Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
The recipe for making tea during the time of Jane Austen was fairly simple: the butler brought in the “tea things” on a tea board, the hostess placed a few teaspoons of tea leaves in a teapot (Austen purchased tea from the Twinings shop in London), and the butler added heated water to the teapot directly from a silver urn.
Green or black, every tea was treated with water of equal temperature, and the leaves were allowed to steep unencumbered in the teapot. The tea always became bitter from oversteeping, and more hot water had to be added to temper the tannins. Milk and sugar went a long way toward making the concoction more palatable for tea drinkers in London during that era.
Two centuries later, our taste for tea demands more precise methods for steeping a nuanced beverage. Thankfully, the marketplace is accommodating our discriminating penchant for good tea with a variety of gadgets designed to fit a range of tea-making scenarios. Here are the popular options for making loose tea while controlling the steep time and preventing errant leaves from floating into your cup—or clogging your teapot spout. We all know what an embarrassing tea faux pas that can be!
Mesh tea balls. No respectable student of tea would use these relics of a 1950s kitchen. Tea leaves want to expand to their original size when they rehydrate. Tea balls act as a straight jacket for the leaves, and their full flavor will never be fully expressed.
Tea sacks. Several brands of disposable, one-time-use paper sacks are available for rolling your own tea bag. They come in various sizes to fit different teapots, cups, or mugs. Most are gusseted and allow the leaves to fully expand. Tearoom owners often use these biodegradable bags because the bags can be prepared ahead, and they allow the full flavor of the tea to be released without any messy cleanup.
Tea baskets. A great number of contemporary teapots come with handy mesh infuser inserts. These are perfect for office, dorm, or home use where one or two cups of tea are needed. Tea leaves are allowed to hydrate fully, and after the first cup is poured, the leaves no longer steep because the infuser rests above the remaining liquor. Several companies offer stand-alone tea baskets that fit either cups or teapots.
Press pots. This technology, borrowed from the coffee industry, makes a great pot of tea because it allows the user to control more accurately the strength of the tea. Tea leaves float loose in the carafe until they are pushed to the bottom of the pot, where they are prevented from steeping further. If your tea is not strong enough to suit your taste, you may lift the plunger to release the leaves and continue the steep. But don’t lend your tea press to a coffee drinker because the taste of coffee cannot be removed from any tea-brewing apparatus.