So you’ve decided to make the switch from bagged to loose leaf tea. Great! Now what? With so many options, becoming a loose tea aficionado may seem intimidating. Don’t worry – with a little know-how and a few good tools, you’ll be brewing and enjoying your loose leaf tea in no time.
The first step is finding the tea leaves to brew. You may have noticed that they’re not as prevalent as packages of pre-bagged teas, but you’ll be surprised how easily you can get your hands on loose tea leaves if you look for them. You can start with a look around your area for an independent tea shop. Finding a local shop is great because you’ll be able to get information, guidance, and brewing tips from the owner. You’ll also be supporting a local business and contributing to your local economy. If you can’t find an independent tea shop in your area, make a trip to the nearest shopping mall. As the popularity of whole, less-processed foods has grown, so has the demand for loose tea. Tea shops are popping up in malls all over the country. If your mall doesn’t have a tea shop (yet), and you can’t find an independent shop in your area, there’s one easy and convenient option – the Internet. A quick search will reveal countless suppliers, across the country and the globe, offering countless varieties for you to try.
Once you’ve found your tea supplier, your next step will be picking out the type of tea you want to try. Most teas come from the same plant, and are categorized by the processing (usually a combination of wilting or steaming and oxidization) needed to arrive at the finished product. White teas are the least processed and the lightest in color and flavor. Black teas, the traditional alternative to morning coffee, are darker, bolder, and have higher amounts of caffeine than other teas. Green teas have a pleasant, light but distinctive flavor that pairs well with many fruit flavors. Oolong teas, which you’ve probably had if you’ve ever ordered tea in a Chinese restaurant, have a bold and unique flavor and are known for their weight-loss properties. Unlike conventional teas, herbal, rooibos, and maté varieties are made from a combination of dried herbs, fruits, and flowers. These blends come from plants around the world and have flavors as diverse as their origins. Their light, fruity flavors (and the fact that they’re caffeine-free) attract many tea enthusiasts to the herbal family.
Loose teas give you the freedom of buying small quantities. You can sample many types and varieties, without committing to a whole box of a tea you might not prefer. Most tea shops have samples brewed; many are even happy to brew up a special taste of something you’re curious to try. Ask your tea vendor how to store your favorite tea to best preserve its flavor (usually an airtight container), and you’ll be ready to brew!
When you’re enjoying a cup of your favorite loose leaf tea, you’re probably giving little thought to the process those leaves went through on their way from nature to your kitchen. The journey of your loose leaf tea, from plant to brew, takes several years and a lot of work. The family of plants used for tea, Camellia sinensis, grows mainly in tropical and sub-tropical regions, where it can be cultivated either by seed or by cutting. Unlike the plants or flowers in your garden, it takes years for a new tea plant to bear seed, and at least 3 years before that same plant is ready for harvesting. Once a plant is mature enough to harvest, workers pick the flushes (the leaves from the top 1-2 inches of the plant). Because loose leaf tea is comprised of the premium quality tea leaves, hand-picking is the only way to ensure that the quality of the leaves isn’t compromised during the harvest.
Once the leaves are painstakingly harvested and the best of the harvest are selected, the processing begins. Because most teas (with the exception of herbals) come from the same plant, the processing is largely responsible for determining which variety the tea will become. For all tea varieties, the process begins the same way; leaves are laid out, often in the sun, for wilting (also called withering). This important first step allows for the leaves to dry out a bit, concentrating and strengthening their essential oils and flavor. If the leaves are to become white tea, the process ends here; white tea leaves are then dried, rolled, packaged and ready for shipping. For other varieties, there is still much work to be done. The leaves begin the next step, fermentation (or oxidation); the reaction of the leaves when they are spread out and exposed to oxygen allows the leaves to brown. It is this step in which the leaves will adopt the unique color and flavor familiar to tea drinkers around the world. Different varieties of tea require different lengths of oxidation; leaves that will become black tea are left to oxidize the longest before moving on to the next step.
Because the length of oxidation is so important in determining the final variety of the tea, oxidized leaves are then heated and dried to stop the oxidation process. Green tea, which requires no oxidation, skips that step and goes straight from wilting to heating and drying. Finally, dried leaves are graded; only the finest, most perfect large leaves will go on to become loose leaf tea. Leaves that have been broken or don’t meet the strict standards of loose leaf tea will be sent for grinding and packaging as bagged tea.
Throughout the years-long process, tea leaves are meticulously supervised to ensure proper color and flavor. From the plant to your cup, you can be sure that your loose leaf tea has been carefully cultivated and diligently monitored so you know you’re enjoying only the highest quality loose leaf tea brew.