Questions over the proper way to brew tea can fuel contentious debate. Tea bags or loose-leaf, there is no shortage of arguments and adamant supporters on both sides. When it comes to whether a tea bag should be left in the cup or removed while drinking tea, a partial truce can be declared. If scientific evidence isn’t sufficient, you can point to proper etiquette.
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A Matter of Choice
If you prefer to use a tea bag over loose tea, you have already immersed yourself in a raging battle. To a loose-leaf tea drinker you are a philistine, and that's that. You are also in good company. Millions of Americans are paying attention to the antioxidant qualities of tea. Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert reports that tea bag sales in U.S. supermarkets were over $516 million in 2010, with herbal tea bags accounting for nearly $178 million more.
The Chemistry of Tea
Tea is full of antioxidants in the form of phenolic flavonoids such as catechins, and according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, the best way to obtain those flavonoids is by drinking freshly brewed tea that has been allowed to steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Although it may seem fussy, there is hard science behind this narrow window of time that tea should be allowed to sit in hot water. In a press release for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Andrew Stapley of Loughborough University states that the polyphenolic compounds known as tannins that give tea its color and flavor require approximately three minutes to develop properly. Much over that and tannins of a higher molecular weight can cause a bitter aftertaste.
Let It Steep
Steeping times vary depending on the type of tea being brewed, as does the water temperature. If possible, follow the instructions on the box of tea. Generally, for oolong and the black tea varieties used in most teabags, boiling water is fine and the tea should steep for 3 to 4 minutes. Green teas are more delicate and should steep for closer to 3 minutes, in water that is just beginning to steam. To prevent bitterness, remove the bag when the allotted time has elapsed.
The world will not end if your water isn't the right temperature or you don't remove the tea bag on time. If you prefer a slightly astringent quality to your tea, leave the bag in longer. Along with the bitterness comes a darker brew, though, and more tannins that could stain your teeth. However long you leave the bag to steep, according to etiquette expert Peggy Post you should remove it and place it in a saucer before you drink your tea. You shouldn't hurry through a good cup of tea.