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So you decided to get into the world of loose leaf tea, huh? Or you’re thinking about it. Okay. I can work with that! Congratulations! You’re upgrading your tea status and you’ll never be able to go back. My tea cabinet is overflowing with tea and I’m always buying more (much to the frustration of my clutter-detesting sister).
Something you’re going to want to consider when entering the world of loose leaf is which steeper, or infuser, to use. Figuring out which steeper to use for your newfound love of tea is probably not even a thought on your mind, But don’t worry! I did the testing and the dirty work to find out which out of all the tea steepers is the best!
Loose leaf tea was something I was introduced to when I went to China when I was 16. Maybe the tea shop in Beijing was nothing but a tourist trap, but everything tasted better. The tea flavors were fuller, the colors were richer, and the experience was all around satisfying. Excited, I bought my first box of tea. It was an Oolong that was rolled into little balls and I still haven’t found anything like it since I came back to the States.
If you came from the world of tea bags to explore the beauty that is loose leaf, two facts are going to show up immediately. One, there is a bunch of different ways to steep tea; and two, loose leaf tea is messier than tea bags. Tea bags are easy; you take the bag out of its paper prison and stick into hot water. Loose leaf is a tiny bit more involved, but it’s 100% worth it.
As I will probably rant about at later times, the name of the tea that is in the convenient little tea bag is called fannings. These are the chopped up remnants of the lowest quality tea. They chop up the leaves because dried tea leaves naturally unfurl and flatten a bit as they brew. The problem is the modern tea bag does not have room for this process. The leaves have to be chopped so that this does not happen. It also results in a bitter tea. Don’t sell yourself short. You deserve better than bitter tea bag tea!!
This point brings me to the first method of brewing your loose leaf.
Tea sachets are super easy to use. You can buy the sachets with the tea already in them; everything is measured out and ready to be put in hot (but the appropriate temperature) water. They operate almost identically to tea bags, but tea sachets are bigger and normally triangle-shaped to let the tea actually unfurl. If you want travel-friendly tea, this is going to be your friend.
Tea Sachets can also be bought empty and then filled with the tea of your choice. It’s a little less convenient than the pre filled sachets, but you aren’t limited to what the sachet folks are selling. The paper filters catch almost all of the dust as well and there won’t be stray leaves at the bottom of your cup, which always makes the tea good to the last drop! Fill-it-yourself tea bags are still fairly travel friendly if they are packed up in a plastic bag.
Tea sachets are not cheap! They are definitely more expensive than tea bags and other methods of brewing on this list. Tea sachets are a disposable product, and as with all things disposable, you will have to buy the bags over and over again. I love using the bags if I’m giving someone tea to sample or am going elsewhere and still want my favorite flavor of tea with me, such as when I am at work.
Another point about the paper sachets is that as much as they keep the dust out, they also keep certain flavors out. If you have a tea with little sugar candies in it (my guilty pleasure!) it will not be steeped into the tea. Your tea will be candy-less. And let me tell you, kids, I found this out the hard way. One day I was steeping a cup of rooibos which had little maple leaf candies in it. When I was done steeping, I tasted the tea and it didn’t have any sweet in it. I dug around in the bag, and there they were, unable to dissolve. That was a serious downer.
Although they aren’t perfect for every situation, it’s good to have a box in the house like I do! You can use the sachets that I use by getting them here.
Silicone infusers are definitely up there on the cute factor. I have my Deep Sea Tea Diver on one side and Mr. Tea on the other. The Tea Diver (which my sister brought back from Seoul) submerges completely in the tea, while Mr. Tea rests on the side of the cup in his own tea infused hot tub. So adorable! Silicone infusers are very flexible and (for the most part) it is easy to get the tea out of them. They make great gifts for new tea drinkers and even better conversation starters.
As much as they are cute, my silicone infusers are not the most practical in my repertoire of steeping methods. They get the job done, but oftentimes tea dust and tea leaves fall out of the rather large holes. As the tea unfurls, it expands. That means that sometimes, if the infuser is overfilled, the tea expands into not so easy to reach areas, meaning you’ll have to get your fingers in there to get the tea out or things could get moldy.
Tea balls generally come in two types: one is a ball and chain that has a hook on the end, and the other has a squeeze handle that opens two sides of a sieve. They are probably the most inexpensive steeper on this list; I have even seen them at the dollar store! They come in sizes for single cups and kettles. I’ve had a tea ball or two in the house ever since I was a kid because Mom used to use them when her tea bag popped! It happens, kids.
I am generally not a big fan of tea balls. As they are good to start because of their inexpensive nature, these are generally not good as a long term solution. Unless you get a really good tea ball, they are prone to rust and emit a metallic flavor into your tea. Also there is usually some sort of abnormally large space between the two halves of the tea ball. This separation is not a problem for large-leafed teas such as green tea, but if you like rooibos or herbal teas, this space almost always results in a few rogue leaves getting into your tea. Not my definition of a good time.
These infuser types are really awesome. Infuser baskets are great because the space inside the basket is usually big enough for a single cup or a whole kettle, and their small sieve makes sure there are no large leaves making their way into the tea. The basket lip is perfect for sitting on the rim of kettles and mugs. I’ve owned several of these and never had any trouble with metallic flavors being infused into my tea. That would be for the higher quality infusers, however…
This design, as I have seen, is specific to a few tea retailing chains and they seem to do it the best. If you found this design and enjoy it, awesome! But cheaper designs are going to suffer the same fate as the tea balls, which is rust and let more tea dust and leaves into your tea. These types of steepers are also not travel friendly, but a famous tea chain just came out with a collapsible model and let me tell you, it’s pretty rad.
I did some research for you and found that this mesh basket has great reviews. Also, it has a little silicone lid which I wish mine came with! You can snag that here.
As pictured above, there is also the ceramic type infuser basket. This was my first infuser from when I went to China. I love the tea mug but I rarely get to use it because it’s small and none of my other infusers fit in it. And nine times out of ten, when I used this steeper there were stray leaves, leaf pieces, and dust at the bottom of my glass.
If you haven’t noticed, I hate tea dust in my tea! It’s pretty much inevitable but if I can avoid it, I will. My sister regularly uses a french press for her coffee and sediment at the bottom of her coffee or tea doesn’t bother her. It’s all about what works for you.
This is my holy grail of tea steepers. There is a reason that I saved the best for last!
I have used my draining steeper the most out of all of these models. You put the tea in with the water. Everything sits together for a bit. You get to the watch the tea unfurl. Everything gets to mix and mingle. And then when you are done steeping, you put the steeper on top of a cup and let it drain. There are generally no metal parts, so as much as it isn’t the most eco-friendly option, it won’t rust. I’ve had mine for a few years and nothing has broken on me.
*a silent tear runs down cheek* It’s beautiful.
These are typically made in a 16 oz., 18 oz., or a 32 oz. size, or about two glasses to basically the equivalent of a tea kettle.
Nothing is without its setbacks, is it? *sigh…*
The draining-type steepers are more of an investment. I just so happened to get mine for Christmas a few years ago, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have thought to buy it. Draining steepers usually go for about $20 for smaller 16-18 oz. and a larger 32 oz. steeper will cost about $30. For someone who makes tea as much as I do, it is worth it.
As easy as it is to use and everything comes apart (at least on my model), it can be a bit to clean. Tea might get all over your hands. Actually, that’s almost a guarantee. But this is loose leaf! It’s going to happen.
If you want to take the next step in tea steeping, you can get a draining steeper here. This model is almost identical to mine.
UPDATE: I changed the recommended draining steeper to a different brand.
So which steeper do you use? What sounds like the best option for you? Let me know down in the comments below!