IDIOT’S GUIDE: Loose Leaf Tea
Did you know that all tea comes from one plant species, the camellia sinensis?
Did you know that rooibos tea, chamomile tea, and the tea from tea bags are not considered “real” tea?
This is because real tea is made from camellia sinensis tea leaves, preferably whole ones instead of shredded bits. Tea like chamomile, ginger, raspberry, etc. are types of tisane, herbal infusions made from other plants.
Loose leaf tea is tea brewed with whole tea leaves without a teabag. It is associated with tradition – only two thousand years after the discovery of tea in China, did we have the first commercial teabags in 1904. It is also associated with a higher quality, since the hot water flowing through the whole tealeaves extracts vitamins, minerals, flavors and aromas that the shredded tealeaves in tea bags cannot fully provide. On that note, the tea in tea bags is typically “dust”, the waste product from sorting quality tealeaves.
The first tea drinkers came from China, spread to Japan, then to Portugal and the rest of Europe. Tea has an important place in certain cultures – Chinese and Japanese societies have their own tea culture where the appreciation of tea transcends its health benefits and satisfying taste, and is cherished as an art form with its own customs.
There are generally six tea categories that the tea plant (again, the camellia sinensis) can be processed into: green, black, oolong, white, yellow and pu erh tea. All tea go through four basic stages: withering, rolling, oxidation and firing. What differentiates them is the method of processing, in addition to varietal and terroir influence.
Taking the world’s most common tea category as an example, black tea is the only tea that is fully oxidized, unlike white tea and green tea which are not oxidized at all. In general, the more oxidized a tea is, the darker its shade and the higher its caffeine levels. For oolong tea, also referred to as the “champagne of teas,” the tea leaves undergo a short period of oxidation that turns them from green to red-brown. This is in contrast to pu erh tea, which undergoes oxidation twice.
The advantages of brewing tea the traditional way -that is, making loose leaf tea- are significant. To elaborate upon the aforementioned point of “higher quality,” two major things to note. First, all the delectable health benefits that tea can provide is diminished in teabags. The broken particles can be so finely crushed (to erase any trace of their original state) that the essential oils and amino acids that we want would have disintegrated. If the breaking up of (lower quality) tealeaves hasn’t already robbed the crushed tea of its health-giving properties, the protracted period in which tea particles sit in its bags and paper boxes will dehydrate it and it will deteriorate. Second, the tea leaves used to fill teabags are inevitably of a poorer quality because no producer would crush up what he could make more money selling whole. As such, when you buy teabags, a greater proportion than you may think is actually going to the packing process of the teabag instead of the tea itself. Based on per unit weight calculations, teabags may actually be more costly than loose leaf teas while being of a far lower quality.
So, the next step following a conviction to concoct tea from loose leaves is an understanding of how to brew it best. One can easily scour the web for recommendations if the packet of loose leaf tea doesn’t already include instructions. As a general guideline: black, oolong and pu erh tea are brewed with boiling water for longer than green and white tea, which are steeped for approximately 1-3 minutes with 180-200F water. Tea leaves can be steeped multiple times via a strainer or tea bag sleeves. Each brew will just get increasingly diluted and taste more astringent because the essence residing in the tealeaves has already diffused.
Finally, remember to hide your tea leaves from heat, air, light and moisture so they don’t go stale and you can steep yourself in a health-augmenting, tasty and fragrant happiness!
– Min Yi Tan
Cover image source.