Posted by: dan | July 22, 2009

the misperception of loose-leaf tea

teatunes of tea

Dan: It’s been about six months since I had my first cup of loose-leaf tea and started writing on this blog. During this time, I’ve had a standard response from people when I tell them about loose-leaf tea. Not everyone has responded negatively, and there has been some interest; but generally, those who think of tea as a bag and hot water with milk and sugar have reacted with an incredulous look and a view that I’ve become a snob. Now I could be wrong, but I don’t think I have. Just because I drink loose-leaf tea does not mean I sit around in a tweed jacket and bowler hat sipping china cups of tea with my little finger raised. It strikes me that the general perception of serious tea drinkers is that they are people who think themselves superior because they have a refined taste inaccessible to uncultured slobs. Which is entirely wrong.

Loose-leaf tea is not a refined taste – it’s an obvious one (barring a few specialist teas, which I’ll come back to later). The difference between a tea made of shredded plants in a teabag and leaves floating in a infuser is immediate. There’s a lot of varying factors to each tea, but in comparison to bagged versions they all have the same simple-but-brilliant benefits. Firstly, there’s the leaves themselves – you can see the infusing happen and all the details associated with it. The size of the leaves, before and after unfurling; the way in which they release their flavour into the water; and the speed at which it all happens. These are different with each leaf and yet you won’t see any of these things with a teabag. Secondly, there’s the smell. Plonk a teabag in some hot water and you might smell the hot water. With loose leaves, you can smell them as soon as you open the packet and they retain their distinctiveness through brewing to drinking. Most importantly, there’s the taste. The majority of branded teabags taste the same, albeit with varying degrees of bitterness and acidity. But with loose-leaf, you’ll find different types of Darjeeling or Earl Grey available from the same company. Even the same tea can taste different – depending on the time it was picked, the plantation from which it originates, and any number of environmental factors. And it’s nearly always a much better, fuller, stronger and more unique flavour than anything you’ll find in a bag.

The golden green leaves up close

What tea leaves should look like.

Then there are criticisms of the process and price. “You need to wait for ages before you can actually drink it” and “It’s fine if you’ve got the money to spend on it” are common accusations. Fair enough – it does take slightly longer to infuse leaves than it does to brew a teabag, but this difference is a matter of a minute or two in most cases. It’s not as if you have to plan some time to fit it into your schedule, and besides – the difference is akin to cooking a roast dinner and microwaving a ready meal. As for the price, you get what you pay for. The quality of the tea is vastly superior for the increase in price. You don’t need to use many leaves to get a tea of stronger and better flavour than a teabag. Your 50g bag will go a long way. Oh, and you can re-infuse leaf tea. In some cases you can re-infuse several times. That pinch of tiny leaves at lunchtime will last you the entire afternoon if taken care of, and obviously the cost goes down with each new cup. Where re-using a teabag is rightly frowned upon as disgusting, re-infusing leaves actually has an incentive. Flavours will change and/or improve as you return to them. Cost and time are weak arguments – the difference is negligible. You aren’t going to save money or time, but you won’t lose much either. For the minimal amount of extra effort, you get a disproportionately large reward.

There’s also a factor of ‘I wouldn’t know what I’m doing’ when it comes to loose leaf teas. But this is the same for any new subject, and everybody starts from the same point. Neither Ben nor I were particularly aware of what loose-leaf tea drinking entails, and we’re still not experts by any stretch of the imagination. We started this blog as a way of chronicling our experiences with teas, and to get advice and hopefully help other people starting exploring loose-leaf teas. So six months down the line, Ben’s still only just getting to grips with white teas, and I’m making a series of mistakes in technique and storage. But that’s part of the charm of it. You have to make mistakes in order to learn, and I’m only making mistakes because I take it quite seriously. When I started I was surprised at just how easy it was to make loose-leaf tea, and made very few mistakes. It’s only since I’ve gained a larger amount of teas and developed an interest in the subtle nuances of each variety that I’ve started slipping up in places – but they’re still only small mistakes that are easily learnt and corrected. With your first few cups of loose-leaf tea you’re not going to come across many problems at all, so inexperience is another weak excuse.

The Silver Tips tea in their temples

Teabags are still okay as long as they contain full leaves.

So loose-leaf tea isn’t for arrogant snobs. But I did say earlier that tea is not a refined taste and that there are some exceptions. If you’re new to trying teas, you’ll not want to dive into blooming teas (an area we’ve still not covered), Oolongs or Pu-erh. These are slightly fancier teas that do require a bit more attention and are the least likely to have an immediate positive impact. Our inclination was to try as many new things as possible as soon as possible. So we quickly had reviews of a Pu-erh and some Oolongs. I was not overly keen, and I’m still not, but I am keen to go back and try again once I’ve built up some more experience with the easier teas. We’ve been drinking a lot of black, white and green teas recently, which is probably the most sensible thing to do if you’re just starting a foray into tea. Explore as much as possible and get an idea of what you like, but there’s no reason to try anything too complicated (not that any tea is complicated exactly, just some require more care and attention than others). It’s exceedingly easy to get a sample of a nice black tea and a teaball infuser, and give it a shot. As long as you don’t grab something off a supermarket shelf, there’s very little to get wrong.

If you’re reading this and you’ve never tried a loose-leaf tea, please do so. It’s not expensive, and it’s not difficult. You can easily pick up some loose-leaf teas from Twinings or Whittards for your first experience. Make sure you get something simple like an Earl Grey, Assam or Darjeeling to start with. You don’t want to dive straight into herbal infusions or some of the esoteric green or white teas, no matter how tempted you might be. They sound appealing, but if you want to experience loose-leaf tea in comparison with teabags, stick to a black tea – keep it simple. You’ll be in a better position to tell the difference. If you want to move on from there, Jing and Adagio do some great sample packs/tins. Finding an infuser isn’t hard either, though price will vary depending on what sort you get. To start with, you’ll probably be best off getting a tea ball infuser. It works perfectly well for the task, is easy to use, and the right size for solitary cups for experimenting. Here’s what you’re looking for: Tea Ball Infuser, Whittards Earl Grey. You should be fine with any loose leaf as long as you don’t get Tesco’s.

Left: Brewing; Right: Brewed

Infusing allows the leaves to work properly

Once you’ve got the bits you need, the only excuse you have for using teabags is that it is still quicker to lump a teabag in a mug and be done with it. I know, because I still do this in the morning before I go to work. It’s sheer laziness, brought on by the fact that I prefer to use my teapot for occasions when I can fill it and have two cups of tea from it. But I’m going to get another infuser mug like the one I have at work (though probably a different one for the sake of variety), and then I shall be rid of teabags forever. I don’t expect everyone to go to the same lengths as me and cast off teabags, but what would be great is if everyone could try loose-leaf tea just once. It really is worth it. Before we started this blog, I was happy with a cup of no-name Fair Trade tea, happily believing that tea had one variety and one flavour. Once you’ve had a few cups of loose-leaf tea you’ll be hooked. The difference is magnificent, and you’ll wonder why we accept the bland rubbish that gets doled out in spades in teabags. Most teas don’t need milk or sugar (more savings!) because the flavour is defined and tasty enough on its own. Even though tea is the main ingredient, you can’t drink it straight when it’s made with a teabag – you always add milk and/or sugar. Quite frankly, that seems ridiculous and totally unnecessary. Tea, when processed and made properly, is amazing and you owe it to yourself to at least try it.

If you’ve tried it and you’re still not convinced: fine, you don’t have to ever do it again. That said, I would still ask you to try again with a different tea, just to be sure. If you enjoy it and can see the difference, you’ll realise how simple it is, and how much better the flavours are. Then you can start exploring different varieties, and I promise you: you won’t become a snob.

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Responses

  1. When I first told my chiropractor I drink Oolong Tea he said I was a tea snob. He wasn’t being serious in his accusation but it was the first time I’d considered that I was one of those. Since then I’ve become what I wouldn’t be surprised a lot of people would consider snobbish. I have scales to weigh the tea, bamboo charcoal for the water, timers for the steeping, a variable-temp electric kettle for the different kinds of tea, and Yi Xing mugs for the different varieties. I wouldn’t call myself a snob, though. I see myself as a tea lover and it’s like my hobby. Other people usually don’t get called snobs for the hobbies and interests they have and I don’t understand why it would apply to me.

    • It’s definitely an anomaly – I can’t think of many other areas where you’d be called snobbish just for putting extra effort into an area that interest you. You’d never call someone who was really interested in building complex models (for instance – I’m sure there are better analogies) a snob.

      • Oh, ugh, model airplane snobs, the worst kind! They’ll be the first ones up against the wall, when the revolution comes.

  2. Excellent post. It’s always a major source of frustration for me, the rubbish people drink every day under the name of ‘tea’ (especially here in the UK, in a nation of supposed tea drinkers).

    And it also frustrates me being called a snob (or similar). That’s a bit like criticising a wine drinker for buying a bottle that costs more to 10p!

    • Actually, I buy expensive wines too. Perhaps I am a snob!

      It does seem that it’s only food and drink that suffer from the negative imagery. What’s so special about enjoying what you eat and drink that means it’s acceptable for others to decry individual taste as snobbery?

  3. For me it’s like going into a pub with 5 real ales and drinking Fosters. But 90% of people do that and seem to prefer it. So I gave up trying to convert them.

    • I’d argue there’s a bigger gap between lager and beer than there is between a teabag and loose leaves, though. I’m not wildly keen on either (see above comment in regards to wine), but I find it easier to drink lager if I have to choose. I’m trying to fix this though – I’ve found a couple of ales that are quite quaffable.

      By contrast, tea is the same product but with vastly different levels of quality between bag and leaf. It shouldn’t be as hard to get people to see the difference, though I will admit that’s unlikely to be to everyone’s taste.

  4. Absolutely brilliant Dan! This is exactly what I’m trying to say to people! From the customers and restrauteurs that have come to Lahloo seeking a better cup of tea, I’m confident that people are wanting more form their cup of tea than they have for a very long time.

    Consumers are demanding more than a tasteless, origin-less murky cup of tea and are instead choosing to turn to quality rather than quantity in favour of tasty, refreshing and satisfying teas. Our most popular teas are in fact our most exoensive teas and many of our customers a re new to the epicurean delights of loose leaf tea.

    We are a nation with a really strong heritage for the finer things in life and more and more we are returning to that notion.

    Let’s spread the word together!

    • I’m glad the interest is rising, and I hope it continues to do so. The more people know about tea, the better!

  5. I agree with most of what you say, in particular your point about how it is ridiculous to be considered a tea snob for liking loose leaf…

    However, I disagree slightly with your recommendations. Why relegate loose leaf tea to tea bag status by restricting it so severely inside a tea ball? Much better to get a good pot or infuser with plenty of room for the leaves to expand.

    Also, my opinion of Whittards is that it is mainly a gift shop rather than for people who are serious about tea – IMO pretty naff tea and badly packaged! If you don’t want to spend extra money shipping tea over from China/Japan etc, better sticking to some of the quality UK based vendors, some of which you mentioned, such as Jing, Adagio, Teasmith and Lahloo.

    Otherwise, keep up the good work spreading the word of tea! 🙂

    • The main reason for choosing to recommend a tea ball infuser and Whittards leaves is because it’s a very simple way of experimenting. If you’re not certain about loose-leaf tea, you’re not likely to be persuaded to buy an infuser teapot and 50g of Ceylon if you’re not certain you’ll like it.

      I certainly agree that the tea should be of high quality and allowed to float freely, but it’s not going to appeal to newcomers. If they’re not fussed about the extra money, effort or are enthusiastic enough to get some nicer equipment straight away, they obviously should.

      Whittards isn’t amazing, but it is still better than teabags, and their leaves are generally smaller, so the tea ball infuser won’t restrict them as much. It’s a good enough introduction, but as soon as the difference in quality becomes apparent, they can move on and make the commitment to a teapot and some nicer leaves. Diving in at the deep end is scarier, and the contrast is large enough that it could put off as many people as it entices.

      • There’s no need to “dive in at the deep end” as you put it, but if you really want to experience the magic of loose leaf tea, there’s no point starting right of the bottom of the pile. Just as if you were making recommendations to someone who had never been a wine drinker, of course you wouldn’t tell them to go out and spend £40-£50 a bottle, but you may want to suggest they make purchases in the region of £6-£10 a bottle, rather than the £3-£5 bracket.

        A basic teapot with a gauze or strainer can be obtained very cheaply (e.g. those “tea for one” sets you see everywhere). Sampler packs are also available from a number of vendors, meaning the individual does not have to commit to buying a large quantity of tea first time round. I think that if people are going to be “converted” to loose leaf, as it were, they need to be wowed by what they are drinking. That means high quality fresh tea brewed properly, not overpriced stale fannings from Whittard crammed into a tea ball! I also think you’re placing a bit too much emphasis on this opposition between Tea bags & Loose leaf. I for one would much rather drink bagged Mao Feng from Teapigs, or bagged Yunnan gold from Adagio than any “loose” tea from Whittard.

        To be perfectly honest I think that in a similar way to what happened to coffee, what will really turn people onto better tea is when we start to get more good quality tea bars popping up around the country. Places that have a decent selection of leaf in which people can get a well brewed and quality cuppa!

  6. […] 1.  The Misconception of Loose Leaf Tea–Teatunes […]

  7. your post is tight on… such an anomaly with tea, but i think it’s really a matter of time. 25 years ago, people probably would have raised an eyebrow if you’d said you were going to grind your own coffee beans fresh every day! For me, it’s a matter of health – for 100 times more antioxidants, i’m definitely willing to take the extra step – and once you start, the flavor and aromas of fresh loose tea leaves hook you!


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