(Yes, it has been awhile. My other writing projects, plus my work at Adagio’s retail store on State Street here in Chicago has kept me pretty busy. Still, I’ve neglected Lainie Sips for far too long and I do apologize!)
I get a lot of questions about reusing/re-steeping tea leaves. Part of the reason for these questions, I suppose, is that people are interested in saving money while others may have heard that some teas actually improve with subsequent steeps. As with anything tea-related, I advise people to experiment, what works well with one tea may not work well for another. Here are some tips for reusing tea leaves:
Look at the Leaf
1. Leaf Size and Integrity
In my experience, while the size of a tea leaf can have an effect on whether a tea is “re-steepable,” a more important question is whether the leaf is intact or broken. Very broken leaf often gives up a lot of flavor very quickly, making it unsuitable for re-steeping. Whole leaf tea, on the other hand, needs a bit more time (or hotter water) to infuse fully. If you encounter a large leaf tea that is reasonably unbroken, you’ll probably have success getting tasty cups of tea from subsequent steepings.
2. Processing Method
Some processing methods are better than others for producing re-steepable tea leaves. Oolongs and pu’erh are probably the best known for being highly re-steepable teas, but both green and white tea can also be successfully re-brewed. Black tea is often trickier, though I have enjoyed some high end Yunnan blacks and Keemuns that offer delicious second steepings. Rolled teas, such as oolongs and “pearl” teas often require additional steepings to bring out their full flavor, as it can take time for the teas to unfurl. This is particularly true of many dong ding oolongs, which often reveal very different flavors with subsequent steeps. In fact, rolled oolongs often don’t give up much flavor until after the first steep.
(Incidentally, while Bai Hao, also known as “Oriental Beauty” isn’t a rolled oolong, I have observed that it takes to resteeping very well. I’ve got as many as 10 infusions from a single spoonful of leaves.)
Tisanes and Flavored Teas
Tisanes (non-tea herbal infusions) and flavored teas are often trickier when it comes to re-steeping. I’ve had some very high quality chamomile and mint tisanes that could stand up to one or two additional re-steepings. On the other hand, most rooibos and rooibos-based tisanes usually can only withstand one steep. Again, experimentation is likely the key: I’ve heard some people say that really high quality rooibos can withstand multiple steepings.
Flavored teas are another matter: Most flavored teas taste best after the first steep, as the flavoring oils typically dissipate quickly after infusion. However, I have tried some flavored teas that actually improve after the first steep, largely because overly-intense flavor wears off after the initial steep, allowing for a more nuanced cup that actually includes the flavor of the tea. Still, I wouldn’t count on being able to re-infuse a flavored tea, so I advise tea buyers to take this into consideration when making a purchase.
Hotter water and longer steeps both cause leaves to give up flavor faster. If you prepare your tea in a western-style teapot and allow it to steep for several minutes, you will likely extract much of its flavor during the first brew (unless you are brewing rolled oolongs). The Chinese gong-fu ceremony, which involves multiple short steeps of a whole lot of tea leaves, prolongs the enjoyment of tea. Using cooler water may also extract less flavor the during the first steep, though some tea types, such as black tea should be steeped in very hot/boiling water to ensure full extraction of flavor.
Saving Tea Leaves
If I decide that I’ve had enough caffeine for the day, but believe that my tea leaves still have some life in ‘em, I typically just put the lid on my teapot or gaiwan and put the whole kit ‘n kaboodle into the fridge overnight. The next day, I give the leaves a quick rinse with very hot water (205F-212F) and begin re-steeping. I wouldn’t advise leaving tea leaves in the fridge for more than a day, though, particularly since they will eventually pick up the scent and flavor of the refrigerator itself.
Most paper bagged teas are made from extremely small leaf particles that give up all their flavor very quickly. The larger tea pouches/pyramids favored by some tea companies often contain larger leaf teas that can be re-steeped to produce a reasonably tasty cup of tea. Again, look at the leaf size before deciding whether to reuse a teabag. (Used teabags can be chilled in the refrigerator and then used as a soothing eye treatment providing that they don’t include potentially irritating herbs or flavors.)
Do you have any tips for reusing tea leaves?