When my mom made tea, she simmered the leaves and over-steeped them. It was awful. “Mom! This tastes like…hot, leaf water!” Child-me was proud of my description, but mom was having none of my drama. “That’s what tea is,” she insisted.
In this blog I will refine your tea drinking experience by identifying several common mistakes, and offering my best solutions, plus an intro to the varieties of tea, and 'true' teas vs herbal tisanes.
So, for all the tea skeptics out there, let's see if the below helps:
- Teabags vs loosleaf: The perils of bagged tea
- How to heat water for tea: It’s not as simple as boiling water
- When to drink what teas: Too much caffeine, too late
- Why is my tea bitter? Overbrewing, tannins and bitter tea
- My tea is too ______: How to blend tea at home so its just right
- Bonus: Tea for focus and peace
Because remember: You can’t burn filet mignon and blame the cow. The wrong preparation can ruin even the best quality ingredients. If your tea tastes like “hot leaf water,” it may not be the leaves’ fault. But these simple changes can make your tea into something truly marvelous!
Varieties of Tea
I may be biased but I think it’s a little silly to “not like tea.” It's like saying you don't like food, or when friends tell me they ”‘don't like curry”. In that case - do you mean Indonesian? Japanese? Indian? Thai? All very very different!
Tea is the most commonly enjoyed beverage after water, and there is a world of thousands of teas and tisanes out there. So, before we start let’s cover the basics. There are two categories of “tea”: “True” tea and “Herbal” tea.
What does 'true' tea mean?
Purple, green, black, oolong, matcha, white, puerh... these are all “true” teas, hailing from the Camellia sinensis plant. True teas can be quite persnickety to make and easily turn bitter if over-brewed, old, or poor quality to begin with.
At their best, true teas can become a nectar of the gods with a wide range of flavor profiles as complex as wines! There is even an entire industry of tea sommeliers out there. To learn more, check out our post 'A Tea & Tisane Primer (Everything You Need to Know About Tea and 'Tea')'.
What are tisanes?
Herbal teas are called tisanes (new Scrabble word!!). A tisane can be from any type of plant, unlike “true” teas that must be from C. sinensis. Common tisanes include lavender, peppermint, licorice , chamomile, rooibos and honeybush, mate (pronounced 'mat-eh') and thousands more!
Because herbal teas can come from any (edible) plant, they have diverse flavor profiles and require a wide range of preparation instructions. However, in general, tisanes are easier to prepare than “true” teas. If you are interested in some tea brewing specifics our blog How to brew tea and tisanes is helpful!
Now onto the reasons why you DO actually like tea, you’ve just been drinking it wrong…
Reason 1: Teabags vs looseleaf: The perils of bagged tea
What does bagged tea taste like? Thin-tasting, and easily goes bitter. Doesn't tolerate rebrewing well.
Why does bagged tea taste bad? Like instant coffee, tea used in bags is lower quality than loose leaf. It has also oxidized a lot by the time you brew it (see below for why!).
Tea bags are part dust, part fannings (leaf particles with a large surface area that quickly go stale) and part plastic. Material is gathered from multiple locations to generate a standardized flavor, and then pulverized into tiny pieces. This process degrades the nutrients and natural leaf oils that can make for a truly spectacular cup of tea.
Tea bag material often contains plastic and manufacturing residue. So when you steep a tea bag, the taste is part tea, part plastic, part glue, and part other chemicals from the packaging process.
To learn more about tea bags and how they are bad for you and bad for the environment, read our blog, Making Your Tea Greener: Environmental impact of teabags, coffee, packaging & more.
Bagged tea has lost most of its antioxidants. How? Teabags are usually sold in cartons that allow air inside. Air degrades the tea and further oxidizes it, meaning that teabags in general have fewer antioxidants than the same type of tea in loose leaf form. Additionally, the manufacturing process of pulverizing the leaves means more surface area = more air contact = faster oxidation = lower antioxidants.
Loose leaf tea however, is usually sold in airtight containers with leaves - preserving its natural goodness and antioxidants.
Why do antioxidants matter for your health? Check out our blog, What Are Antioxidants and How Do They Work? Part 1 to learn more.
Solution: Choose loose leaf tea!
Whole tea leaves, like coffee beans, are versatile and nuanced in their flavor notes. Because the leaves are mostly if not entirely intact, they retain their healthy oils, antioxidants, nutrients, and vitamins - all components that make a great cup of tea.
Shameless plug: Matcha Alternatives ONLY sells loose leaf teas, see our wide selection here.
Reason 2: Boiling water isn’t as easy as it looks
How does badly prepared water affect tea? Tea tastes thin, sour, metallic or just “not right”. Why? Three reasons:
1. Inadequate teaware
If you’ve been brewing tea with water from a coffee pot, you are risking the flavors of old coffee seeping into the water (ick!).
As for temperature, a coffee pot’s heating mechanism cannot reach boiling, so your tea is likely brewing in water that is not hot enough. This reduced temperature is suitable for certain green teas and yerba mate, but the coffee taste is still a deal-breaker. When I say that tea is a great coffee substitute, I don’t mean you should make it in a coffee pot!
If you are brewing your tea in a cookpot, the tannins in your tea can react with the metal, dramatically changing the flavor. Electric and stove-top kettles are constructed specifically for tea, using non-reactive materials. So if you are using a cookpot, make sure to choose a non-reactive metal such as stainless steel.
It is completely fine to boil pure water in a cookpot though! :-)
2. Boiling out all the air bubbles
When you boil water, the oxygen is removed. This is why, if you want to make ice cubes without bubbles in them (like in fancy cocktail bars), you need to boil the water and then immediately freeze it. No bubbles. For tea, though, oxygen is essential for making a delicious brew. What can you do?
Pour the hot water over your tea leaves just as it starts to boil. If it’s been boiling for a while try adding a glug of fresh cold water and bringing it back to the almost-boil. This will help!
3. Your water doesn’t taste great to begin with
Water is a key ingredient! If your tap water doesn't taste nice to begin with, your tea doesn't stand a chance. The tap water will overwhelm the more delicate tea taste, an effect that is less noticeable with coffee.
If your water tastes delicious but your tea still tastes bad, there is a chance you are using hard water. The harder the water, the less flavor will seep out of the leaves and the tea will taste ‘flat’. This is such a problem that a tea company in the UK has developed tea specifically for hard water regions in Yorkshire!
Tips for preparing your tea water:
- Use a kettle that’s either electric or stainless steel to boil your water, NOT a coffee maker! If you are looking to buy teaware but need advice, check out our post How to Give Tea for the Holidays: Beginner’s Guide to Ethical Gifting.
- Don’t let your water boil for too long or you will lose the air bubbles.
- Use filtered or spring water that isn’t too hard, or use more tea and trial brewing for longer
Reason 3: When to drink what teas when / Careful of the caffeine
Problem: Drinking the wrong types and/or quantities of tea at the wrong time of day.
Result: Feeling wide-awake and super focused at 3am when you desperately want to be asleep. Or not feeling awake at all after your breakfast cuppa.
There’s a reason green tea is so popular with monks: it contains caffeine and will definitely keep you awake! All “true” tea contains caffeine, and even “decaf” true teas will contain some (around 2mg - coffee has 95mg for comparison).
Herbal teas, though, are nearly all caffeine free as caffeine is relatively rare in the plant world (such as rooibos, chamomile, honeybush etc.). Yerba mate and guayasa are two notable, caffeinated exceptions.
Many people I talk to will have a cup of black tea in the evening, thinking that since it’s not coffee it will not affect them. Not true!! Even if someone can fall asleep with all that caffeine in their system they won’t have as deep or restful a slumber.
Of course, some people are way more sensitive to caffeine than others, but the hard truth remains: caffeine before bed won’t help beat your insomnia. To learn more about caffeine and daily recommendations read our blog, Caffeine In Coffee and Tea.
Alternatively, if you need a caffeine kick in the morning, avoid your rooibos or chamomile, as they contain antioxidants that are mild sedatives, and won't help you wake up for that early Zoom meeting.
On a non-caffeine note, avoid drinking "true" teas within an hour of eating (both before or after) as they can reduce nutrient absorption, especially iron. Thankfully you don't run this risk with herbal teas, so perhaps a cup of tulsi for lunch instead!
Solution: Change what teas you drink at different times of the day
- Morning: choose a caffeinated tea such as black tea, white tea, puerh, green tea. If you want a solid coffee replacement, try yerba mate, its 85mg of caffeine per mug means it’s almost the same as coffee’s 95mg!
- Afternoon: If you have an average sensitivity to caffeine, then stop drinking "true" tea by 4 or 5pm. For a slow release of caffeine, I like to have white or green tea in the afternoon, and that keeps me alert into the evening, but wears off before bedtime. If you do need a bit more energy without caffeine, though, try Moringa: The Energizing, Caffeine-Free Matcha Alternative. It’s an ‘adaptogen’ which helps you wake you up without caffeine. Very clever! What are adaptogens? Read our article, What are Adaptogens and Why Are They Good For You? Part 1.
- Evening: After 5pm, switch to caffeine free herbal tea alternatives such as Rooibos and Honeybush, and avoid all true teas.
Bedtime: Reach for a sleepytime tea like chamomile. We have a host of blends for all these caffeine free teas so you can still have something delicious in the evening. In fact, with our Caramel, Earl Grey, Marzipan and other teas, we have had many conversations with our tea loving customers about how they use tea in the evening to cut down on alcohol.
Reason 4: Overbrewing Causes Bitter and Tannic Tea
How does tea become bitter? Overbrewing your tea leaves, or burning them.
What does overbrewed tea taste like?
A feeling like your tongue is coated in an astringent, cotton-ball film that some people call “dry mouth” and others simply call “gakkk!”. Why? Tea cannot cause "dry mouth," as in the medical definition. However, tannins can trick you into thinking you have dry mouth. If you overbrew a tannin-containing tea (namely, black tea), it can cause this sensation. Tannins will also stimulate the salivary glands, counteracting the dry sensation, but leaving the odd tannic coating. Some people even complain of jaw pain due to this.
A bitter, astringent tea that hurts the back of your throat and makes you want to throw your teapot across the room. Why? As mentioned above, “true” tea is sensitive and can be fickle! It burns easily (green tea especially) which can make it go bitter. Lower tea quality and finer leaves will increase this astringent taste.
This is why green tea teabags often go bitter quickly whereas good quality loose leaf green tea might be brewed for 2, 3 or 4 minutes. Temperature-wise, green tea likes cooler temperatures than black, oolong and white teas or else it goes super astringent very fast. Try 185F (85C) where the water is just starting to simmer in the kettle.
- Leaving the leaves in their teapot is another common cause of bitter tea. In the thirty minutes it takes to drink the pot, the tea continues brewing...This is bizarrely common: even in restaurants and cafes they keep the leaves in the pot! No one knows why, but the result is: bitter and bad tea.
How to reduce tannins in your tea
For fewer tannins try green, purple and white teas instead of black teas. When brewing, brew less tea for a shorter period of time. Alternatively for tannin-free tea try green rooibos, chamomile, tulsi and yerba mate.
Another option is to cold-brew your tea, as very few tannins will infuse out of the leaves. You can drink it cold or microwave a mug for a tannin-free delight.
Solution / How to prevent tea going bitter
- Don’t leave your tea leaves in your pot for extended periods of time, use an infuser instead. You can try our infusers and DIY teabags to get started!
- Switch to a tisane: Herbal tea is much more flexible, and you can get away with a lot more in terms of brewing length and water temperature. The tea leaves may even be left in the pot, just make sure to filter them while pouring to remove bits from your tea.
- If you would like to forget about your steeping tea for a few hours, then herbal tea is for you: rooibos is extremely forgiving, as are chamomile and tulsi (though rooibos can go a bit metallic in taste when brewed for 20+ minutes). You can also cold brew your tea, and leave it steeping for many hours (even overnight!) without it going bitter.
Unsure about steeping times and instructions? View our Matcha Alternatives Brewing Guide for all the information you need!
Reason 5: You have particular tastes, time to blend your own tea at home and make it how you like
Although it sounds a little intimidating, blending at home is as simple as adding different teas or tisanes to your infuser, then steeping.
This approach is great for fine-tuning your tea. One of our teaheads found our Richly Rose Cherry Sencha to not have enough rose for her tastes, so bought rose petals to add to her leaves. Voila, a perfectly rosy cuppa!
Another example: everyone is talking about turmeric with green tea, but the teabag versions aren't great. You can instead add turmeric root pieces to your favorite green tea, and have a tastier, higher quality brew.
Last example: you are a chai lover, and struggle to find a strong enough chai. So, buy a chai spice mix and add to any tea, adjusting the amount until it's as strong as you want.
Because of this, and how fussy Elizabeth, Vientiene and I am about our tea, MatchaAlternatives.com now offers our Blend@Home series: small additions that make a big difference.
With our Blend@Home Ingredients, you can tailor your tea to your specific taste. With turmeric, lavender flowers, licorice root, rose petals, hibiscus petals, lemongrass and more, there is something for everyone!
Let us know your tea crafting secrets and favorite combinations in the comments below.
BONUS: Reason 6: Tea for Focus and Peace
Problem: Working without breaks, not getting enough sleep, rushing out without breakfast. Basically, all the things that get overlooked when you are stressed!
Result: Stress can put a severe strain on your mental health and wellbeing.
How does tea help with focus and peace?
While tea is a wonderful morning wake up, it also offers a chance for reflection, deep breathing, and relaxation.
There is a ceremony in the brewing of loose leaf tea: you get your filter or DIY teabag, add your tea or mix of teas, close it up, put it in the mug or teapot, boil your kettle to the temperature you want, and then brew for a certain number of minutes.
In all yes it’s only 3-5 minutes, it's a few minutes of peace, a blessed break. Not grab-and-go coffee coffee coffee waiting in an endless line. Try to enjoy those few minutes! Breathe, relax, tea.
With the global pandemic raging, economic hardships, and endless uncertainty, stress is abundant and can be all consuming. First, know you are not alone in these feelings of fear and uncertainty and isolation. Second, self care is crucial, and helps to reduce anxiety.
If you are not sure where to start, start with a cup of green tea and not doing anything else: just breathing and sipping. No screens, music or distractions. Then see how you feel!
Tea is filled with all kinds of natural antioxidants that do wonderful things for relaxation, allowing us to unwind, focus, feel calm and alert, while living healthier lives. The added ceremony and ritual of its preparation is soothing to our minds as well as our bodies.
At MatchaAlternatives.com, we believe in holistic wellness which is why we have made several guides for your wellbeing. Pick what feels good to you, and find some time during the day to focus on yourself:
- For music lovers try our Best Tea + Songs Combos to Lower Stress and Boost Your Mood
- Interested in meditation? We recommend, 5 Best Meditation Apps and Teas for Anxiety, Sleep and More
- An avid reader? 5 Best Tea + Book Combos: Thrillers, Comedy, Classics and More
Time to make a cup of tea...
Now you know all the pitfalls of making tea, you can brew the perfect cup (or pot!). Let me know what your challenges and solutions are in the comments below, and if there are any tea problems I can help with!
Here is a quick checklist to keep you on track:
- Use loose leaf tea
- Explore the world of tea and herbal teas: there will be at least one you like
- Use filtered or spring water that isn’t too hard
- Use a kettle that’s either electric or stainless steel to boil your water easily and flavor free (i.e. not the coffee pot!)
- Don’t leave your water boiling for a while
- Think before you choose caffeine as your bedtime tea…
- Follow steeping instructions to avoid tannins and bitter tea
- Relax and enjoy!
Have you tried these tea brewing tips? Are you a new tea lover? Let me know in the comments below!
A Note from the Herbalist...
Above all, experiment! There are a thousand different ways to make a cup of tea, and the RIGHT way is whatever tastes best to YOU. So if you like strong tannic tea, then brew away! For me, I love the flexibility of rooibos and honeybush, as they can be brewed at a range of temperatures and for a range of times without impacting the taste too much.
Plus Matcha Alternatives' range of blends and flavored rooibos teas is enormous - I'm spoiled for choice. ;-) Here are my favorites:
- Classy Earl Grey Rooibos, a calming yet fresh tea ideal for tea time (also, caffeine free)
- The 'Purist' Organic Honeybush, smooth and sweet and totally caffeine free
- Pear of Apples Rooibos, fruity and autumnal - lovely with lunch and naturally decaf so I can drink it all day
- Peppermint Bark Rooibos, exactly what you'd imagine! Smooth rich rooibos plus zingy peppermint. So good.
- And for a "true" tea, I love The 'Purist' Rare Purple Tea from Kenya, which is like a green tea but with 1.5x more antioxidants. It makes a smooth tea that I LOVE.
First published August 2019. Updated and expanded December 2020.
Roasty Toasty Yerba Mate
Strawberries & Cream Green Tea
Sweet strawberries and delicate cream transport you to lazy summer afternoons, no matter the weather. With a medium amount of caffeine, this tea is great for an afternoon pick-me-up.
This decaf tea has beautifully balanced ginger, strong and spicy without being overwhelming-perfect for your evening.
All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.