Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Loose tea. Tame that bad girl.

Long story short: I heart tea. If you've been following along you may have read some of my previous posts on tea and you may well be sick of the subject. So sorry, mea culpa.

Now for the rest of y'all.

I talk a lot about loose leaf tea. Why bother? I'm sure there are many erudite reasons for loose vs tea bags. Come on, you know how to google. Yes, I do use loose leaf tea because I find the taste more full, more fresh but for me it also feels ... serene, peaceful, elegant, sensual, exciting. I wipe noses and say things like "STOP LICKING ME!!" all day long (and often at night) so you can see why a little cup of grace might be attractive.

Like my last post, this is just my opinions and your mileage may vary.

So when you make loose tea, you basically need something to boil the water, something to steep the tea in and something to strain out the leaves. I'm going to talk about some of the things you can use for each step, from basic things you may have around your house to fancy expensive doo-dads. I'll point out what I use myself and why and what I don't. And so ... away we go.


Duh.You can use a pot. Any old pot or pan'll do but if you want to be specific, one with a pouring lip is better. Another simple thing to use to boil water is a microwave - fast, simple and if you have a good sized microwavable measuring cup, it makes pouring darn easy.

Some other options are a tea kettle (ye olde whistling kind or not) or an instant coffee machine like a Keurig.

Here is my pretty kettle/teapot ...

Here is why I love it. It's excellent for both boiling and steeping and it holds a whole lot. And it's vintage and purty and makes me smile. Most folks don't make enough tea to need something like this but I tend to make a pot and drink it all day so this rocks.

You can pretty much steep your tea where you please - in a mug, teapot, or some fancy gadget that has a built in steep mechanism (more on that later).

I steep my tea in that pot above (see why I love it?), a smaller tea pot, or  a mug with a strainer in place. If you are someone who only makes a cup, a teapot is total overkill but if you regularly make cup after cup, consider getting a pot appropriate to the size you want to drink. While many folks get ornate cast iron post now popular everywhere from tea boutiques to Target, think about how heavy they are PLUS the added weight of a quart of water. 

I found my vintage Corelle pot on Etsy but there are hundreds on eBay. They are lightweight, very affordable and boil quickly.

My smaller pot is the Dripless Teapot from Teaspot.com They now have a newer model called the Mod Pot with a special basket that fits it better than the Tuffy Steeper but I'm pretty sure the design is the same.

This pot holds 20oz and was fine for me alone but not enough for me to pour for myself and two girls. It really is a dripless pot and that is truly awesome.

This is were new loose tea aficionados often get cranky. They buy a lovely bag of loose tea and a pretty tea ball or a clampy style weird strainer thingy. Maybe a pretty strainer they can set on top - you've seen them. They follow the directions, measure out their tea and wait with bated breath... and then they proceed to pick the tea leaves out of their teeth.

So what can you do on the cheap at home? Well for one, don't try to use a coffee filter. Trust me. Mess. Burns. You get the idea. If you have a small mesh strainer, go for it but be aware that it may let some tea through. 

Stay away from those tea balls on chains, etc etc ... they just don't work and are often hard to clean. There are disposable choices and reusable choices. Touching on disposable briefly, you can get paper tea bags you can fill yourself but they aren't cost effective if you will be using them often. Other similar options are muslin bags that you can reuse for a while but these also do not last forever. If you want to be crafty, sew your a bunch of own and put a wee drawstring at the top - any white cotton cloth will work fine.

One of my steepers is The People's Brew Basket made by the Republic of Tea.  This is an affordable, effective steeper with super fine mesh (filters out most of the finest particles of your blend). The one I have is about 15 years old and still working fine. It cleans best if you rinse it out when the tea is wet. The only downside is that it can be too small for some pot openings, and sinks down below the lid in some of the very large mugs. I've actually set this inside some of my larger steepers when brewing a pot of rooibos tea, which tends to evade even the most challenging steeper.

Another one I love is this large Steeping Mug from The Tea Spot. The strainer is very good except for the fine rooibos teas. The strainer is slick and smooth, dishwasher safe. It cleans completely easily and rarely gets leftover tea stuck in the holes. My children killed my mug. I'm still in mourning. I still use the lovely strainer in regular mugs. The strainer is actually available separately but you need to call directly to get the link to order.

My last strainer just arrived today so of course I've already test-driven it. I'd been having trouble finding a deep steeper that would hang on the wide rim of my Corelle teapot. This large Finium Brewing Basket seems to fit the bill. I was impressed today how well the water flowed through the filter and was shocked that absolutely no rooibos got through into the brew. 

As I mentioned above, you can also get a gadget like this that steeps and strains as one unit. This is referred to as a gravity teapot. I've had these and they do produce a nice brew. You fill it with your loose tea and boiling water and when it's ready, you sit the gadget on top of your much and a catch releases so that the tea flows through the filter into your cup. It does do a lovely job. I found it really fiddly to clean (personally) which was a major turn off. 

The biggest downside to this device is that I make quite a bit of tea at once ... but what if I don't use the last 6 ounces? I can't leave it in the gravity pot because the leaves are in there. I found myself having to put that last bit into an extra mug or a mason jar and tuck it in the fridge. There was no easy way to keep that extra warm and it just buuuuuugged me. So while many people love this, it's design just doesn't work for me.

So now you have an idea of what you need! Here are some great links on tea that may help you on your road to the perfect cup.

Caffiene and Tea - Did you know how you brew your tea affects the caffiene level? 
How to Brew it. Really. - 3 minutes at 208F? What does that mean?? Read this article for realistic instructions.
What is a Tisane - Is your tea really a tea?
Types of Tea - With cool pictures
My kind of Chai - a few of my favorite spiced teas

**I am in no way connected or receive reimbursement/product/kickbacks/magic powers from any of the companies mentioned here. All products mentioned were purchased by me, generally using standard shipping which I immediately regretted as it takes too flipping long.**

My kinda Chai

There are as many blends of spiced teas as there are kinds of homemade tomato sauces so I warn you in advance, these are only my preferences. Both my grandmothers served me tea from a young age so it has always been a source of comfort - and at times, indulgence. Winter months in New England have me craving the familiar warmth of tea and I love sharing this tradition with my own little girls.

These teas are a few of the blends that I have loved for many years. While I continue to try new brands and often swing back and forth between tea bags and loose tea, these remain my favorites.

My first childhood memory of spiced tea was my mother's Bigelow Constant Comment (still available today). This one brings back memories of my mother's flowered mugs and afternoon snacks. I love that this one brews up strong and robust, even in the decaf version. For cinnamon purists,  try their Cinnamon Stick blend.

Not long after, my mother (Brownie leader, Craft Faire organizer and all-around extraordinaire) was given a handmade Christmas present of spiced tea in a jar. The giver included a recipe on it and while I remember it was labelled "Wassail", I've since heard it called Russian Friendship Tea as well as other names. During my years studying singing I always made sure I kept a batch on hand.  Here is the recipe from that first jar. There are many alternate versions on the web  - some using lemonade powder instead of sugar.

1 1/2 cup Tang or similar powdered orange drink
1/3 cup unsweetened instant tea (lemon flavored is ok)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Mix together, store in a tightly lidded container. Add 1-2 tsp per cup of boiling water and stir. (Can add more or less of any ingredient to taste. Can add more or less mix to boiling water as preferred. This is a fairly sweet drink, almost more of a hot punch.

As winters passed I found more lovely teas to warm me up on the way to the chemistry building on the absolute other side of campus.

From Celestial Seasonings I found both caffeinated and herbal varieties. Nutcracker Sweet (available in winter) has lovely vanilla-cinnamon flavors blended with black tea, soothing without being too sweet.

Bengal Spice herbal tea is a fantastic wake-up cup for folks who avoid caffeine. True flavors of India - ginger, cardamom and cloves - are balanced with deep rich roasted chicory and hints of black pepper.

This tea reminds me of Organic Chemistry II.

It sucked. Seriously. I had to take it twice and still only came out with a D+.

But the tea didn't. I found Republic of Tea's Cinnamon Plum and held on tight. I loved the sweet tang of the plum (made fuller by the addition of elderberries and sloeberries) with the full black tea.

My Sri Lankan roommate introduced me to loose leaf tea that year and I was happy to find that RoT sells this blend in both bags and loose leaf versions.

(Disclaimer: I also heartily adore Ginger Peach tea made by RoT, which comes in Decaf and loose leaf versions but that's not spicy so it gets no love in this post.)

Just realized I'm out of this tea. Hm...

As I settled into married life, my husband and I began exploring herbal medicine as a way to deal with the myriad of bugs we caught at our health care jobs. Herbal medicine is so firmly based in tea that I spent a fwe years focusing on that, forgetting the value of warming spices.

Fast forward many years. Chai is introduced to mainstream America and suddenly, wham, I was overwhelmed with Chai choices. The biggest downer? In the initial years of Chai being sold in US markets, many companies prepackaged the tea bags with powdered milk as traditional Chai is prepared with milk and sugar. Ick. No no no. The prevalence of milk turned me off of the Chai market for years ... until...

It took many years but after trying many brands and flavors I've happily added three new favorites to my pantry (what me, picky?).

As I mentioned last winter, my favorite brand of loose tea is from The Tea Spot. I love them. Swoon. In fall 2011 they introduced the loves of my life. Oh ho ... you think I jest? Silly human.

Before you read futher, be aware that these are limited edition seasonal blends. Get em quick before I buy up the rest...

This is their Holiday Spice tea. Nom nom nom. If it wouldn't turn me into a shakey, sleepless maniac I would brew this in mass quantities. Me + too much caffeine = a hot mess. Literally. Hot sweats, nuff said.

Rich, full bodied black tea is blended with clove oil, cinnamon, orange peels and what they mysteriously call "aromatic holiday spices) . I love how smooth this blend in while still being enormously flavorful.

And so what DO I drink in mass quantities? The sleeper hit of my tea shopping adventures ... also by The Tea Spot, Red Hot Chai.

I'm going to go on record as saying: I do not typically like roobios tea. I've tried to like it. Ooooh health benefits, new flavor combinations. Blah ... never happened. I had a brief fling with honey bush but it still just falls flat for me.

Until now. This tea flipping rocks. I'm not kidding ... it's spices are bold and flavorful with out being  bitter or one-dimensional. Deep vanilla notes and the honey-hints from the red rooibos make this a well rounded full tea that I seriously make by the pot. My children absolutely adore it and I love the healing nature of the Indian herbs and spices used in it.

The newest addition to my crew is my most precious however...

This fantastic Gunpowder Chai tea found at Simpler is a hand blended mix of Gunpowder green tea, fennel seed, nutmeg clove and cinnamon. I love the light clean taste of this tea and really appreciate the way the mellow green tea doesn't overpower the spices. I tend not to be a huge fan of green tea but this is flavorful without being grassy.

This one tea (sipping it as I type) is set apart by the the fact that it is made by hand by Sam Tower, a hard working cop, loving husband and dad and an herbalist who follows my own herbalist path - simpling. Having known their family virtually for years, I feel comfort and company in every cup.

As you might think, using loose leaf tea has many options for producing a good cup. I'll be blogging about tea brewing resources and steepware in my next post but right now, I need to get another pot on. Enjoy!

ETA ... and here it is Loose tea. Tame that bad Girl.

**I am in no way connected or receive reimbursement/product/kickbacks/magic powers from any of the companies mentioned here. All products mentioned were purchased by me, generally using standard shipping which I immediately regretted as it takes too flipping long.**

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Talking with small kids is an amazing way to really think about things. I don't mean talking TO kids, or AT them ... I'm referring to actually having a conversation. When an adult has a chance to look at a situation or a thing through a child's eyes they are often surprised at how different it looks.

During graduate school I had the chance to help a family cope with a complicated situation. A teenage girl was in a bad car accident. Thankfully she was going to be fine but she had extensive facial bruising, and an arm and a leg both in casts. The family's biggest concern was how her grandmother was going to take seeing her in that condition. I can't remember if she had anxiety or heart issues but my supervisor in the Child Life department had the idea that the grandmother bring in the teen patient's little sister for her first visit ... and before the young girl went into the room, I would prepare the child for what she would see. In front of her grandmother.

This gave the older woman a chance to be prepared for what SHE would experience in that room, but through the eyes of a six year old.

"Have you ever had a a really bad bump when you fell? How did it feel? What did it look like?"

"It hurt alot but after a while it got better. And it turned funny colors for a while."

"Well when your sister was hurt in the car, something bumped her in the face. Her face has some funny colors on it and its sore but just like your bump, it will get better."

And on, discussing casts, what they are for, what can we do to make her casts look pretty etc.

By the time we finished, the grandmother had visibly calmed down and was able to handle the visit  as well as the small girl. And I learned an amazing lesson.

Recently my fibromyalgia has been getting much much worse than its been in years. I've been trying to help my children understand the changes and support them but as the pain increased I started thinking about myself. Was I going to slip into grief again? Over-do things in my anger that I have limits?

Suddenly a new lens clicked into place. I remember being a senior (I think?) at Arlington Catholic High School and taking a theology course with Mrs. Lussier. Half the year we studied religions of the world and the other half we discussed death, dying and loss. I went on to study it in more depth during my college and graduate school years. Laying in bed last week, unable to sleep from the pain it wasn't college texts or hospice internships that came to mind ... I remembered reading "On Death and Dying" by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in Mrs. Lussier's class.

The Kubler-Ross model of grieving talks about five stages one might experience during a grief process. Rather than being a continuum of how one is going to feel, folks actually  go in no particular order. Some people may bounce around between them, skip a stage completely ... even come back and re-experience the stages again when reminded of their grief.

Denial. Bargaining. Depression. Anger. Acceptance.


Living with chronic illness, chronic pain or a disability is living the Kubler-Ross stages. Not occasionally ... it's living them for as long as "chronic" means. But hold on, that's not as bleak as it sounds.

Sure, it means that some event is going to blind-side you and bring on the loss, the grief, the depression again. You're going to be in denial and over do it and stupidly waste energy you desperately need, or worse, injure yourself. The key is to remember that it is all part of a cycle ... and that some day again you will find peace in acceptance. And while that acceptance won't be forever, neither will the rest of it.


So I found I could do this. I could be sick again and hurt again. Knowing that some day I would be at a peaceful place in my cycle of grief, knowing that some day my fibromyalgia would cycle back into a less painful, more energetic state ... those realizations brought peace to my heart. And I slept.