I need to point out the absurdity of the statement “I don’t like tea.”
It’s like saying “I don’t like food.”
More Than Just “Hot, Leaf Water”
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.
You can’t burn filet mignon and call it good. The wrong preparation can ruin even the best quality ingredients. Tea is so much more than “hot, leaf water”!
Maybe you do like tea, but like my mom you just need a few tips!
What if this whole time, you’ve just been preparing it wrong and something delicious is in store for you?
Varieties of Tea
Some background on tea types before we get started: There are two categories of “tea”: “True” tea and “Herbal” tea.
Purple, green, black, oolong, matcha, white, puerh... these are all “true” teas, hailing from the C. sinensis plant. True teas can be persnickety to make: they can easily go bitter if overbrewed or they are old or poor quality. Each type has simple but important rules for correct brewing, or else you’ll end up with undrinkable hot leaf water! At their best, though, they become a nectar of the gods with a wide range of flavor profiles and can be as complex as wines. (There is even an entire industry of tea sommeliers out there if that gives you an idea of how complex teas can get!) To learn more, read our post from the other week 'A Tea & Tisane Primer (Everything You Need to Know About Tea and 'Tea')'.
Herbal teas are called tisanes. A tisane can be from any type of plant, unlike “true” teas that must be from C. sinensis. Common tisanes are lavender, peppermint, licorice, chamomile, rooibos, honeybush, mate (pronounced ‘mat-eh’), though there are thousands more – this list just scratches the surface. Because a herbal teas can come from any (edible) plant under the sun, they have diverse flavor profiles and a wide range of preparation instructions. However, in general, tisanes are easier to prepare than “true” teas.
Now on to the reasons why you DO actually like tea, you’ve just been drinking it wrong…
Reason 1: Loose leaf vs bagged tea
Problem: You’re using tea bags instead of loose leaf.
Result: A very strong, bitter and yet also weirdly thin tasting drink.
Why: Tea bags are composed of dust and fannings - particles of tea leaves with a large surface area that goes stale quickly. They’re gathered from multiple locations to create a standardized flavor. Like instant coffee, tea bags are low quality. Because the tea is pulverized into such small pieces, the natural oils in the leaves (that get released when you add hot water, and make for a great cup of tea) are lost, as are a lot of the nutrients. Imagine preparing apples for sale: if you smash up an apple into a thousand pieces, then ship it to your future customers, they will receive a VERY different product than if you had sent them the whole apple. It’s the same idea with tea. Also, tea bag material tends to have manufacturing residue on it, and often contains some plastic. So when you’re steeping a tea bag, part of the taste is tea and the other part is chemicals from the industrial processing of the packaging. Eugh.
Whole tea leaves, on the other hand, are as versatile and nuanced in their flavor notes as coffee beans. Because the leaves are mostly if not entirely intact, they will have better retained their healthy oils, antioxidants, nutrients and vitamins. All of those things combine to make a great-tasting cup of tea. (Additionally, a company that makes and sells loose leaf is, by definition, catering to customers that care how their tea tastes!) Also, loose leaf is almost always sold in air-tight containers or bags, whereas tea bags are usually sold in cartons that allow air in. 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.
Solution: If you are looking for a good cup of tea, always reach for loose leaf tea! Shameless plug: Matcha Alternatives ONLY sells loose leaf teas! Check them out here.
Reason 2: Your Tea-Making Tools, the Keys to Making Good Tea…
Problem: You’re not heating the correct water correctly.
Result: Tea that tastes thin, sour, like weak coffee, metalic or just “odd”
Why: Two reasons:
1) How you heat the water makes a huge difference.
- If you’ve been brewing tea with water from a coffee pot, you’re risking the flavors of old coffee seeping into the water (ick!). Also, a coffee pot’s heating mechanism cannot reach boiling, and most likely your brewing your tea in water that isn’t hot enough. This temperature may be okay with certain green teas and yerba mate, but the coffee taste will still be a deal-breaker. When we say that tea is a great coffee substitute, we don’t mean you should make it in a coffee pot!
- If you’re brewing your tea in a cookpot, that might be your problem. Kettles (both stove-top and electric) are made specifically for tea with non-reactive materials. The tannins in tea can react with metals such as aluminum and dramatically change the flavor. If using a cookpot, choose a non-reactive metal such as stainless steel. And even if you aren’t adding the leaves to the pot, the metal can still taint the water with unwanted flavors.
- You’re over-boiling the water. 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: so pour your water over your tea leaves just as it starts to boil, and 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!
2) Water is a key ingredient! Tap water will affect the flavor of the tea. If your tap water doesn't taste nice anyway, your tea doesn't stand a chance. The tap water simply overwhelms the more delicate tea taste, something you may not notice with coffee. If you water tastes delicious but your tea still tastes bad, there’s an excellent 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’. There’s even a tea company in the UK that has developed tea specifically for hard water regions in Yorkshire – it’s that big a problem.
Solution: Use filtered or spring water that isn’t too hard. Use a kettle that’s either electric or stainless steel to boil your water, and don’t let it boil for more than a few seconds.
Reason 3: Too Many Tannins
Problem: You’re over-brewing your tea.
Result: 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 it’s a tannin-containing tea and it’s over-brewed then it can cause the sensation of dry mouth momentarily. 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!
Solution: Black teas have the most tannins, so either switch to green and white teas (fewer tannins), brew less tea for a shorter period of time, or try red or green rooibos, chamomile and yerba mate as they are all tannin free (well, red rooibos has some but it is very low in tannins).
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Reason 4: Too Much Caffeine
Problem: You’re 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.
Why: 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 (don’t believe the packaging). Herbal teas, though, are generally caffeine free as caffeine is relatively rare in the plant world. So many people I talk to will have a cup of black tea in the evening, thinking that because it’s not coffee it won’t make a difference. This is just plain wrong, and 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.
Solution: Change what teas your drink at different times of the day. To wake up in the morning, choose black tea, puerh, or, if you want a solid coffee replacement, yerba mate (85mg of caffeine per mug means it’s almost the same as coffee’s 95mg!). If you have an average sensitivity to caffeine, then stop drinking black tea by 4 or 5pm. However, I prefer moving to green or white teas as the day progresses to avoid over-caffeinating myself! After 5pm, switch to decaf herbal tea alternatives such as rooibos and honeybush. And once it’s almost bedtime, reach for a sleepytime tea like chamomile or tulsi.
Reason 5: Overbrewing Causes Bitter Tea
Problem: You’re steeping your tea leaves for way too long and possibly burning them.
Result: 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 (especially green tea) and which can make it go bitter, especially lower quality tea and smaller (finer) leaves. This is why green tea teabags should only be brewed for maximum 1 minute (and even then it’s strong) whereas good quality loose leaf green tea might be brewed for 2 or even 3 minutes.
Temperature-wise, green tea likes cooler temperatures than black, oolong and white teas or else it goes super astringent very fast.
One very common reason I also see is people leaving the leaves in their teapot, so that in the thirty minutes it takes to drink the pot, the tea keeps brewing and brewing, getting more and more bitter. This is bizarrely common: even in restaurants and cafes they leave the leaves in the pot! No one knows why, but the result is very clear: bitter, bad tea.
Herbal tea, happily, is much more flexible and you can get away with a lot more in terms of brewing length and water temperature. It’s even okay to leave the loose leaf in the pot, but of course you will need to filter it out when pouring it or else you’ll end up with bits in your tea. For simplicity, use our infusers and DIY teabags instead…
Solution: If you want to pour hot water over your tea leaves and forget about it for a few hours, then herbal tea is for you: rooibos is extremely forgiving, as are chamomile and tulsi.
We're here to help!
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 you with!
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, decaf)
- The 'Purist' Organic Honeybush, smooth and sweet and totally decaf
- Pear of Apples Rooibos, fruity and autumnal - lovely with lunch and 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 yet tannic green tea that I LOVE.
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Tea Tips - References and Further Reading
And of course... 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. The information here is for educational use only.