Tips for a better cup of tea. Picture: Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.
I am quite the tea fanatic. The ritual of brewing tea and then savouring it sip by sip is one of the best things I do for myself, even if I'm just making a pot at my desk at the office.

What I find so great about tea - other than the self-care and beautiful flavour - is that the bar for entry is so low. While I find the advice and equipment for making good coffee absolutely head-spinning, really all you need for a nice cup of tea is some hot water, tea leaves and a way to strain out the leaves. Bliss in minutes.

Here are some tips to guarantee the perfect brew:

Use loose-leaf tea

This is the single best way to instantly improve your cuppa. I'd say I lived the first two-thirds of my life indiscriminately gulping down cheap grocery store tea from bags only when I was sick and desperate. I also typically drowned those murky brown mugs with milk and sugar (see below), because they were bitter. As my former colleague Bonnie S. Benwick pointed out a few years ago, bitter tea can result from oversteeping, which is especially easy to do with a tea bag full of finely ground leaves. Who hasn't plopped a tea bag in a cup and forgotten about it for too long?

Loose-leaf has the advantage of being more environmentally friendly, with less packaging to dispose of. If you need the convenience of a single serving, especially when on the run, consider biodegradable filters or sachets you fill yourself. And the market is full of mugs and travel thermoses that allow for easy, portable brewing. 

Understand the main types

All teas - black, oolong, green, white - come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The differences are determined by where they originate and how they're withered, oxidized, rolled, dried and sorted. Here's a brief rundown, with flavour and colour descriptions from "Good and Proper Tea" 

Black: Fully oxidized for dark, robust flavour. Steep 3 to 5 minutes. 

Green: Not oxidized for fresh, vegetal flavour that can be sweet and floral or more savoury. Steep 2 to 3 minutes. 

White: Some natural oxidation that results in a fresh, delicate flavour and a champagne-coloured tea.  Steep 3 to 5 minutes.

Oolong: Semi-oxidized at levels that can vary, resulting in flavours that may include delicate floral and tropical from greener varieties to others more similar to black teas. Steep 3 to 5 minutes.

Herbal: Technically not tea, but tisane. They can come from a wide variety of plants, such as hibiscus, mint or chamomile. Steep 5 to 10 minutes.

Care about your water (but don't stress too much)

I'll admit it, even though some experts will tell you otherwise: I basically only use tap water for my tea, and I've never thought it tasted off. I happen to find what comes out of my Washington-area faucet just fine for drinking straight up and in tea. But that doesn't mean everyone's is (I, for one, have always found Florida tap water . . . less than ideal). 

As Holmes and Benton say, it helps to know whether your water is hard, which can lead to a cup that is chalky or even metallic-tasting, or soft, the acidity of which can make the extraction process happen too fast, leading to a bitter tea. If your water falls to either of those extremes, or just tastes off when straight-up sipped, consider filtering, either through your refrigerator's built-in equipment, a faucet attachment or a pitcher. But I can't with good conscience recommend bottled water given the environmental impact, not to mention the cost.

I do, however, recommend heeding the advice from Holmes and Benton to only use "freshly drawn water." As they explain, "The best flavour is drawn out of the tea leaves using oxygen-rich water. Water that has been sitting a while, or more likely boiled over and over again, will lack oxygen, leaving your cup of tea tasting flat."

The Washington Post