Should You Touch Those Tea Leaves?

Most tea steeping directions call for teaspoonfuls of tea leaves, so a spoon (not your hand) touches those leaves. Those of you who use bagged teas end up touching the bag (or the string-and-tag), not the tea. But some tea experts say that hands-on is the only way to go when it comes to taking some of those tea leaves out of their container and putting them in the steeping vessel. To me it raises an important question, especially in an age when hyper-sanitation seems everywhere: Should you touch those tea leaves? A previous article on this blog by our friend from Australia made the case for that hands-on approach, but I wanted to take another look at the issue.

The other day a tea lover posted a picture that was captioned: “Transferring tea leaves with clean hands into a preheated pot can draw us closer to understanding the leaves we brew”. Here it is (used with permission from Miss Tea Delight):

Miss Tea Delight using hands for tea (photo used with permission, all rights reserved)
Miss Tea Delight using hands for tea (photo used with permission, all rights reserved)

My comment was: “What do you think? I don’t like using my hands…. even at their cleanest there are skin oils…. pieces [of tea leaf] always stick [to my fingers] and end up eventually falling into the pot….. ugh!” Quite an exchange ensued, as follows:

  • Respondent #1: by hand is better ?
  • Me: Some people think so, but I prefer a measuring spoon with the exception of a chunk of pu-erh off the cake.
  • Respondent #1: yes, part of it still stays on my hand.
  • Me: And measuring out the right amount is a problem.
  • Respondent #1: yes!
  • Respondent #2: No hands, they are never perfectly clean unless you are scrubbing for surgery.
  • Me: Hee! So true. If you’re making the tea for yourself, it might be okay, I guess.
  • Respondent #3: whenever we smelled the tea in the factory at any stage it was by hands only…and it used to be a fun…and convenience…
  • Respondent #4: Chinese people: we’re not that fussy, but as a Brit, I toTEAlly know where you’re coming from.
  • Me: Yeah, very good point. I think we’re seeing a real cultural difference here. I also don’t like to handle some of the tea leaves and buds due to how delicate they are. I want them to remain intact for the steep. Might not be a big issue, though.

It still doesn’t answer the question, though, which is often the case with such exchanges – they end up being a bunch of comments back and forth. So, it’s time to look into the facts of the situation. Certainly on an emotional level the idea has both its opponents and supporters, but putting that aside is necessary to get a true answer here.

The Science

Whenever you touch something, some of your skin and oil come off on that thing. That is how we leave fingerprints on things. Minute amounts of this skin and oil will come off on your tea leaves when you handle them. Unless you have some kind of skin disease where larger amounts than normal tend to slough off, the amount should be so minute as to be inconsequential. Tea is steeped in hot water, so any microbes left on those tea leaves by your touching them should be obliterated. As for affecting the tea’s flavor, there is virtually no chance of that unless your tastebuds are Superman strength (sort of like that X-ray vision but for the sense of taste) or you are using a highly-scented soap (even then the effect is minute). And if the idea of that minute amount of skin and oil makes you cringe, then you won’t want to even think about those little leafhoppers that are responsible for the amazing flavor of Oriental Beauty tea.

Conclusion

There seems to be no scientific reason to object to touching tea leaves with your hands, assuming they are clean. There does seem to be a preponderance of emotional objections, mine included, that no amount of science may ever overcome. Different cultures are at issue as well, with many of us here in the U.S. being more sensitive to such things. In the end, as with many things, the choice is yours.

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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3 thoughts on “Should You Touch Those Tea Leaves?

  1. Oops, I would have to clarify that those hands are not mine. Generally, with rolled oolongs, my preference is with hands. In the case of green teas like sencha or gyokuro, it is of course impossible to pick them up, and then without much struggle to transfer every leaf into the pot.

    As tea is plucked and processed with clean bare hands, I do not see any taboos(unless plagued by skin conditions) behind handlng tea with our clean hands when brewing. The warmth from our hands is imparted to tea and functions as a pre-warming step. The connection between brewer and tea starts here and helps us familiarise with and understand both texture and feel of the dried leaves.

    I very much enjoy the ‘intimacy’ that I share with teas every time I brew.

    1. A.C. Cargill

      That’s pretty much what I concluded. The idea of fingering the tea leaves still doesn’t appeal to me, though.

  2. Science is with me on this!
    My original article suggested that I often use my fingers to transfer tea but wasn’t clear on my motivation: It’s a mixture of efficiency and laziness. It not that I need to touch the leaves, just that I figure a bunch of people have already touched them, I’m about to pour boiled and most likely boiling water on them and the time and effort of getting a spoon out seems to just be delaying my tea.
    There was an incident in our tea shop where a customer chided one of our staff for measuring tea from a glass jar into a paper bag using a stainless steel scoop for not wearing a latex glove on the hand that was holding the scoop. Obviously this was something the customer felt strongly about, because she left after our staff member’s reply “Oh no, forgot my surgical gloves. You might have to pour boiling water on it now to sterilise it”.
    Also I know exactly who “Respondent #4” is in the article, just by reading the response!

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