Can You Reuse Tea Leaves & Tea Bags Between Steeps?
The quick answer is: absolutely! In this guide we’ll explain why tea (especially loose leaf tea) can and should be reused.
Tea leaves don’t release all their flavor at once
Unlike tea bags, most loose tea leaves are made from whole leaves or young tea buds. Tea in such form often don’t release all their flavor at once. Thus, discarding your tea after one steep would be absolutely a waste.
What about tea bags?
This may to some extend also apply to tea bags. Generally the flavor in tea bags are extracted much faster, because the leaves are crushed in small particles. However, if you like a light brew you may reduce the temperature and/or steeping time for tea bags. In this way, some flavor will remain in the bag, so that you’ll be able to get an additional brew out of it.
The best flavor is yet to come
For many artisan teas, the first steep generally isn’t the best for different reasons. Some teas (such as Tie Guan Yin) are tightly rolled and often haven’t even fully unfurled after one steep. The best is yet to come, and you’ll miss out if you only go for a single brew.
Other teas may still have unpleasant smoky notes due to specific processing methods. If you don’t like such notes, you should definitely not give up on the teas. These teas with a strong smoky / roast flavor (such as Da Hong Pao), often times have wonderful layers of aroma beneath it. The strong roast flavors are often flushed away during the first preparation. If you keep brewing you’ll find out that the taste will become softer and smoother starting from the 2nd or 3rd brew.
Pu erh teas may have similar issues as described above. First, they’re often compressed. So when you brew a chunk of pu erh, the first steep is mainly about loosening up the tea. Moreover, older pu erh teas may have this strong storage flavor as a result of years of aging. Such unpleasant flavors will disappear after the first brew. If you don’t like the first brew, it’s absolutely no problem to discard it and move on right away the the next brew.
How many times can you reuse loose leaf tea?
There's no easy answer to this. Tea bags, won't hold anymore flavor after the second brew. However, for loose leaf tea it depends on several factors:
- Leaf to water ratio: loose leaf tea may be steeped in a large mug or teapot. Depending on the amount of tea you use, it may last 2-4 steeps. When you do gongfu brewing in smaller vessels (gaiwan or small Yixing teapot) the leaf to water ratio is much higher. Generally anywhere between 5-8 grams of tea is used in a small vessel with a content of just about 120ml. In such situation, teas can be re-used up to 14 steeps.
- Tea oxidation level: teas that are highly oxidized such as dark oolong, black tea and ripe pu erh tea, will last longer than teas with a light oxidation level, such as green tea, light oolong, and young white teas. Some teas that are light at first, may oxidize through aging. Aged teas, such as aged white tea and aged raw pu erh teas also lasts for more steeps.
- Temperature & steeping time: it's obvious that lower temperatures and steeping times will result in lower flavor extraction. Thus, you can reuse the tea for more steeps.
Nature & Sustainability
Tea may be cheap, but doesn’t always come cheap for the environment. In some regions native trees are replaced by tea bushes. While this may seem to be ok, it’s important to understand that native trees hold much more water than tea bushes. Thus, over-cultivation of tea can lead to drought and lower the diversity of local flora and fauna. It’s therefore, important for tea lovers to consume responsibly and avoid wasting tea.
If you’re an artisan tea lover, you may do spend a lot of money on tea every year. It’s a no brainer that you’ll save a lot of money if you steep your tea multiple times instead of just once. In practice, we find that most tea lovers simply discard their tea because they don’t have the appetite or time for another brew. Luckily there’s a fix for that!
How to store your used tea leaves between steeps?
The below infographic explains how to store your used tea leaves when there's still a few steeps left.
Steps to store and re-use tea leaves between steeps
- Make sure to pour out al the tea that you've brewed from the vessel, until the last final drops. If there's remaining tea left in the teapot or mug, it will continuously extract flavor. Moreover, the little bit of liquor that's left in the vessel, will become very bitter.
- Once you've poured out everything, keep the teapot or mug open (i.e. don't cover it with a lid) for at least 10 minutes. This will allow the tea to cool down better and the remaining liquid to evaporate.
- Once the tea has cooled down a bit, put back the lid on the teapot. If you're using a mug, you may use a small bowl or plate to cover it.
- Store the vessel in the fridge for later use. Storing in a fridge will allow for better preservation. The lid must be closed so no odors enter the teapot.
- Take the vessel 10 minutes before you want to reuse the tea. This will let the teapot to get back to room temperature, allowing for a better tea preparation.
Instead of storing used tea leaves between steeps, you may alternatively brew the tea right away and store it in a bottle for enjoying iced tea later. Bottled tea, can be easily kept in the fridge for up to two days. Wine or soft drink bottles may work for such purpose, as long as they're properly cleaned. Mason jars, are also great as you can drink from them directly with a straw!