Loose Leaf Herbal Tea Deserves a Place in Your Pantry

Part mindfulness ritual, part plant experiment, you can brew any edible flower, leaf, spice, or blend to enjoy herbal tea or tisanes.

Everything You Need to Know About Herbal tea

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The first thing to know about herbal tea is that it is not technically tea ⁠— at least not the Camellia sinensis plant that produces black, green, and white teas. The herbal version is technically an infusion or tisane, which refers to any herb, plant, or spice in water, hot or cold. Tisanes are caffeine-free, and the process for consumption differs from that of tea.

Harvesting and Drying Herbs

You can theoretically infuse water with any herb or edible plant, including fruits, spices, and blends. DAVIDs TEA has more than 50 herbal tea products, from a dragon fruit aloe blend to an offering that combines almond, pistachio, and beetroot. And then there are the classic, more familiar herbal teas, like chamomile and mint, which are very common worldwide.

As Erda Tea founder Annie Favia-Erickson puts it, “nature tells you what to brew.” The tea grower and enthusiast determines whether the flower or leaf (or calyx or root) of a plant is ideal to drink, hand-picks it whole when it reaches its peak, and then dries the moisture out for shelf stability.

Favia-Ericksen generally dries leaves (like mint or lemon verbena) for five days and more densely packed flowers (like chamomile or rose hip) for seven to 10 days on perforated trays. “We dry in the dark at low temperatures,” she explains. “I never want the room to get above 85 degrees because I want to keep all that essential oil, and you're basically slowly dehydrating them.”

Why Loose Leaf Tea Is Better Than Tea Bags

Brewing herbs is as simple as pouring water (160-180°F for hot tea) over the dried flowers or leaves in a vessel, brewing or steeping, and draining. Timing and methods can vary by the drinker’s preferred taste and strength ⁠— The Chef’s Garden recommends roughly chopping herbs and steeping for five to 10 minutes, while Erda recommends whole flowers or leaves, draining immediately, refilling, and steeping for one minute. Using a lid can retain essential oils in the vessel by trapping steam inside, while draining thoroughly (and therefore preventing steam from building up inside your vessel of choice) can preserve whole herbs for additional infusions.

Favia-Erickson describes the use of tea bags, which can contain unsustainable plastics like polypropylene, as “smashing up a big beautiful leaf, putting it into a small bag, and sticking it into a cup [without] thinking about the process and not being able to see what you're drinking.” ⁠ Despite the convenience tea bags offer,  Favia-Ericksen assures drinkers that once they have the right tools — loose-leaf tea strainers or infusers — it's just as easy to brew loose leaf as a tea bag.

Herbal tea

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Herbal Tea Brewing Vessels

Tea enthusiasts or beginners can choose from cast-iron, ceramic, clay, heat-proof glass, and stainless steel teapots and kettles. Of course, you can use a mug or Thermos for each serving. Favia-Erickson recommends brewing in glass for visibility and neutrality. “Ceramics can take on the flavor of things that have been brewed in them for a long time,” she explains. “My husband's a coffee drinker so we have his mugs and my mugs. Once something's had coffee in it, it will always smell a little bit like coffee.”

The Unofficial Benefits of Herbal Tea

At the root of herbal tea’s quintessential calming reputation  are historic medicinal remedies for feeling better naturally, and particular plants have become associated with specific ailments throughout time.

“Chamomile has been used for centuries in traditional and folk medicine for its calming and digestive properties,” says Nadia De La Vega, tea sustainability and content director at DAVIDsTEA. “It is often considered one of the most ancient medicinal herbs known to humankind and has been in use since the ancient Egyptians.”

While research can be limited and inconsistent for substantiating the health benefits associated with herbal tea, we know mint has menthol, rose hip contains vitamin C, and lemon verbena has antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, for example. How nutritional content interacts with an individual ⁠— whether an herbal infusion will promote sleep, aid digestion, relieve stress, cure a cold, or boost one’s immune system ⁠— depends on many other factors, but the associations can be long-recognized cultural and multi-generational traditions.

“Tea has been used as a vehicle for all kinds of things: diplomacy, communication ⁠— it's such a good vehicle for communication,” says Favia-Erickson, who drank tisanes with her mom as a child, picking whatever was prettiest from their garden. “You look at old Asian art from over a thousand years ago; you see images of the heads of state coming together [over] a tea ceremony.” 

Most of all, she makes tea for mindfulness. “That's the main reason why I only produce loose leaf teas: I believe in taking the time to select the leaves and put them in a pot or a vessel, use the correct water temperature, brew them mindfully, take in the aromas, drain them, sit and have a moment with a glass or a ceramic cup where you're actually taking time to connect with nature, and slowing yourself down, and connecting to a more mindful moment.”

Maybe that mindfulness is what makes herbal tea so soothing.

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