You would be surprised how often I hear people say “I don’t like tea.” Seriously—that’s like saying “I don’t like food.” But, I get it. If you’ve only experienced tea that came in tiny tea bags from a cardboard box, it probably tasted a lot like cardboard.
I love it when I can offer a brilliant cup of loose leaf tea to someone who says “I don’t like tea.” I love to see the surprise and sense of wonder on their face as they experience the rich and complex flavors. That said, if you’ve only ever encountered tea in tea bags that came from a box, you may be unsure what to do with a loose leaf tea.
Brewing a delicious cup of loose leaf tea starts with fresh, vibrant dried tea leaves or herbs and a little bit of “know how.” It’s really quite simple. Yes—it takes a little more time and intention, but the result is well worth it. Allowing yourself time to prepare your tea properly is an act of self-care and a practice of mindfulness and presence.
Tea is an act complete in its simplicity. When I drink tea, there is only me and the tea. The rest of the world dissolves. There are no worries about the future. No dwelling on past mistakes. Tea is simple: loose-leaf tea, hot pure water, a cup. I inhale the scent, tiny delicate pieces of the tea floating above the cup. I drink the tea, the essence of the leaves becoming a part of me. I am informed by the tea, changed. This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed: all the complexity, pain, drama of life is a pretense, invented in our minds for no good purpose. There is only the tea, and me, converging. ― Thích Nhất Hạnh
First, before we get in to brewing, let me clear up a little confusion around the term “tea.”
Is It Tea or Tisane?
Technically and officially the term “tea” refers to hot infused beverages made from the leaves of a plant known as Camellia sinensis or its closely related cousins. There are at least six unique types of tea from this one plant, including Green, Black, White, Oolong, Yellow, and Dark (or Pu-erh tea), all possessing caffeine in varying amounts. The distinctions in flavor, aroma, color and texture arise from different growing regions and farming techniques, harvest time, and production or crafting methods.
Then there are so-called “herbal teas,” technically not tea at all since they are made from herbs, spices, and berries, and barks rather than the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Technically an “herbal tea” is a tisane (pronounced ti-ˈzan). However, tisane is a word most people have never heard of. So, rather than geting all bound up in the nomenclature, I confess to using the term tea to refer to both the Camellia sinensis variety and tisanes. Please don’t turn me into the grammar police.
Brewing loose leaf teas can be a simple or complex as you want to make it. You can use a tea ball, or a simple strainer, a fancy teapots, or even a French-press (especially if you’re holding onto a retired French-Press from your coffee drinking days). Regardless of the tools you choose to use, what’s important is good circulation of the hot water around the tea leaves or herbs. Since most teas expand when they are immersed in hot water, be sure not to pack the herbs in too tightly, especially if you’re using a tea ball. This is one of the most common mistakes I hear about. I prefer to let the herbs roam freely in the pot or French-press and strain before drinking. More about that that below.
Now when it comes to brewing a delicious cup of loose leaf tea there is a big difference between Green, Black, Oolong and other true teas on the one hand and herbal teas on the other. Volumes could be written about the many subtle methods to brew the perfect cup of tea. Proper water temperature and short steeping times from one to five minute are critical for Green, Black, Oolong and other true teas. For this article however, I want to focus on the best way to brew loose leaf herbal teas since I find that many people are not doing it correctly and are missing out—not only on the rich and subtle flavors, but also on the therapeutic benefits of herbal teas.
Is It an Infusion or a Decoction?
There are two basic methods for brewing loose leaf herbal teas—a third, if you combine the two. The method you choose will have a major impact on flavor and the medicinal properties of the finished tea. In general, if your loose leaf tea is made up of the soft aerial parts of the plants—leaves and flowers, an infusion is the preferred method. If your loose leaf tea is a blend of hard woody parts, roots, bark, berries, or seeds, a decoction is the preferred method. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but more about that later.
How to Make an Herbal Infusion
If you’ve ever dropped a tea bag in a cup of hot water and let it sit for a few minutes, you’ve made an infusion. That said, not all infusions result in a delicious cup of tea (remember all those people who say they don’t like tea), so there may be some room for improvement in your method. First, keep in mind that this method is best for loose leaf teas made up of the soft aerial parts of the plants—the leaves and flowers. Good examples of teas to be infused include Nectar’s Quiet Belly, Free & Easy, and Fit & Trim Green Tea. To prepare an infusion,
- Measure Your Herbal Blend: One tablespoon per cup (8 ounces) will generally make a full-flavored medicinal tea. If your blend was prepared by your herbalist or other practitioner, be sure to follow their instructions.
- Cover the loose herbs with just boiled water and place a cover on the cup or teapot.
- Allow to steep for at least 15 minutes! Yes—15 minutes—this will allow for a more thorough extraction of the flavor and therapeutic compounds.
- Strain and enjoy!
How to Make an Herbal Decoction
The hard woody parts of plants generally need more heat to extract all of the flavor and active constituents. Herbal blends made up if roots, barks, seeds, and berries should be prepared as a decoction. Nectar Teas to prepare as a decoction include Stamina Builder, Immune Tonic, and Inner Calm teas. To prepare a decoction,
- Measure Your Herbal Blend: One tablespoon for two cups of water is generally a good measure. If your blend was prepared by your herbalist or other practitioner, be sure to follow their instructions.
- Place the loose herbal blend in a small sauce pan and add the water.
- Slowly bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and allow to simmer 15-20 minutes.
- Strain and enjoy!
There’s Always an Exception
There are some roots that don’t follow the general rule. These are roots that either contain a lot of mucilage or a lot of volatile oils—more commonly known as essential oils. Herbs that contain a lot of mucilage get thick and gummy when they get wet. Marshmallow Root and Slippery Elm are good examples. You can prepare these either as a decoction or infusion, but allowing them to steep overnight in cold water will extract the greatest amount of mucilaginous content which gives these medicinal plants their soothing properties.
Roots that contain essential oil are another exception. If you prepare them as a decoction, the simmering will cause more of the therapeutic essential oils to escape the tea. Essential oils are great for the air, but when you prepare a tea with aromatic plants you’d like to capture as much of the volatile oils in the cup as possible. So, for roots like Ginger, Elecampane, and Valerian, I prefer to prepare them as an infusion, with a long steep time (20-30 minutes), being sure to keep a lid on the cup or teapot.
Any good medicinal tea should include instructions for preparation. If the cardboard box says to steep the tea bag in hot water for 3-5 minutes, skip it and find a good quality loose leaf tea. Allow yourself time to prepare your tea well. Savor the warmth, the flavor and aromas.
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves--slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. ― Thích Nhất Hạnh