Come With Me and You’ll Tea

Kevin Borowsky, co-owner of The Whistling Kettle, initially turned to loose-leaf tea for health reasons. “My wife and I used to drink coffee, and then we switched to tea,” says Borowsky. But after some research, he and his wife Meaghan soon found that there’s much more to the beverage than just health benefits. Soon after in 2004, the couple opened their tea-centric restaurant in upstate New York. The tea lounge found so much success that a second location opened in 2014 in Troy, NY.

Now, Borowsky incorporates loose-leaf tea in his daily life and – with insight from other tea experts – provides advice on how you can too. Whether it’s for the quality, lower caffeine, or for the endless possibiliteas, preparing and drinking loose-leaf tea has something for everyone. And while bagged tea seems to provide the same experience loose-leaf tea does, experts like Borowsky know that’s not the case.

Loose-Leaf Tea or Bagged Tea? There's a Difference

Vincent Briselli is the district manager for DAVIDsTEA’s Boston and Connecticut stores, and he knows loose-leaf tea can seem overwhelming. “It’s pretty intimidating to see all of the ways loose-leaf tea is being incorporated or being used,” says Briselli. In his teenage years, Briselli wasn’t drawn to coffee, and bagged tea didn’t offer as many varieties. Loose-leaf tea was the way to go.

For Borowsky it was all about quality. “You’ll never find the higher-quality leaf in a bagged tea because that’s the nature of the leaf itself,” says Borowsky. Manufacturers sell the best part of their tea – which starts in a loose-leaf form – to companies like The Whistling Kettle. What’s left over goes to larger tea companies and becomes bagged tea. Companies specializing in loose-leaf tea strive to provide a quality product with transparency in their sourcing.

“With a high-end tea, like what we have, it’s not going to come from a polluted area and it’s going to be handled in a better manner,” says Borowsky. Better handling equates to a better product, and therefore better tea in your cup.

Caffeine in Loose-Leaf Tea

Traditional loose-leaf tea has less caffeine than coffee. For a typical 8-ounce cup, teas have one-third to two-thirds the amount of caffeine a cup of coffee would, or an average of about 26 milligrams. This can be good for those looking to cut down on caffeine, or may be caffeine sensitive. The caffeine absorption in tea is also different than coffee. If you were to graph the absorption of coffee it peaks and dives back down quickly – tea has a slower absorption. “It’s more for a long-term energy rather than a jolt that goes back down,” says Borowsky.

The amount of caffeine differs in tea based on variety; mostly a result of the amount of processing a tea goes through. There are exception however. “A very special place in my heart is held for matcha, which is a powdered green tea,” says Briselli. “The reason why it’s so special is because you whisk it in water and ingest the tea leaf.” Since you ingest the physical leaf, matcha provides more antioxidants and caffeine.

Caffeine Levels in Loose-Leaf Tea (per 8-ounce cup)
Low caffeine (1–35 milligrams) White tea, Green tea
Medium caffeine (35–90 milligrams) Oolong tea, Black tea, Pu’erh tea
High caffeine (more than 90 milligrams) Yerba maté
Caffeine-free (less than 1 milligram) Rooibos tea, Herbal infusion

Alternative Loose-Leaf Drinks

White, green, oolong, black, and pu’erh tea all come from the Camellia sinensis tea plant, but there are other loose-leaf drinks considered to be tea. Rooibos tea and herbal infusions are naturally caffeine-free and can be steeped like any other tea. Caitlyn Budnick, a senior at Emerson College, turns to herbal infusions in the evening. “I have a tea with valerian root to help me sleep at night so I am rested for the next day,” says Budnick. Valerian root is a natural muscle relaxer, and can be relaxing when added to a caffeine-free herbal.

Jes Slavin is a recent graduate working at Emerson and turns to herbal infusions when she’s feeling sick. “The low caffeine and restorative ingredients, like licorice root, really help. Licorice root can help with a sore throat,” she says. But as a busy post-grad, Slavin still needs caffeine. Yerba maté, a loose-leaf drink from South America, can have as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. Slavin relies on yerba maté for her daily caffeine-kick, which doesn’t leave you feeling drained – similar to traditional loose-leaf teas.

Loose-leaf tea can easily fit into a daily routine, even with a busy schedule. And although Briselli knows getting into loose-leaf tea may seem complicated, he has some tips for getting started with the beverage, starting with where to look.

1. Find What Interests You

“First thing is, don’t feel like you need to start off with a straight pure white tea or green tea,” says Briselli. “There’s no right or wrong. Just go for it.”

Slavin says to visit a loose-leaf tea seller, if possible. Large companies like DAVIDsTEA and Teavana can be found across the United States, and specialty restaurants like Borowsky’s are becoming more common. At a store you can ask questions, and possibly smell or sample the tea. “If a tea smells good to you, you’ll most likely enjoy drinking it,” says Slavin.

If you have favorite bagged teas, Borowsky suggests finding a loose-leaf tea that’s similar. Black breakfast teas provide a familiar tea flavor. “I love having the body and the caffeine-kick and all that you get from a breakfast cup of tea,” says Briselli. He takes his with milk and sugar, but you don’t have to. Slavin prefers her tea straight up – no sweetener.

If you like coffee, Borowsky suggests trying a darker and more robust tea, like a black tea or pu’erh tea. Pu’erh tea is black tea that’s been fermented underground, giving it an earthy and dark tone. Of course, creative tea shops like Borowsky’s have teas with coffee beans in them too. Once you’ve found a tea, you’ll need a way to steep it.

2. Get the Right Equipment

There are many options, but the biggest thing to remember is that size matters. “Make sure that you pick an infuser that’s going to make sense for the type of tea you’re drinking,” says Briselli. Loose-leaf tea offers more flavor possibilities than bagged tea because when steeped in an infuser, leaves have more room to move. Briselli uses a teapot at home and single-use tea bags on the go. Slavin has a travel mug with an infuser basket to hold leaves, while Budnick prefers a small mesh ball she can drop in any mug.

You can even use a French press, although Borowsky points out it’s not the best method. “It doesn’t completely stop the process of steeping, but with rooibos and herbals, it’s okay,” says Borowsky. Just don’t use the same French press for tea that you may use for coffee; coffee leaves a residue that may affect a tea’s flavor.

3. Follow the Guidelines

As with coffee, you want to make sure you’re measuring tea leaves out correctly and consistently. “With other beverages, that may not seem as important,” says Briselli. “But with tea it really is because what you’re drinking is about 99 percent water.” When you purchase loose-leaf tea, ask the tea seller what the recommended amount is per 8 ounces – a typical cup size. If you’re unsure, Briselli suggests using more leaves and steeping for a shorter amount of time so the tea doesn’t burn. 1 and ¼ teaspoon is a good starting point.

Recommended Water Temperatures and Steeping Times
White tea 194ºF (let boiling water sit for 2 minutes) 4–5 minutes
Green tea 165–185ºF (let boiling water sit for 7–4 minutes) 1–4 minutes
Oolong tea 185ºF (let boiling water sit for 4 minutes) 4–7 minutes
Black tea 205ºF (let boiling water sit for 1 minute) 4–7 minutes
Pu’erh tea 205ºF (let boiling water sit for 1 minute) 4–7 minutes
Yerba maté 185ºF (let boiling water sit for 4 minutes) 4–7 minutes
Rooibos tea 205ºF (let boiling water sit for 1 minute) 4–7 minutes
Herbal infusion 205ºF (let boiling water sit for 1 minute) 4–7 minutes


4. Use the Right Temperature and Steep Carefully

“Next is to make sure you use the right temperature for the tea,” says Briselli. When teas are processed, an oxidation step may make the leaves more resilient. Teas that are less processed steep at lower temperatures. Be especially careful with green tea. When it’s over-steeped, it burns and tastes bitter. “Green tea is actually a really lovely tea,” says Briselli. “It should have a light, sweet, or grassy flavor.”

Keeping track of a tea’s steeping is important. Steeping tea longer than the recommended time doesn’t result in a stronger cup. Instead, the flavor will become more astringent – a term used to describe a tea’s “mouthfeel.” Astringent tea will leave a bitter taste in the back of your throat, and mostly happens with burnt green tea or over-steeped black teas.

5. Experiment and Have Fun

“The last thing would be to experiment and have fun,” says Briselli. Tea can be more than just a hot beverage. You can drink it iced, bake with it, cook with it, infuse it with alcohol, or even bathe in it – rooibos tea is good for your skin! “Try things that are unexpected and that you may not like,” says Briselli.

“There are people who think loose leaf tea is complicated because they see all the teas and the steeping times and temperatures,” says Borowsky. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Whether you’re looking for quality flavors, less caffeine, or just finding your new beverage of choice, loose-leaf tea is a fun and exploratory experience.

And if you’re not sure, Briselli is confident tea will find a way. “There’s a place for tea in your life,” says Briselli. “Guarantead.”