Tips for buying loose leaf tea

Loose leaf tea is considered by many to be the champagne of teas – a higher end drinking experience offering an enhanced taste, aroma and appearance when served. If you’ve wanted to make the switch from tea bags but were nervous because you don’t know how to go about shopping for it, set your mind at ease. Let us demystify for you how to buy loose leaf tea.

The advantage of loose leaf tea

Before we jump into what to look for, it’s worth noting why loose leaf tea offers a better flavour. The answer is startingly simple: space. Tea leaves need room to unfurl in the boiling water to release all their characteristics for the full flavour effect. While a tea bag is convenient for storage, they act like a straight-jacket on the tea leaves and don’t provide the room to express themselves fully. If you don’t like little bits of tea leaves in your cup, consider using an infuser to steep your tea.

tea infuser
Matt Gibson on Wikipedia

Choosing your tea type

The first step in selecting a tea is to know the distinctive characteristics of the type of tea you want to buy. Are you interested in buying a green tea that is lighter in colour and has a fresh grass-like taste? Maybe you’re looking for a black tea that has a more intense colour with a bolder taste?

While most teas come in the form of dried whole leaves, some teas are shaped like small pellets that dissolve in water. Know what type (or types) you’re interested in before you venture to the store so you know what to look for.

How loose leaf tea should look

Good quality loose leaf teas are produced by oxidizing the whole leaf to help it retain its flavour. However for some types of black teas, the leaves are cut intentionally to intensify the flavour.

Look for tea that is in the form of the whole leaf with a few buds attached. There should be no stems or other debris mixed with the tea as this will compromise the taste. Ideally, all tea leaves should be the same shape to ensure all leaves brew evenly. Tea leaves should gently unfurl when steeped.

Make sure the colour of the tea matches the type of tea you are buying.  Lighter teas have a deep green colour while a dark tea with a longer oxidation period will have a dark brown or black colour.

How loose leaf tea should feel

Even though they are dried, tea leaves should have some weight to them to indicate freshness. The leaves should not crumble in your hand – if they do, this is an indication that the tea has either been baked too long or has gone stale.

How loose leaf tea should smell

Loose leaf tea has a natural aroma in its dried state. If you can barely detect the aroma, then the leaves are of low quality. Be cautious of teas that have a stronger aroma than they should as they might have been flavoured with other ingredients.

Once brewed, the tea should give off a pleasant, natural aroma. 

How loose leaf tea should taste

Be familiar with the taste of the tea type you are buying. A black tea has a bold flavour while a green tea has a milder sweet flavour. It should have a nice aftertaste that lingers. A good quality loose leaf tea can be steeped several times before losing its flavour completely.

Once the tea has been brewed, swirl it around your mouth so it reaches all taste points on your tongue.

As you become more familiar with the different types of loose leaf teas, you will learn that teas from one region will taste differently from tea leaves grown in another region, much like how the terroir in which grapes are grown affects the flavours of the wine produced from them.

Tips for storing loose leaf tea

Proper storage for your tea leaves is a must to lock in the freshness and taste.

Each tea type should be packed in its own opaque airtight container that is stored in a cool dark place. Keeping tea out of the kitchen ensures that it won’t pick up aromas from other foods.

With time, you’ll settle on a few types of tea that will become your favourites and that you’ll buy like a pro. After all, practice makes the perfect cup.

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