A discussion about tea wouldn't be complete without talking about the tea accessories used for brewing. After all, part of the fun of drinking tea is the ritual that goes along with it. And part of the ritual means having the proper tools for brewing and for drinking.
I'm going to take you through my learning experience and tell you what I think of various basic tea tools, good and bad. And I've included my sister's opinions and experiences wherever possible. Because one thing is certain…when it comes to tea accessories, we all have our own personal preferences.
No matter whether you’re using tea bags or loose leaf tea, the first thing you need to do is heat the water.
The two most common ways to heat water are with a saucepan or a tea kettle. Chances are pretty good that you already own a saucepan. My mother used a saucepan her entire life for heating water and as far as I can remember never used a tea kettle. (I think she received one as a gift, but she didn’t like using it.) The upside to using a saucepan is easily seeing the exact stage of the warming water (see Water Temperature for Tea). The downside is that you have to be very careful pouring the hot water since it’s an open container and doesn't make for the neatest pour. So if you use a saucepan be sure to use extra care that you don't scald yourself.
Tea kettles are most commonly used on the stovetop. There are a wide variety available—just choose one you like. Some whistle when the water gets hot, others won’t. Kettles offer somewhat more safety than an open saucepan, and they look nice sitting on your stove—always an invitation to heat up some water for tea.
Electric tea kettles are another water heating option. These look like pitchers with a heating element in the bottom, and they plug into your wall socket. Electric kettles have been popular in other countries for decades; they are catching on in stores in the U.S.
If you want to heat water to the specific temperature best for the type of tea you're brewing, try using an electric tea kettle that has a built-in thermostat and temperature settings for each different type of tea. I’ve never owned one of these, but it seems they would be very handy if you want to ensure the perfect water temperature.
What do I use for heating water? These days, none of the above. I’m lucky to have an instant hot water dispenser at my sink. I set the temperature for the right temperature for my favorite teas (green), and it’s always ready.
You can even use the sun to achieve the right temperature to brew sun tea for chilling or icing. While it's definitely a slower method than using hot water, it's easily made with the most basic of kitchen implements. (See Iced Tea.)
I wish I could say that a teapot is a necessary tea accessory, as it might be a way to justify my teapot collection. Sadly, teapots are not really a necessity. But having one (or more) makes life easier and makes the ritual of brewing tea more delightful.
Back to my mother for a moment. After she heated the water in a saucepan, she tossed in a teabag or two to brew. One vessel, dual purposes. (Thank goodness she didn't drink out of the saucepan as well!)
Teapots are most useful—and come closest to being necessary—if you’re using loose tea or if you're brewing multiple cups of tea.
They come in every shape, size, color, and style. From an aesthetic point of view, choose a teapot that appeals to you so that you find it enjoyable to use. From a functional standpoint, choose one that will brew the number of cups of tea you typically brew. For more details, see The Teapot.
Maybe you're just making tea for yourself, or you aren't ready to invest in a teapot. Not to worry. There are plenty of other very good alternatives for brewing loose leaf tea. See Infusers and Strainers for more ideas. These tea accessories allow you to brew tea in everything from a mug to a heat-resistant measuring cup.
How do you keep the teapot hot after brewing? The simplest way is to use a tea towel and wrap the pot to help retain the heat. If you're looking for something more polished, you can use a tea cozy to keep the pot warm. A tea cozy is like an overcoat for your teapot. They are most often knitted, crocheted, or quilted—and are made in different sizes for different pots. They fit over your pot to keep the tea warm until you're ready to drink it.
I’ve also used small warming trays with a heat source set at a low temperature to keep the pot warm. The heat source can be a small candle or an electrical element.
It goes without saying that you’ll need cups to pour the tea into once it’s brewed. You can go all out and have the classic English teacup, saucer and teaspoon. Or you can serve the tea in small Asian-style cups. The American style tends to be fairly informal, and tea is often served in a mug or large cup. You’ll need to decide what best suits your needs and style. There are no rules except the ones you impose upon yourself.
A tea serving tray is also another useful tea accessory, especially for carrying the teapot and cups to a table, along with a tea towel for wiping up any tea that gets spilled in the process.
As you start accumulating loose leaf teas, you'll want to make sure you have storage containers for storing it. Except for storing pu'ers they should be airtight and provide a dark environment for the tea. I use stainless steel storage containers. Avoid glass containers that expose the tea to light.
There are also travel mugs specifically made for tea that accommodate brewing the tea in the same container you use for drinking. These provide a safe way to brew and enjoy your tea on the road.
There are many other tea accessories that are handy during the preparation and brewing process, so there’s more discussion of these at Tools for Making Tea.
This sounds like a lot of stuff, but it's really quite manageable. At its core, brewing tea requires very few things—a method to heat the water, a way to brew the tea, and a vessel from which to drink it. Decide what will work best for you on a daily basis, and begin by purchasing any tea accessories required for that first. As your tastes change and you try different kinds of tea, so will your brewing style and serving utensils. Make brewing and drinking tea a delight by using what gives you the most pleasure.