Once your tea adventures bring you to loose tea, you’re going to need a way to brew it. Placing the tea leaves in a cup and brewing “au naturale” is a messy activity and if you’re making a pot, the tea that isn’t served at once will turn bitter and undrinkable very quickly. Of course you can always decant the brewed tea into another pot, but now you have two pots to clean. When starting out, most of us use a tea ball—they come in all sorts of shapes and colors and folks tend to collect them. The problem with tea balls is that most of us overfill the tea ball. And it’s so easy to do! You unscrew the tea ball, fill half of it with tea and screw if back together, then you make tea. Once you empty the tea ball, you’re kind of surprised that there’s so much tea there. That’s because leaf tea expands when it’s brewed—it needs space to do that and most tea balls don’t take that into consideration; putting one teaspoonful of tea in a tea ball doesn’t look like enough to make a decent cup, but it really is.
In order to brew a decent cup of tea, the leaves need to be exposed to the boiling water on all their surfaces so all the flavors can be released. Check out your teabags—no matter what shape they are, none of them is full of tea—there’s lots of room for good brewing. The leaves in most teabags are really broken leaves and tiny bits of tea leaves called fannings that are used exclusively in teabags; they brew up very quickly and don’t expand a great deal. But most loose tea is larger leaves and when they expand the really expand. Try brewing some Gunpowder tea and observe how much there is once it’s brewed.
If you’re going to invest in loose tea, you need to protect that investment with a more efficient means of brewing and there are some more efficient that the tea ball. I use a metal infuser basket—this works with a pot or a cup. It’s easy to clean and it even comes with a lid that turns into a coaster to hold the basket until it gets cool enough to empty. There are also filter bags that are disposable and compostable. A friend swears by the Ingenui-Tea, a gravity tea brewer. I’ve also seen tea brewed in a French Press. Whichever method you decide on, remember to follow the suggested steeping times on the tea packet for the best possible cuppa.