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Are tea infusers really needed? Or are they just coming between you and your tea?
Tea is a pretty simple beverage. However, for those of us who live the “tea life” (where tea is more than just a beverage) the equipage seems to be getting more complicated every day – many items being proclaimed a “must” for your tea enjoyment. This is especially true of items “guaranteed” to give you a better-tasting cuppa. That’s where those infusers come in. They may be handy, but they can rob you of flavor. Time to take a closer look.
About Tea Infusing
Let’s start by taking a minute to see what infusing means. For the purpose of this article, I will be talking only about true teas, made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, not herbals, dried flower petals (chamomile, hibiscus, etc.), rooibos, etc.
Basically, infusing is the interaction between tea leaves and hot water. That interaction is accomplished by putting a quantity of tea into a container (cup, teapot, measuring cup, whatever) and adding water heated to the appropriate temperature (usually boiling, but some teas need cooler temps). Then, the magic begins. Those tiny atoms of H2O work to separate the good from the bad, the aromatic and flavorful from the dregs (one reason it’s important to stop the infusion process at the right time, keeping those dregs from joining the party). The result is called a “liquor” and ranges in color from almost clear to dark reddish-brown, depending on what tea you started with (white, green, red, black, etc.).
Another thing to consider is the size and shape of those tea pieces. Tea is available in several forms: whole leaf, pieces (also called “broken leaf”), fannings, dust, and powder (usually green tea served in Asian countries and some Asian restaurants here in the U.S.).
Speaking of dregs, they lurk in your tea bags (usually containing fannings or dust). So, if you’re tempted to get a pair of tea bag tongs for use in squeezing the last drop from your tea bag after infusing, consider this: When you squeeze out that last drop, you are squeezing out those bitter-tasting dregs. Just as when brewing a fine cup of coffee you want to avoid over-brewing and using an inadequate amount of grounds, the same goes for tea. If you’re going to spend the money on the tea, don’t spoil it with those bitter dregs.
On the Websites that sell infusers, they instruct us to fill the infusers only halfway. Why? So that the leaves have room to expand fully within the infuser. Good advice, but the leaves still don’t get to fully interact with the water as they would if loose in the pot. That means, you don’t get the full taste and wonderful aroma from your expensive whole leaf tea.
As one who truly lives the “tea life,” I see tea infusers as just coming between me and my tea, especially a fine whole leaf tea, and they are virtually worthless on teas that are comprised of fannings or dust (which should only be used in a non-bleached bag).
For those of you still wanting to use an infuser, which after all provides convenience and better tasting tea than from most bagged tea, I’ll go through the different options available.
Some Types of Tea Infusers
Infusers come in various forms, including tea balls, teaspoon-shaped, sticks, baskets, filters, infusion bags (not the bags that bagged tea comes in), French Presses, and cups and teapots with ceramic infuser baskets.
Choices, choices, choices!
But if you are truly to live the “tea life,” this will be an important decision for you – to use one of these infusers or not, and which infuser is best.
Most infusers are fairly inexpensive, ranging from a few dollars upwards. However, cost of these items isn’t the real issue. It’s the cost of the tea. Why use an infuser that keeps you from getting the most out of your tea? If you must use one at all, pick one that is going to provide the best infusing for the best cup or potful of tea. Also bear in mind that they are not suitable for use with tea in the form of fannings or dust. Whole leaf or pieces is best.
Hollow spheres, in two pieces, made of either stainless steel mesh or stainless steel with small holes. The mesh ones usually have a snap closure. The steel ones twist the two halves together.
As the name says, they’re shaped like teaspoons. Otherwise, teaspoon infusers are essentially the same as tea balls. They are meant for brewing up a single cup of tea. Heat your water, fill the teaspoon infuser with tea and close it, then put it into a cup and pour in the hot water.
Tea Infuser Sticks
Stainless steel tubes that slide for filling and have small holes for infusing. They are meant for brewing up a single cup of tea and often have a hooked handle for catching on the side of the cup.
Baskets made of stainless steel or nylon/plastic. They come in various sizes, some for your cup and others for your teapot. You put your loose tea in them and put them in the cup or teapot, then pour the hot water over them.
How effective they are:
On the Websites that sell infusers, they instruct us to fill the infusers only halfway. Why? So that the leaves have room to expand fully within the infuser. Good advice, but the leaves still don’t get to fully interact with the water as they would if loose in the pot. As one who truly lives the “tea life,” I don’t see tea balls, etc., worth the time and trouble. They just seem to come between me and my tea, especially a fine whole leaf tea, and they are virtually worthless on teas that are comprised of fannings or dust (which should only be used in a non-bleached bag), since the particles of tea are small enough to fit through the holes or mesh of the infuser.
On the other hand, if you want tea that is a step up from bagged tea in a setting where infusing tea in a pot and then straining it would be awkward (such as in an office), then an infuser could be just the thing. You can use whole leaf or broken leaf tea, get a good tea flavor, and avoid the fuss of a teapot and strainer.
Of course, there are infusers that fit into your teapot. There are also French Presses.
More types of infusers
The previous article talked about infusers in the form of tea balls, teaspoon-shaped, sticks, and baskets. Now, let’s take a look at filters/infusion bags (not the bags that bagged tea comes in), French Presses, and cups and teapots with ceramic infuser baskets. Do they really enhance your enjoyment of the “tea life” or just come between you and your tea?
Filters / Infusion bags
These are bags sized either for a single cup or various sized teapots. They are usually made of unbleached paper (so no chlorine affects the color and taste of your tea). You can use not only whole leaf and broken leaf (pieces) with these bags, but also tea you buy in fannings or dust form, such as Twinings loose teas in the tins.
These are cylindrical, glass pots with a metal support structure (feet and handle) and a filter/plunger. One caution here is not to squeeze the tea leaves too hard when you plunge so that the bitter dregs don’t get into your brew.
Cups with infuser baskets
These are usually ceramic or pottery mugs with either a matching basket or one made of mesh (stainless steel or nylon). These are best used with whole leaf and broken leaf (pieces) teas.
Teapots with infuser baskets
Teapots can be ceramic with a ceramic basket, or the more modern glass with nylon baskets (some with plungers). Again, I caution you to not plunge too hard or you will get some of the bitterness left in your tea leaves into your brew.
If after all of this you’ve decided that a tea infuser is not for you, what is the alternative? Very simple. You can resort to bagged tea, or you can put your tea directly in the pot and use a strainer. My next articles will cover those plus a demonstration of the difference in your tea when using an infuser or putting the tea leaves loose in the pot.
Until then, happy tea drinking!
© 2009-2016 A.C. Cargill photos and text