We’ve created this guide to loose leaf tea to provide a brief history of tea, along with tips on the buying and preparation of quality loose leaf tea. So, let’s start with the very basic of questions…
What is Loose Leaf Tea?
Tea is, without a doubt, among the world’s most popular (and oldest) beverages. According to one very popular legend, tea was first discovered by the Shen Nong, a legendary emperor from China. He was boiling water in a kettle when the wind blew and transported some tea leaves into the kettle. After tasting the accidentally prepared brew, Shen Nong realized the potential benefits of the beverage and recorded it as a tonic. Black tea, white tea, pu’er, green tea and oolong, all originate from Camellia Sinensis, a plant native to China. The reason these teas all have different tastes is because of the way they are grown, as well as the location and how they are processed. Interestingly, the main reason why tea originally gained popularity was because of its caffeine content. You may have read some of the historical accounts of the Buddhist monks drinking cupfuls to keep themselves up when performing long meditations. Tea is appreciated all over the world because of the range of tastes and textures people enjoy, despite the different teas all coming from the same plant. The taste and texture of any type of tea is a reflection of the land on which it was grown and the craft of the tea maker. For example, I recently enjoyed a GongFu tea session with my wife and 3 young children, and one of the greatest joys was looking at a map of Taiwan and learning more about where the tea was grown. In this way, drinking tea can be a considered to be a ritual through which you can connect to the land, and savor the tastes and aroma.
Rich History of Loose Leaf Tea
The history of tea offers great insight into the history of the world. Since tea was first discovered in China, it has traveled the world, conquering the thirsts of virtually every country. Tea is the most popular beverage in the world as well as one of the healthiest. Tea has captured the hearts and minds of virtually every person in every corner of the world. According to legend, tea was discovered by the ancient Emperor of China in 2737 BC. He inscribed it in his medical journal as an herbal medicine and it was used as such for centuries. Because of its popularity and soothing qualities, the monks and priests turned it into a religious offering. It was because of this that tea became a beverage only for the rich and religious royalty. It was centuries later that tea production increased and the lower class and common folks were able to enjoy drinking this much revered beverage. This led to the setting up of tea shops and planting more tea plants to meet the increasing demands of the people. It was during this time that tea was brought to Japan by the priests. There as well, tea was limited only to the rich and priests. The Emperor of Japan loved tea so much that he started a trade with China to import tea seeds from China so they may be grown in Japan as well. It was during the 17th century that tea finally arrived in England during the reign of King Charles II. He married a Portuguese princess who made tea for her King and soon, tea became the drink of royalty in England as well. This prompted Britain to import tea via the East India Company. Even though tea is imported in large quantities, the high taxes prevented the common and the poor to enjoy a cup of tea. In order to make more profit, the East India Company started importing tea to America. There as well, the tea was taxed heavily, something that contributed to the famous Boston Tea Party.
Why Loose Leaf Tea Is So Great
When buying loose leaf tea, it comes with all essential nutrients intact. In comparison, the leaves that go into teabags are mere fragments of the tea leaves that have been left over during the picking and processing (often referred to as “dust”). Teabags lack essential oils whereas loose leaves are far superior in quality.
Because of the full leaf, the essential minerals remain when purchasing loose leaf tea. This ensures superior flavor compared to teabags. The best way to compare the two types of teas in relation to flavor is to brew two glasses of green tea, one with a traditional teabag and the other one using loose leaf tea. After the brew is ready, a sip will let the taste buds determine which gives the better taste. In most cases, people tend to choose loose leaf tea as it gives a far better and stronger aroma and taste. This can be better attained if fresh loose tea leaves are used when preparing tea as old leaves tend to lose their health benefits and flavor. Typically, if well-stored and sealed, a period of 6 months is regarded as the maximum time for the loose tea leaves to be consumed. Consumption after that means you don’t enjoy the freshness, aroma and taste you desire. There are exceptions of course (i.e., with regard to Pu’er and other types of teas).
Loose leaf tea is a lot cheaper as compared to teabags. Lower quality teabags cost less while high-end, better quality teabags will generally cost more. However, even high quality teabags do not come close to the quality of loose leaf tea in taste and aroma. Due to the high quality of loose leaf tea, it can be used for infusing up to three times and it still will have enough strength to provide a strong flavor and scent when prepared for the fourth time (or, many more steeps, depending on the tea and how it is prepared and enjoyed). Typically, the only reason people prefer using teabags over loose leaf tea is the ease with which they can prepare tea using teabags. In reality, the tools and tea accessories available nowadays to help prepare loose leaf tea quickly and easily are numerous, something that makes using teabags a sign of laziness. Read on to find out the different methods of preparing loose leaf tea quickly and easily.
Preparing Loose Leaf Tea
Preparing loose leaf tea is not as intimidating as it sounds. Some people think it may be difficult or require a specific method that has to be followed as they are used to just placing a teabag in a cup of hot water. That is not the case. Preparing loose leaf tea is simple. Loose leaf tea has been prepared and consumed for over a thousand years. It only requires the use of some simple utensils that can be easily found in stores. No tea can be made without water so it is vital to ensure that the water being used to prepare tea is good quality, clean and filtered.
Using an Infusion Basket
The easiest way to prepare loose leaf tea is to use an easy tea infuser. These lightweight tumblers have made brewing loose leaf tea very easy. All that needs to be done is to fill the infuser pitcher with hot water and add the tea leaves in the infuser basket. Immerse the infuser basket in the water. Depending on the tea leaves being used, the infuser should remain immersed for the required time and then removed.
Another among these infusion based products is the Breville One Touch Tea maker. This tea maker can accurately measure and prepare tea at five different temperatures. This makes the tea preparing process as simple as touching a button. With just a touch of the finger, the benefits of an electric temperature controlled tea maker are numerous. From ease of use to ease of cleaning and most importantly, brewing the perfect tea is something that makes having Breville One Touch Tea maker an essential part of any tea lover’s kitchen.
Another way of preparing loose leaf tea is called Grandpa Style. This method of preparing loose leaf tea is even simpler as it only requires a large cup, loose tea leaves and hot water. The tea leaves are placed in the large cup and a small amount of hot water is poured in it. This allows the tea leaves to soak and settle at the bottom. After 2 to 3 minutes, more water is added and the tea is sipped. This is the way the Chinese have been preparing and drinking tea since ancient times, therefore the name ‘Grandpa Style’, symbolizing its old age.
Tea has been a part of the Chinese and Japanese cultures for centuries. The Chinese tea ceremony, also known as Gongfu Tea Ceremony or Kung Fu Ceremony, and the Japanese tea ceremony, known as Chanoyu or the Way of the Tea respectively, are a part of the culture of the people of those regions. These involve preparing and drinking of various types of teas with their own specific methods and utensils.
Purchasing Loose Leaf Tea
Tea is easily one of the most popular beverages in the world. It is gaining popularity and its drinkers are increasing day by day. When something grows in such high demand, chances are there are going to be plenty of people trying to make a quick buck by selling low grade loose leaf tea disguised as high quality. It is important to buy good quality tea to fully benefit from the prepared brew. Finding and buying loose leaf tea (good quality of course) is not hard as the internet is full of companies and brands that sell premium grade tea. There are companies that strive to give their customers only the purest, high quality tea. These teas can be easily ordered online as there are numerous e-tailers offering home delivery through online purchase. Here are just a few of our favorites (clicking the banners will take you to their sites). These sites also feature detailed guides on recommended steeping times and water temperatures for a variety of teas:
Types of Loose Leaf Tea
The best loose leaf tea typically comes in five different varieties:
White tea typically comes in four different varieties: White Peony, Silver Needle, Long Life Eyebrow and Tribute Eyebrow. While steeping times and and temperatures vary, a common preparation of white tea requires the tea leaves to be steeped in the hot water (almost 185oF) for 3 to 4 minutes (again, it’s important to note here that there are various approaches with regard to the water temperatures and steeping times, this is just a guideline). The Silver Needle is the finest white tea and is made of silvery white buds. It is not only delightful to drink but also has a beautiful silvery-look. Most people describe this tea as having a sweet, light and delicate flavor, making it one of the most famous of the white teas. White Peony is the next in line in high quality white teas. It has a stronger taste and darker color as it is prepared from the buds and leaves. The Long life Eyebrow is made with the leftovers of the White Peony and the Silver Needle tea leaves. The Tribute Eyebrow is another lesser quality white tea. Its processing is quite different than other white teas, giving it a unique taste of its own.
Green tea is among the most famous type teas in the world. It comes from both China and Japan with each region having different varieties of their own. For example, Matcha tea is one of the most popular green teas in Japan while in China a very popular variety is the Gunpowder green tea. Again, steeping times and water temperatures vary, but in general green teas tend to taste best when steeped at lower temperatures (to avoid astringency or bitterness). Be sure to check out our Guide to Matcha, and our recent review of Matcha Source’s Kama Matcha.
Mostly grown and processed in China and Taiwan, Oolong tea has a taste of its own. It is different from both black and green tea, but Oolong tea leaves also come from the original tea plant, the camellia sinensis. Oolong is a semi-fermented, semi-oxidized tea that is, unlike other loose tea leaves, processed immediately after harvest. Among the famous types of Oolong tea are the Ti Kuan Yin from China and the Tung Ting, often considered the best tea from Taiwan. One of our favorites here at TeaMinded is TeaVivre Taiwan Dong Ding Oolong.
One of the most popular teas in the world, black tea is grown primarily in Sri Lanka, China and India. Due to its rising popularity, black tea undergoes processing as the demand grows, especially for the Assam Black Tea. Yunnan Tea is China’s best offering in the black tea market while the Indian Assam black tea rules the market. The Ceylon black tea comes from Sri Lanka and is mostly used by those desiring black tea with a lighter flavor and crisp aroma.
For more than 1700 years, Pu’er has been a tea unique to China alone. It is picked from the large tea tree species found in the Yunnan province of China. Pu’er has often been referred to as China’s “mystery tea” as its manufacture was historically closely guarded. The most amazing aspect of Pu’er tea is its quality and its fine wine-like nuances. Just like wine, its quality improves as it ages. Rather than green tea, which is best when the leaves are young and fresh, Pu’er tea gets better when it is aged for decades. Pu’er is typically made in loose leaf or ‘cake’ form, and tends to generally have an “earthy” taste and aroma (with that said, there are many Pu’er teas that are wonderfully subtle/mellow in taste and aroma as well).
Loose Leaf Tea Blends
Blending more than one type of tea to create something truly unique is the art of loose leaf tea blending. This combination of different teas can give a totally different aroma and taste. These teas are brewed by Teaologists who brew special blends of tea. However, this is something that can be easily done at home using the electrical infusing devices mentioned above. Trying out different tea combinations to make unique blends for boosting the taste and aroma has taken the art of tea making to a whole new level. There are many teas that have been infused with different herbs and fruits to enhance their health benefits, taste and smell. This can add more antioxidants to the tea, making it an even more beneficial beverage.
While historically very common in regions such as China, Japan, Taiwan, India and others countries, drinking tea is also now becoming more commonplace in America as well (what we like to think of as a Tea Renaissance in the States). It can be considered a ritual that is enjoyed in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. For a lot of people, the time they take out to prepare tea is something that that can help them slow down and relax during their hectic/busy and “plugged-in” day. The preparation itself is just the first step in the natural wellness that tea offers. The best part comes after a successful brew: the joy of the perfect aroma and taste of the tea. Being a tea lover also makes a person a part of a community that enjoys this ancient and great beverage. Tea is one of those drinks that are not only an important part of welcoming guests, but also an important part of a person’s everyday life. Apart from the regular use, tea has become a part of the culture of people all over the world. What started out in China and Japan is now a part of the global community. Regardless of country, race and religion, tea transcends all and is now a part of the culture and heritage of almost every human who lives on this green leaved planet today. What are some of your favorite tea rituals, or favorite types of tea? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. (Disclosure: Compensated Affiliate)