Infusion Methods

Monday, May 21, 2007

The goal of infusion is to let your leaves expand fully so that the full flavor and nutrients of the tea can infuse into the water. The methods for infusing tea are many and varied and certain leaves (such as tightly rolled oolongs) may expand up to 5 times their original size. Here’s a comprehensive listing with infusion styles, infuser materials, bits of history, what’s suited for what, my own preferences and more. Enjoy!

Teabags
Teaballs
Cup Strainers
Pot Strainers (Methods)
Teapots (Materials)
French Presses
Other Methods


Teabags

Teabags are easy, cheap and disposable. The downside? They are usually made of cheap material that doesn’t allow the water to flow properly and are often filled with inferior grade tea. (Plus, being disposable and all, they aren’t particularly sustainable.) Many teabags are too small to let the leaves expand and, thus, infuse. There are some exceptions on the market, though, including loose leaf tea in pyramid-shaped bags, oversized bags, silk bags, unbleached cotton bags, etc. Not all teabags are bad. Just 99% of them.


Teaballs

Teaballs are popular for those who are just starting with loose-leaf tea, probably because they’re cheap and easy to use. Most of the teaballs I’ve seen on the market fall apart after about 5 uses, but you can find sturdy ones if you look hard enough.

There are two main styles. One has a swing clasp that holds it shut. The other has a kind of spring action going on, similar to a safety pin. The latter tends to be sturdier than the former.

If you choose to brew with a teaball, try to buy one that suits the amount of tea you’re brewing. A small teaball is fine for a cup, but it won’t allow enough expansion room for a full pot.


Cup Strainers

Cup strainers, a.k.a. "basket strainers," are especially convenient for the office and are exponentially better than most teabags on the market. They also differ from teabags in that you can put any kind of tea you want in them and you don’t have to throw away extra packaging every time you brew a cup of tea. I prefer them to teaballs because they are sturdier and (depending on the type) may be easier for travel or office use.

Personally, I love the Bodum Yo-Yo. It’s made of perforated metal rather than the usual metal mesh (so it’s easier to clean) and it has a lid/tray that makes it very convenient for the office.

Most basket strainers are metal, but there are exceptions. Woven bamboo strainers are popular with those who lean toward traditional Japanese styling. (Please note that they aren’t suited for smaller leaf teas because the leaves will not be filtered properly.) On the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum there’s the plastic Audrey tea strainer by Koziol. Fun!


Pot Strainers

Other straining methods can be used for brewing pots of tea. These are often small basket infusers in small pots (especially Japanese cast iron pots). Yi Xing (high-quality Chinese unglazed ceramic) pots may have a perforated ceramic wall over the base of the spout. Sometimes Japanese ceramic pots will have a metal mesh insert over the base of the spout, but this is relatively rare. Glass pots have metal basket strainers, perforated glass basket-style strainers or (if they are intended for artisan flowering teas) skip the strainer.

In India, an entirely different type of pot straining method is used. The tea is brewed in the water-heating vessel, with the water boiling through the course of the infusion. (This method is particularly well-suited for spice-heavy masala chai, which needs a higher brew temperature to get the full flavor.) After the brewing is complete, the tea is strained through a sieve before it is served.


Teapots

It is important to consider the material of the teapot you select for brewing your tea. In this section, I’ll cover glass, iron, silver, glazed ceramic and unglazed ceramic pots’ regions of use, impacts on the flavor and temperature of your tea, common infusion methods, selection considerations and care.

Glass pots are rapidly increasing in popularity in the U.S. and Europe. They have no discernible impact on the flavor of your tea, except that they influence its brewing temperature. If they are insulated, they will keep your tea hot longer; otherwise, they are less efficient at holding a temperature than other type of pots. (Insulated pots have two layers of glass with a pocket of air in between. It is the air rather than the glass that holds the heat in.) Insulated glass pots are suitable for all types of tea, including ones that require higher temperatures, such as tisanes, blacks, and pu-erhs. Non-insulated glass pots are best for white and green teas. They have metal basket strainers, perforated glass basket-style strainers, or (if they are for artisan flowering teas) forgo the strainer altogether. If they have a glass basket or no basket, they can be a lovely way to watch your tea unfurl as it infuses. When selecting a glass pot, make sure it is suitable for hot tea (many hand-blown/"mouth-blown" pots are just for serving iced tea), check to see if it is microwavable (most handmade pots are not, most Bodum glass pots are) and consider its breakability (Does the handle look like it is seriously considering leaving the rest of the pot behind any time soon?). Glass pots can be washed with an unscented soap and hot water, or just with hot water.

Iron pots originated in Japan. The method for making them was born out of the casting of samurai swords. The aesthetic was developed from pots used to boil (and, ideally, sanitize) water. They remain very popular there today, and their use has spread (in a lower concentration) around the globe. Iron pots hold a high temperature very well, especially if they are filled with hot water for a minute or so before the leaves and brewing water are added. Iron pots usually have a basket strainer. If an iron pot’s interior does not have a finish, it can be seasoned over time and will develop a taste specific to the type(s) of tea you brew in it. (If you choose an unfinished iron pot, I recommend staying within a particular flavor family when using it. You wouldn’t want the smoky taste of Lapsang Souchong in your delicate new Shincha.) Unfinished iron pots also supply small amounts of iron in the diet, just as iron skillets do in my homeland (the southern U.S.). Finished iron pots will not affect the flavor or iron content of your tea, and they can be used with a range of teas safely. Rinsing with hot water is safe and will not affect the flavor of your tea, but do not use soap on your iron pot.

Silver teapots were invented in Europe in the 1730’s and spread in popularity throughout Europe and the U.S., where they were viewed as a status symbol. Their heat retention characteristics are similar to those of iron. Unlike iron, silver is a stable, neutral element, so it will not affect the mineral content of your tea. Silver pots may have a basket strainer, or require a teaball/teabags. When selecting a silver teapot, consider whether you prefer a footed design or a trivet (to protect your surfaces from burns). You may also consider the pot’s engraving possibilities, as silver lends itself to etching. Over time, silver pots will tarnish. Use silver cleaner to polish the exteriors AND interiors, and then rinse well and dry with a cotton cloth. (Tarnish is toxic. Sadly, so are silver cleaning chemicals.) Everyday maintenance is as simple as rinsing them with hot water and drying with a soft cotton cloth.

Glazed ceramic pots are most popular in Europe, but can also be found easily in parts of the Americas, Africa, India and Japan. They do not affect the flavor of the tea. If they are Chinese clay, they hold high heat very well. If they are porcelain, they hold heat moderately well. You can use them with a variety of teas without flavor interference. They may be used with teabags, teaballs, basket strainers or built-in ceramic strainers (usually at the base of the spout). The main selection considerations for glazed ceramic pots are the infusion method, size and visual aesthetic. If you have children or are clumsy (like me), avoid the more delicate pots on the market. Many people report that washing glazed pots with soap does not affect the flavor, but I prefer to use only hot water unless there’s a build-up of tannins from brewing lots of black tea.

Unglazed ceramic pots are most popular in China, where they originated, but they can be found all over the world. They hold a high temperature well. Like unfinished cast iron pots, they are seasoned with each use. This means that they are not suitable for brewing a variety of types of tea, but if you stay within a small flavor family for each pot (for example, smoky black teas for one pot, mild/low-oxidation Oolongs for a second pot and fresh-tasting steamed green teas for a third) you will be rewarded with a wonderfully flavored and complex tea. Many unglazed pots have a small perforated ceramic wall over the base of the spout. If not, you can use a teaball, an in-cup strainer (when pouring), or teabags. When selecting an unglazed teapot, consider the size, visual style, breakability and what you intend to brew in it. If you lean toward high-quality teas, I suggest investing in a Yi Xing teapot. They are widely reputed to be the best unglazed ceramic pots in the world and can be surprisingly reasonable in price. The clay found in the Yi Xing region of China comes in a range of natural, beautiful colors, the most noteworthy of which is "pear-skin," a deep violet-brown color that is only found in Yi Xing. Yi Xing’s clay has a beneficial mineral balance (in terms of both the taste of the tea and as a supplement to your diet) and has large air pockets that absorb the tea each time it brews (which give it its excellent seasoning capabilities). It is even said that if you brew the same type of tea for many years in a Yi Xing pot, it becomes so well-seasoned that you can brew tea simply by adding hot water to the pot. NEVER wash an unglazed teapot with soap, as the soap will stay in the clay’s pockets and damage the flavor of tea brewed in the pot for years to come. Plain old hot water works well and does not damage the flavor of your tea.


French Presses

French presses are known for their use with coffee, but they can also be used for tea. Some, like the Bodum presses, are specially designed for tea. If you’re switching from coffee to tea (which I recommend — See Caffeine and Tea for more information) this may be the best method for you, as it retains some of the ritual you associate with coffee. Just make sure you clean it well when you switch from coffee to tea, to avoid flavor contamination. Even if you’re not crossing over from the dark side (I jest! Sort of . . .), I still highly recommend Bodum’s tea presses. You add the tea to the brewing basket, pour the hot water over it, let it steep for the appropriate amount of time and depress the plunger. When you depress the plunger, it stops the brewing. This allows you to save clean-up for later (which is why I love it for social gatherings) and to reuse the leaves (by adding more hot water, pumping the plunger up and down a few times and steeping again). Also, the glass is microwavable. Gotta love it.


Other Methods

There are a few other infusion methods out there. I like Gamila’s Teastick, which is a sturdy, stainless steel variation on the teaball. It’s best for medium-sized teas and it’s great for travel. Another route is strainerless brewing, which is great with artisan flowering teas, which are hand-tied into bundles that "flower" as they infuse, but remain in one piece. You can brew them in a small pot or extra-large mug without worrying about straining them. Some large herbal teas (like full-leaf French Verveine) work this way, too. If you know of another method worth sharing (I’m sure there are more out there!), please let me know.


Enjoy your tea!