I was born and raised within the coffee universe. The coffee aroma is one of those single constants in my memory. I could go on and on with this tradition and culture, but that would be another paper for some other occasion.
Almost by chance, in 2005 I came into contact with loose leaf tea. By that time, a friend of mine was including tea – mostly alternating green, red and black – as a daily supplement of her diet plan. Tea is well known for helping keep metabolism fairly active, which is one of the goals of most diet planners.
On those terms, tea is by itself a great addition to any weight loss plan. Nonetheless, loose leaf tea has a lot more to offer, even to those not going through a dietary regimen.
A completely different product if compared with the tea bags we might have used here and there, loose leaf tea is by far a universe of its own with well kept quality standards, techniques, marketing and experts. The raw material itself is sufficient topic for conversation.
In history, tea has been so priced that it was literally used as currency or as a tribute to emperors and authorities. There simply isn’t a reasonable way to describe how much tea has determined life, politics, economy and culture – not only in Asia, but in Europe and America.
Currently, there are still fiery auctions in Asia for lots from the best estates in the world.
Loose leaf means you will either see whole dry leaves in your container, or leaves broken down to smaller pieces. Usually, the bigger the piece or wholeness of the leaf, the higher the esteem is on that item.
Although we read and hear about tea variations, it is all harvested from the same basic Camelia Sinensis bushes. Variations in tea result, most of all, from the different processes applied to the plucked leaves which often depend on the traditions in a country or even in a region within a given country.
The best examples are those from China. China produces green, red, black, oolongs (or wulongs) and a wide range of flavored teas.
Green and White
The basic difference between all plain teas is the degree of oxidation.
Green teas do not go through a process of the oxidation provoked from bruising the leaves against a slightly harsh surface. Hence, the leaves stay greener and the flavor is closer to herbs or vegetables, but with very subtle hints that may recall flowers, spices or fruits.
The most well known greens are from China and Japan, who hold very dear their traditions of producing and consuming tea. But any country producing tea will attempt to make their own mark in the market and history of green tea production.
Green tea demands shorter steeping times and cooler than boiling point temperature water. Otherwise, an over steeped green tea can be intimidating for its bitterness.
Now, here I should mention the recently famous white tea. It is also non oxidated. It is plucked from the very first young buds of the bush, thus showing less of the green color.
On the other hand, black teas are the result of the full bruising-oxidation process.
The story goes, oxidation, withering and smoke drying leaves was the solution for making tea leaves last longer for longer distance transport. Without oxidation tea leaves would become unusable after some time.
China, India and Sri Lanka hold the top ranks as black tea producers, but by no means can they be discarded as green tea producers as well.
China is the undisputed champion for its long tradition, techniques, varieties and well gained pride for their tea products. However, others are gaining ground and reputation for bringing new styles and quality to the table.
India has the highest altitude tea growing estates, as the Darjeeling grounds rise with the Himalayas, producing a slower growing unique tea leaf. After processing, this black tea still keeps elements from the greener process, yielding a unique flavor profile with noticeable fruit-spice nuances.
With two main harvests per year, known as first and second flush, Darjeeling teas have reached fans around the world in the last decades with their distinct citrusy-peppery nature hinted teas. I always have a Darjeeling tea of some kind at home. This is a variety you shouldn’t let pass if you want to dive into the tea realm.
China deserves a separate chapter, but I will run out of space and life if I go into it. Nonetheless, I have to mention that China has the oldest tea trees in the world. Some, literally centuries old, are responsible for probably the most superb and complex green and black teas. Among them the estimated Keemuns, Lapsan Souchong, Yunnans, and the Congous category that holds many naturally sweet variations.
The Chinese also produce the real-deal red tea. Of course, not talking here of the African Roibus (slant for Red bush), which is not from the Camelia Sinensis and doesn’t have caffeine, but is highly appreciated as a high antioxidant infusion.
Red Chinese tea has all the earth in the palate. It’s probably the most earthy-musky-woody tasting tea there is. Not suitable for everyone, but worth to try. At certain estates these tea leaves could be aged for decades where like many liquors, they acquire a special sweetness, depth and higher prices for the longer they’re aged.
The in-between oxidation varieties of tea leaves are the oolongs, or wulongs as some would write. These hold a medium degree of oxidation, going roughly between the 20% and 80% of such processing. This gives them a separate profile from greens and blacks.
Oolongs may show a more pronounced fruit/flower flavor due to this medium degree.
Oolongs are currently among the highest priced teas in the world. The varieties are infinite. Taiwan (Formosa) has sustained for years a highly respectable platform as an oolong producer.
By “artificial” here I don’t mean chemicals or colors added. I mean teas that have received another ingredient which in the following examples can also be natural.
Two champions in this category show up: Earl Grey and Chai.
I won’t go into the story of how Earl Grey got the name. I’ll only say that Earl Grey tea is such a classic for its combination of – usually black – teas and… Guess what…? Bergamot!
Bergamot is a citrus fruit with a cute blue hue flower. This additive gives the Earl grey its lemony flavor and world wide acceptance (including the Captain in Star Trek!).
Chai tea on the other hand, is black tea with tons of spices. Those can include: clove, ginger, cardamon, cinnamon, pepper and many others which gives this tea the Chai factor. Chai, means fire. One can see why it’s easy to figure the origin of the name.
In India Chai tea is mixed with sugared milk, making it a sexy and highly delectable beverage.
Here in the New World you can find good loose leaf Chai tea (with all that bunch of spices), but chances are that it will take time to find a brand that will suit your taste. Most often, a brand will be heavy on one of the spices (usually cloves). If it is a spice which doesn’t feel friendly with you, then try another brand, but keep trying because it is really an adventure to drink Chai.
Take a chance on a good cup of tea. Search on the net and dare to try, test and enjoy your findings. Tea hasn’t come this far for nothing. It is actually the second most consumed beverage in the world after water.
By the way, it is imperative that you control the steeping time accordingly. It will make all the difference in the world for your tea. But dare to experiment. I have found interesting results by happy accidents from over steeping or overheating. Nonetheless, be aware that it’s the least of chances such a grace will bless you.
I have found some serious online distributors of good loose leaf tea. Some of my favorites are: Upton Tea Imports, who publishes superb articles on tea history; Adagio Teas; and the Teaspot. So many have shown up in the last 3-4 years. Most recently, Nutsonline.com who also carries many other interesting goodies.
One aspect to watch for a good purveyor is the packaging — before and after the sale. I prefer they acquire whole lots, or “chests”, instead of already packed tins or pre-measured industrialized tins, nor translucent containers. Usually a committed provider will pack their tea in their own facilities, in their own containers, which can be branded tins or bags, but you will recognize when it is hand packed with care.
To end this trip, here is the other-half of my advice: invest in a good tea pot and learn to use it. There’s plenty of information available to give you a happy ending with your teapot, your tea and you.
by Lewis C.