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How to Steep Tea

In the finer homes of colonial Boston or London, the procedure for making tea was fairly simple: a servant brought in the “tea things” on a teaboard (tray), the hostess placed a few teaspoons of tea leaves into a teapot, and heated water was added directly from a silver urn resting on a china table (an early name for tea table).

Green or black, every tea was treated with water of equal temperature and the leaves were allowed to steep unencumbered in the teapot. The tea always became bitter from over-steeping and more hot water had to be added to temper the tannins. Milk and sugar went a long way toward making the concoction more palatable for tea drinkers in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York during that era.

Two centuries later, our taste for tea demands more precise methods for steeping a nuanced beverage. Thankfully, the marketplace is accommodating our discriminating penchant for good tea with a variety of gadgets designed to fit a range of tea-making scenarios.

In order to alleviate any infusion confusion, I’ve listed the popular options for making most teas while controlling the steep time and preventing errant leaves from floating in your cup—or clogging your teapot spout. And we all know what an embarrassing tea faux pas that can be!

Mesh tea balls.
No respectable student of tea would use these relics of a 1950s kitchen. Tea leaves want to expand to their original size when they rehydrate. Tea balls act as a straight-jacket for tea leaves and the full flavor the leaves will never be fully-expressed.

Tea sacks.
Several brands of disposable, one-time-use paper sacks are available for rolling your own teabag. They come in various sizes to accommodate different teapots, cups or mugs. Most are gusseted and allow the leaves to fully expand. Tearoom owners often use these biodegradable bags because they can be prepared ahead and they allow the full flavor of the tea to be released without any messy cleanup.

Tea baskets.
A great number of contemporary teapots come with handy mesh infuser inserts. These are perfect for office, dorm or home use where one or two cups of tea are needed. Tea leaves are allowed to fully-hydrate and, after the first cup is poured, the leaves no longer continue to steep because the infuser rests above the remaining liquor. Several companies offer stand alone tea baskets that fit either cups or teapots.

Press pots.
This technology, borrowed from the coffee industry, makes a great pot of tea because it allows the user to more-accurately control the strength of the tea. Tea leaves float loose in the carafe until they are pushed to the bottom of the pot where they are prevented from steeping further. You may lift the plunger to release the leaves and continue the steep if your tea is not strong enough to suit your taste. But don’t lend your tea press to a coffee drinker because the taste of coffee cannot be removed from any tea brewing apparatus.

This article first appeared in TeaTime magazine, January, 2014. BTPSM Tea Master Bruce Richardson and London’s Jane Pettigrew are the authors of the reference guide to teas around the world, THE NEW TEA COMPANION, available in the museum gift shop.

Bruce Richardson Profile Picture

Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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