When steeping loose leaf teas, you usually steep in one vessel and strain the liquid into another vessel (chahai, sniffing/aroma cups, and/or sipping cups).The more you know about and steep fine, loose-leaf teas, the more you’ll see a note in the steeping instructions that you shouldn’t strain your tea. You are probably wondering about when you should and when you shouldn’t strain and why. It’s simpler than you’d think.
|Some common strainer designs|
Why You Should Strain Your Tea (the Pros)
First, let’s distinguish between strainers and infuser baskets. A strainer is basically a filter. You pour a liquid through it so that any particulate matter is kept in the strainer. An infuser basket is a fine mesh basket in which you put the tea leaves and then put that into the water to steep the tea (the tea leaves don’t always get a chance to fully infuse, plus you don’t have the option to refrain from straining the tea since you are in essence straining it when you pull the infuser basket out of the steeping vessel). So, straining tea means pouring the liquid out of the steeping vessel through a strainer into another vessel or using an infuser basket where you lift it out of the liquid after steeping.
|A Yixing teapot with the strainer holes
over the inner spout hole
The main reason for straining is to remove the leaves from the liquid. This makes the liquid free of most particulate matter and prevents oversteeping. You can accomplish both of these without using a strainer, though, and sometimes should. Yixing teapots have little holes inside at the inner opening to the spout that keep the large leaf pieces in the pot, so no strainer is needed. And with a gaiwan, you use the lid as your “strainer.”
Why You Should NOT Strain Your Tea (the Cons)
The main reason for not straining your tea involves one of the aspects of fine teas — their particular mouthfeel. For some teas that means a smooth fullness, almost buttery. Teas that tend to have this “fuller” mouthfeel will lose it when you run the liquid through a strainer. This seems mostly due to a breaking apart of larger molecules in the liquid by the fine mesh of the strainer. Sort of like sifting flour.
Another reason not to strain some of your fine teas is that you may actually want bits of the leaves in the liquid. The use of teabags filled with tea leaf dust has accustomed people to a tea liquid that doesn’t have these bits in it, depriving them of the flavor and experience of the actual tea leaves. Making the switch to full- and broken-leaf teas means a re-acclimation in this regard. In fact, in China many still “strain” tea through their teeth, pretty much as an adherence to tradition, though. You don’t have to go that far. Just steep and then carefully drain out the liquid into the chahai or cups. You will get a more complete tea flavor and experience this way. And that means more value from your tea dollars spent.