Some Like It Steeped: The Benefits of Loose-Leaf Tea

Energy drinks, double mocha Frappuccinos, bitter little concoctions promising five hours of energy – is this the price we pay to be productive in today’s society?

It doesn’t take a scientist to know that loading up on caffeine and sugar – let alone ingredients that sound better suited to chemistry text books than a drink’s nutrition label – is unsustainable.

So what’s sleep-deprived go-getter supposed to do?

If you’re like eighty percent of Americans, the answer lies in your own kitchen. Tea, coffee’s lighter and mellower little brother, is showing a major resurgence. Sales have increased five-fold since 1990 and today over half of Americans drink tea on a daily basis. Coffee mainstays have reacted accordingly: Starbucks acquired Teavana in 2012, and Dunkin Donuts now offers hot tea on its menu.

There are a number of reasons for the recent boom. For some drinkers, tea provides a more palatable alternative to coffee, which is often not prepared to personal preference. Others prefer the longer and more sustainable energy boost that tea provides due to tannin, found in green tea, which ensures the slow absorption and release of caffeine into the body. Maybe most convincingly, there are major long term health benefits from drinking tea.

A study by Harvard Medical School shows that tea drinkers are at reduced risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Other studies have shown that tea hascancer fighting properties, canlower BMI, anddecreases blood pressure . In our world of processed foods, artificial sugars, and trans-fats, it’s a serious relief to find something both tasty and healthy.

Need we say more about why tea should be your caffeine delivery system of choice?

Good.

Now that you’re on board with tea, it’s time to start considering the specifics.

Around the world, there are an incredibly varied number of preparation methods. Argentinians drink “yerba mate” from a gourd with a communal metal straw known as a “bombilla.” Moroccans drink three cups of minty “touareg” tea – representing life, love, and death – with each meal. Practitioners of “cha do,” the Chinese art of tea-making, stage elaborate ceremonies that last for hours.

That said, let’s assume you don’t have hours to dedicate to your tea and that shared straws probably wouldn’t fly in your office. For most tea-drinkers, our choices are a bit more pedestrian: teabags or loose-leaf infusion. In order to understand the difference, let’s examine each type.

If you’re new to the world of tea, chances are you’ve tried the bag brewed variety. It remains the dominant preparation method today, with two-thirds of tea consumed in the US brewed via bags . Consumers who take a “dunk and dash” approach find their needs met nicely by these quick, disposable, and single use packages.

Teabags are filled with the “dust and fannings” – a fancy term for small particles – of tea leaves. This is so that there is enough surface area exposed to the water to infuse sufficient flavor. These fannings provide a standardized flavor in each batch. For better or worse, the taste remains the same whether the tea has just been packaged or has sat on a shelf for an extended period. Also, although fannings suit the smaller teabags, the tea itself is never able to expand and fully imbue the water.

This is where loose-leaf tea comes in. Still maintaining its essential oils and full aroma, loose-leaf is preferred by most tea aficionados. The issue for the average consumer is that of how to prepare the loose-leaf brews. Many turn to tea-balls, the small, spherical, and often chintzy vessels that allow brewers to steep loose-leaf themselves. Though these do offer drinkers a chance to brew loose-leaf, their small size prevents proper expansion of the leaves and their messy design leaves drinkers dripping everywhere.

A preferable alternative to tea-balls is the in-cup tea infuser. These stainless steel containers have many little holes to allow flavor to escape and are still large enough in volume to allow tea leaves to expand. Some, such as the top-rated KLiP from Boco Living, even come with built in drip catchers (perfect for the office!) and clip onto a drinker’s mug. The clip feature allows the drinker to easily taste the tea as it is brewing, allowing him or her to prepare it perfectly to taste.

So, now that you’ve learned about the benefits of tea and the many methods of preparing it, what are you waiting for?

Brew. Sip. Be Happy.

~Nicholas Ryan