It can be quite a daunting task when you make your first brew with loose leaf, especially if you've never handled tea leaves before. You will have never met a dedicated tea strainer and your previous brewing methods may have been somewhat lackadaisical; throw a teabag in a mug, show it the water and reflexively jerk it back out before throwing it in the compost. In principle looseleaf is no different, but in practice it's a bit more hands-on.
So, I thought this might be a useful tool for those who are new to loose leaf and while I'm hopeful that it's just as helpful to those who already have worked with it, this post is primarily written with the newcomer in mind. It's probably worth my mentioning that even though I try to be concise with the instructions that I write on each packet when I send it out to someone there's still some room for error (what size spoon, what kind of milk; that sort of thing) that can affect the resulting brew, and these opportunities for error are largely avoidable. I'm sure this is the same for any tea seller. In any case, this set of instructions are still quite open and for the most part just represent how I prefer to brew my own leaves. That isn't to say that it's the only way (more on that later I suppose). With all that preamble out of the way then, let's dig in.
1. The mug. First things first, find your favourite mug. The things I'm thinking about when I pick a mug is its shape and the material its made from, which in turn effect heat retention (how long the brew stays hot for) and the mugs fit (in your hand). For whatever reason, I seem to enjoy tea more when it is in a curved, glass mug. I like being able to watch the brew settle through the glass, even at the expense of the tea cooling a little faster than it might if it was in a ceramic mug and I like it curved because it fits the shape of my hand more succinctly. This might seem trivial but I really do think the right kind of mug means something to the person drinking out of it, why else would we all prefer one over another?
2. The infuser. The first thing you'll have inevitably noticed is that loose leaf means there is no tea bag, hence the need for some means of separating the brew from the leaves later on. Instead of a bag we need either a strainer or an infuser of some sort. I wouldn't say it's worth getting too deep into which ones I prefer right now (although the one in my shop is great if you haven't got one yet), so long as the leaf remains separate from the end brew, it'll do. All I would recommend is avoiding those made from plastic (the plastic may 'sweat' in the brew, which I'm sure can't be good for you) as well as steering clear of those little ball strainers if you're working with very fine tea leaves like rooibos (it just ends up everywhere, including in your brew!).
3. The Leaf. Assuming we're all set let's get started by heaping some loose leaf onto a teaspoon and dunking it into the infuser (for this I've used Carrot Cake). In most cases, this will equate to around 2 grams of tea but we can add more tea to the infuser should we want to make the brew stronger, but I would say one heaped teaspoon is a good starting point (I typically eyeball it now though and I do like mine strong, however in this case I kept the spoon level)
4. The water. I'm hardly treading new territory by explaining to you that adding more water will dilute the tea further, resulting in a weaker tea. Worth equal consideration though is the often overlooked temperature of the water you're brewing with. Too hot and it can scold the leaves making the tea more bitter (often used as interchangeably with strength but I think they're a little different) and too cold and it'll just take forever for the tea to actually brew. For the every day black tea brew you're going to want to boil freshly drawn cold water, allowing that water to cool for a minute or so after its boiled. The detailed reason has something to do with oxygenation or some such thing, but it should suffice to say that like with food, fresher is better. Generally, we'll be aiming for the water temperature to be 100 degrees (unless it states otherwise, which it probably will it ifs a more delicate tea like green or white). Just let the kettle boil, cool and pour.
5. The timing. Pouring the water on we now come to another variable, which is time. We can usually just follow the tea blends instructions for this, but for the everyday blend, around 3 minutes is good. In fact, most of my blends can be done in 3 too. Again, leaving the looseleaf in for any more than the brewing instructions (assuming we've followed everything else to the letter) makes it more likely that the tea will become bitter and overdone. So, time it if you like, with whatever clock or alarm you have around you (I use the one on my phone). When the timer is up, we're finished so take the infuser out your mug swiftly (wash it out and throw away the wet leaves otherwise it's in danger of sticking to the infuser) and then drink it, as soon as you're ready. What you should expect to see throughout this process is a change in what tea experts call the 'liquor', which is a posh way of saying the colour and tone, basically it's appearance. Most likely, it'll develop into something deeper as it goes along but that key change in colour could come very early (like it does with a black tea) or very late (like it does with any cold brew).
And that's it, you're all brewed up so go and enjoy your tea while its still hot (maybe grab a biscuit or two as well just in case of emergency).