaves, not time.  If 2 teaspoons is too weak for your tastes, try 3 teaspoons instead, but brew it for the same length of time, or else you’ll risk burning the leaves!
  • For the best tea, Earl Grey, hot, look for varieties that include pieces of bergamot rather than bergamot oil, essence, or flavoring.
  • To achieve the purported health benefits of each type of tea, it is recommended that you drink three 8 oz servings per day.  Note that no health benefits have been proven by any scientific body, and tea is not a substitute for medication or a doctor’s care.  Drinking too much tea can also cause problems for people with kidney or gallbladder issues, so when in doubt, ask your doctor!
  • Most tea stores will provide specific instructions on how to brew their teas, often via a sticker on the front of your tea tin.  Keep it handy!
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, you can mix two different teas to come up with unique flavors and blends of your own, so feel free to experiment!  There’s some special instructions to keep in mind, however.
    • If you need 4 teaspoons of tea total for your cup, you can usually split it down the middle with 2 teaspoons from each tea that you’re mixing.  If there’s a particular tea you want to be a more dominant flavor, shift the balance so that the majority of your mix is from its side.  Shake to mix the dry leaves together before you brew to ensure the flavor is evenly distributed.
    • The water should only be as hot and the brew time should only be as long as the most delicate tea in your blend.  For example, if you’re mixing a green tea (extremely short steep time and lower temperature) with an herbal tea (long steep time and high temperature), you want to let your blend steep for the extremely short time using cooler water.

White Tea

Caffeine Content: 1%
Amount per 8oz: 1.5 tsp
Water Temperature: 175 F (boiling water + 4 to 5 ice cubes)
Steep Time: 2 minutes
Purported Health Benefits: Hydration and detoxification, healthy skin and nails
Flavor: Light, usually mixed with fruity or floral ingredients, though there are some chai-flavored white teas that can offer the taste without the caffeine.

Green Tea

Caffeine Content: 5%
Amount per 8oz: 1 tsp
Water Temperature: 175 F (boiling water + 4 to 5 ice cubes)
Steep Time: 1 minute
Purported Health Benefits: Supports healthy blood sugar, boosts immune system, contains EGCG complex
Flavor: Light, sometimes “grassy.” Usually sold plain, but other flavors, including jasmine and mint, do exist.


Caffeine Content: 10%
Amount per 8oz: 1 tsp
Water Temperature: 195 F (boiling water + 2 to 3 ice cubes)
Steep Time: 3 minutes
Purported Health Benefits: Aids digestion, promotes healthy teeth
Flavor: Light to moderate, usually with a sweet, earthy note.  Works well with chai and spiced fruit flavoring.

Black Tea

Caffeine Content: 20%
Amount per 8oz: 1 tsp
Water Temperature: 195 F (boiling water + 2 to 3 ice cubes)
Steep Time: 3 minutes
Purported Health Benefits: Cardiovascular health
Flavor: Robust, most popularly enjoyed in the mornings as a breakfast tea.  Earl Grey is considered a “black” tea.


Caffeine Content: 100% (equivalent to a regular cup of coffee)
Amount per 8oz: 1.5 tsp
Water Temperature: 208 F (boiling)
Steep Time: 5 minutes
Purported Health Benefits: Energy and appetite suppression due to caffeine content
Flavor: The mate sold by stores like Teavana is not the same as the yerba mate that is enjoyed in South American countries, though the rich flavor is “inspired by.”  Recommended for coffee fans due to its bold flavor and varieties that may include ingredients like chocolate and cappuccino.


Caffeine Content: 0%
Amount per 8oz: 1.5 tsp
Water Temperature: 208 F (boiling)
Steep Time: 5 minutes
Purported Health Benefits: —
Flavor: Because of its naturally sweet flavor and lack of caffeine, rooibos is often recommended for children or those with a sweet tooth.  The fruit varieties, especially, often taste just like juice, even without sugar!


Caffeine Content: 0%
Amount per 8oz: 1.5 tsp
Water Temperature: 208 F (boiling)
Steep Time: 5 minutes
Purported Health Benefits: Depends on ingredients; examples include honeybush for relief of menstrual cramps or lavender for a calming effect (as someone with anxiety issues, I’ve had success drinking lavender teas to bring myself out of mild attacks or lower my stress level throughout the day).
Flavor: Typically contains no actual tea leaves, but can run the gamut from nutty or chocolate-y flavors to fruity or floral.


3 responses »

  1. The other rockstar thing about tea is that it makes a great gift. You can put together a lovely basket of teas, assorted honeys, whimsical tea balls, cups, or tea pots! It’s a classy gift that can be either personal or appropriate for business, teachers, and even holiday gift exchanges. TEA ROCKS!!! Great article, too 🙂

  2. Curse you, bunny overlord, I might need to do this.

    Even though I’ll need to go iced because Tucson is a bucket of burning temperatures.

    (and by curse you I mean thanks, I needed to find a way to kick the soda habit anyway)

    • Go for it! 😮 Rooibos, especially, will help with the soda thing, since it’s so sweet. I went from Diet Coke erryday to no soda at all by making it a point to brew up tasty tea every day — whole reason I was drinking soda in the first place, really, was convenience. You could also add a spritz of seltzer into it if you miss the carbonation.

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