Fine tea is booming across Europe and the US, thanks to its health-boosting properties and consumers’ growing interest in products of provenance. In other parts of the world, it’s been a staple for thousands of years. In this primer you’ll find everything you need to know before tasting loose leaf tea – from its origins to its main categories, and where to find them.
We love tea in all its forms, from the celebrated Parisian blends of Dammann Frères and Le Palais Des Thés to the pure flavours of Assam and the ceremonial experience of matcha – not to mention Indian chai, Moroccan mint and Southern sweet tea when the occasion calls.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from travelling around India, Iran and Japan, it’s that in the West, tea really doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
Cases in point: the US, where tea is bombed with sugar and usually drunk cold from a can. And the UK, where most tea comes from a tea-bag stuffed with low-grade tea dust. Yet tasting loose leaf tea – real tea – is an experience. When done right, it’s as awesome as any glass of grower champagne or fine bourbon.
There’s so much about tasting loose leaf tea that’s exciting: its subtle variety of flavours; linking those flavours to their geographical roots; its revitalising effect on the body; its universal consumption across cultures. For peoples across the globe, tea is a return to their roots – a reconnection with nature and with themselves:
The philosophy of tea is not a simple aesthetic in the ordinary meaning of the term, for it allows us to express, together with ethics and religion, our entire concept of man and nature. It is a form of hygiene because it requires us to be clean. It is an economy, for it shows that well-being lies in simplicity rather than in complexity and expenditure. It is a moral geometry, for it defines our size in relation to the universe. Finally, it represents the true democratic spirit of the Far East in that it transforms all its enthusiasts into aristocrats of taste.
(Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea)
We recently refreshed our knowledge through an excellent tasting class with Master Blender Alex Probyn, a former taster for Tetley and now founder of the UK’s legendary Blends For Friends. He creates blends for many of the world’s top brands and any individual drawn to tasting loose leaf tea at a reasonable price.
As the UK and US start tasting loose leaf tea (it’s only been going on for thousands of years elsewhere), here’s our 101 on one of the world’s Great beverages. You’ll never crave a tea-bag again.
The Origins Of Tea
There are more expansive histories out there. We’ll limit ours to the origin of tea, citing the UK Tea & Infusions Association.
Tea started in China, back in about 2,700 BC – way before many of the civilizations we laud as ancient had even been conceived. The Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tea tree while his servant boiled up a pot of water. When a few leaves from the tree fell into the water, Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion. And so the idea of tea was born.
Tea containers have been discovered in tombs dating back to the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) that tea became China’s national drink. In the eighth century, a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book devoted to tea, the Ch’a Ching. Soon afterwards tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks, who had traveled to China to study.
Top Tea-Producing Countries
Over 40 countries now cultivate tea. Here’s the top 20 by volume:
Top Producers: China, India, Kenya (lower quality), Sri Lanka
Middle-range Producers: Turkey, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Iran, Argentina
Smaller-range producers: Thailand, Bangladesh, Malawi, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Myanmar, Mozambique, Rwanda, Nepal
Tea-Bags versus Loose Leaf Tea
Most tea-bags actually just contain the dust and fannings of broken tea leaves. These represent a huge drop in quality compared to loose leaf tea. The very finely broken tea leaves found in most tea bags have lost most of their essential oils and aromas. When brewed, they release more tannins than loose leaf tea, resulting in heavy, astringent brews known as builders’ brews. Most tea bags also constrain the tea leaves, keeping them from expanding to their full flavour and aroma potential. That’s the tea the UK celebrates.
If you want the full aromas, flavours and health benefits of tea with none of the unnatural bitterness of commercial brands, the secret really is out the bag. Tasting loose leaf tea is to taste what tea is meant to be.
The Four Types Of Tea
Wondering how to judge good and bad tea? Here’s a simple answer:
The tea that you like is a good tea. A good tea is the tea that is at hand when you are thirsty. A good tea brings you all the joy of nature. A good tea lifts your spirits and fills you with enthusiasm.
(Liu Xu, national tea taster of China)
Nonetheless, it helps to understand the four different categories before tasting loose leaf tea. They are defined according to how oxidised their leaves are, and each category offers a different experience. In that sense, there is no single best tea – some teas just do a better job of representing the characteristics of their category than others.
Hand-harvested for only a few days every spring, white tea is made from tender baby tea leaves at the tip of the tea plant. It’s the rarest and least processed of all teas. White tea is also the healthiest tea of all – even more so than much-publicised green teas. It contains the highest levels of antioxidants and theanine, an uncommon amino acid found only in high-quality tea. It’s thought to promote relaxation in the brain, improve mood, boost immunity and deepen your concentration. White tea also has the lowest caffeine level.
White tea usually makes a pale gold brew with discrete, round, nectar-like flavours and light woody or honeyed notes. With no real bitterness and a light, smooth flavour that blends easily (I blended one with orange-blossom and cardamom last week), white tea is an obvious choice when tasting loose leaf tea for the first time. Its quality and complexity also make it popular among tea connoisseurs.
We recommend starting with a Bai Mu Dan Or – it’s delicate, but still has some kick.
Green tea comes from leaves that are withered until the leaf becomes limp and then fired (China) or steamed (Japan) to halt any more oxidisation. The Chinese firing brings out soft, aromatic flavours while Japanese steaming releases the vegetal or herbal notes so prized by the Japanese palate.
They’re all rich in epigallocatechin gallate, which as you obviously know is one of nature’s most potent antioxidants. It’s said to promote weight-loss and holistic good health. We just like its fresh, revitalising taste. Many people don’t, but that’s often because many people brew green tea at too high a temperature, bringing out unnatural levels of bitterness. Try adding 1/3 cold water before the remaining 2/3 of hot water – the bitterness is gone.
We’d start out with a Japanese sencha or matcha or a Chinese gunpowder tea.
These semi-oxidised teas are specific to South-Eastern China and sit somewhere between green and black teas on the flavour spectrum. They produce very aromatic, complex brews with probably the widest variety of flavours of any of the four categories. They’re also often the teas of choice for those who spend their lives and careers tasting loose leaf tea – sadly, they’re often also the priciest.
With oolong, the outer sides of the leaf are allowed to oxidise but the insides are kept green. Some oolongs are close in nature to black teas, with crimson infusions flavours of bitter cocoa, fruit and burnt caramel. Others are closer to green tea, with a grassy colour and light, garden notes.
As for health, oolong tea is believed to weaken plaque in the arteries, lower cholesterol and blood sugar and boost your metabolism. It’s diet 101 in South-East China.
A classic entry point into the world of oolong is through Patrick’s favourite tea: Formosa Oolong.
The classic tea in much of the West, black tea comes from fully oxidised leaves. These create powerful red and brown colours and intense flavours of malt, earth and fruit. Black teas are especially full of theaflavins and thearubigens – powerful antioxidants with cholesterol-lowering abilities and cardiovascular benefits.
If you’re in the once you go black, you don’t go back crowd, you can experiment with a Jin Ya Hong Cha from China (a very earthy golden-tip brew) or venture into any of the many black tea classics from one of its spiritual homes: Darjeeling, Assam and Sri Lanka.
There are also Yellow and Pu-Er style teas, but these are rare and not obvious places to start a venture into the world of loose leaf tea.
Where To Buy Loose Leaf Tea
You now know more than 99% of the population on tea! But where can you find the very best loose leaf teas?
In Europe and the US, tasting loose leaf tea is best done by turning to France, specifically to one of the big Parisian blenders that dominate the category: Kusmi, Dammann Frères, Mariage Frères or Le Palais Des Thés to name just a few. (They usually have separate websites for France/UK/US consumers, so we won’t hyperlink to them here). These guys are the most avid tea connoisseurs outside Asia, sourcing only the finest teas and coming up with the masterful balance of flavours more typically associated with French gastronomy. They also offer tasting sets for beginners, offering small samples of fine teas from a range of countries within each category, so you can find your country and brew of choice.
If cold tea is your thing and you’re willing to splash some cash, Mariage Frère’s French Summer Tea range features the best loose leaf cold teas we’ve ever tried.
If you’re in the UK and looking for a Great introductory class on tasting loose leaf tea, try nab a ticket to this regular tasting event in London.
And finally, if you’re looking for a fantastic reference book covering the major tea regions of the world and their respective terroirs, check out the best of the bunch – Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties.
Have a favourite tea of your own? Share it with us by email or in the comments below!