Beginner's Guide to Loose Leaf Tea

So, you want to try our loose leaf teas but don't know where to start? Check out our Beginner's Guide and get started!
Beginner's Guide to Loose Leaf Tea - Java Momma

Back to Basics: What is Tea?

Tea is the oldest beverage in the world and an essential must have drink in cultures all over the world. Each tea is unique, even though it comes from the same plant. This is from a combination of differences in terroir (the earth) from region to region (just like wine), the season the leaves are plucked, changing climate conditions, the farmer’s technique in processing the leaf and the many ways we steep and brew them!

Technically, “tea” is made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis bush. All true tea comes from this species – black, oolong, green, white, yellow, rainbow (haha)…all the tea styles start from Camellia Sinensis leaves.

The distinguishing factor that determines whether a tea plant will become white, green, oolong, or black is oxidation. Oxidation begins after the leaf has been plucked from the plant, and begins a process of being dried, withered, rolled, and heat treated. A black tea is fully oxidized, causing it to turn black, while a white tea is barely oxidized at all, thus retaining its soft, silvery appearance. This is similar to how an apple browns after you cut it

Camellia sinensis Plant

By Paul Munhoven , from Wikimedia Commons

What about Rooibos and Herbal Tea?

Herbal teas, and the popular rooibos tea, are actually not “tea” in the strictest sense because they do not come from the Camellia Sinensis species. However, we can still call these tea.

Why Choose Loose Leaf Tea?

Many people drink the tea that comes from the grocery stores in teabags. (Think of the big name that starts with an L and ends with an n.) You may not be aware that these teabags are manufactured in large batches. The teabags can sit on store shelves for months at a time, growing stale and losing flavor in the process These bags also contain what I like to call leftovers such as dust and fannings. These are smaller pieces of tea, so they have a larger surface area than whole leaves. A larger surface area means more opportunities for the essential oils (what makes tea flavorful and aromatic) to evaporate, leaving the tea dull, bitter and stale. Some teabags are made with whole-leaf tea. However, whole-leaf teabags are the exception rather than the rule.

With loose leaf tea, the tea is out of the bag. This means you can make sure you’re getting fresh tea that tastes great. Loose leaf tea is also made with the best ingredients. When you steep loose-leaf tea, it has (or should have) room for tea leaves to absorb water and expand as they infuse. This allows the water to flow through the leaves and extract a wide range of vitamins, minerals, flavors and aromas from the leaves. Here we also get a much wider range of flavors and profiles. I know it can be overwhelming but let's move on and break some of that down.

Types of Loose Leaf Tea?

Now that you know the advantage of loose leaf tea, you may be wondering what are the different types of loose leaf tea and how to choose the right one. There are six different types of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, pu-erh. Then we have our Herbal, Tisane, Rooibos and Chai teas. Yellow is not a common one in the states nor do we carry it, so I am going to skip that one. Feel free to google it though!

Types of Loose Leaf Tea?

Now that you know the advantage of loose leaf tea, you may be wondering what are the different types of loose leaf tea and how to choose the right one. There are six different types of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, pu-erh. Then we have our Herbal, Tisane, Rooibos and Chai teas. Yellow is not a common one in the states so I am going to skip that one. Feel free to google it though!

Black Tea

We are going to start with my favorite tea. Black. Like my soul? Naw. Choose a black loose leaf tea when you’re looking for a little caffeinated pick-me-up in the morning. Black tea offers more than caffeine, though. Black tea also contains an amino acid called theanine which promotes a sense of calm. The caffeine and theanine work together to give you a lift and keep you alert. You do not get the jitters or the crash and burn effect of other caffeinated beverages. Black teas are fully oxidized teas and brew a liquor from reddish brown to dark brown. They are the most popular type of tea in the western world (so, us). You're looking at around 40 - 60 Mg of caffeine per 8 oz cup.

Taste notes: There’s a big variation in how black teas taste, but they are generally richer, stronger and darker than other teas. Chinese black teas tend to have smoky notes and sometimes some chocolate and sweetness. Indian teas can be heartier and bolder. Black tea leaves have been flavored since around the time the Ming Dynasty was founded in 1368. Tea can be flavored by adding fruits, floral essences, and/or flavorings to the finished black tea leaves. All tea leaves are very absorbent of fragrances. Popular scented black teas include Earl Grey, scented with bergamot, Lapsang Souchong, which is scented with pinewood smoke, and various fruit-flavored black teas.

Green Tea

Green Tea is also one of the most popular types of tea worldwide, in large part due to its popularity in Asia. There’s a range of flavor and color in green teas — whether it’s Chinese green tea, which is yellowish in color and has a toasted taste, or Japanese green tea that has a darker green color and a more grassy taste. After the initial drying stage, leaves destined for green tea are heated to kill the enzyme responsible for oxidization. The lack of oxidation is also responsible for the very low caffeine content of green tea (only 1%).

Taste notes: Chinese green teas have a wider range of flavors and sometimes a smokiness. They’re also more of a yellow-green color. Japanese green teas are more “fresh” tasting with herbal, grass and seaweed notes. They’re a more true green color in the cup and tend to be more delicate than Chinese green teas. Green tea tastes great when paired with fruit flavors and spices. Popular Green teas are Darjeeling, Fiji and and Matcha (powdered tea that must be whisked.)

White Tea

White tea undergoes the least amount of processing. Only the tender young spring buds are used. The buds are allowed to wither then dry to prevent much oxidation of the leaf. They release the least amount of caffeine, about 10 - 15 mg per 8 oz cup.

Taste notes: Because of the minimal processing, white tea is the most gentle and delicate in both look and flavor. When you first drink white tea, it seems quite tasteless, almost like drinking hot water. However, after a while, you’ll become aware of a subtle change in your breath and at the back of your mouth. You will taste a soft, nourishing sweetness. We have one I love to drink aptly named Snow White. Can you guess the main flavor?

Oolong Tea

From lightly oxidized to dark roasted, oolongs can be fragrantly floral to lusciously rich. Oolongs are the most complicated teas to manufacture! Oolong teas are made from large tea leaves. The appearance of finished oolong teas can range from light green to brown, long & twisted, or rolled into tight little balls. There is so much personalization and detail that goes into Oolong that they tend to have the widest array of flavors and aromas.

Taste notes: Your cup of oolong will vary in flavor depending on the amount of oxidation. It may be sweet, creamy and soft, or roasty toasty. Some even taste and smell of stone fruits, honey, floral (orchid is common), sandalwood and more.

Rooibos Tea

If you’re looking for a sweet alternative, try a rooibos tea. Unlike other types of tea, rooibos is completely caffeine-free It is made from the red bush plant instead of the Camellia sinensis plant. Rooibos is a great thirst quencher and is an excellent beverage for active people, including children. Most kids will drink Rooibos without added sugar or sweeteners. This is a big deal for this mom! Try a cup of rooibos as an afternoon treat or with dessert.

Taste notes: Rooibos tea has a taste and color somewhat similar to hibiscus tea, or an earthy flavor like yerba mate. Smoky, sweet, woody, grassy, vanilla, floral, geranium, honey, herbal and caramel are just a handful of the words that can describe the flavor spectrum of sipping a rooibos tea. We like Red Velvet and Fellini's Folly best.

Herbal/Tisane Tea

Like rooibos tea, herbal teas are not made from tea leaves. Instead, they’re made from dried fruits, herbs, and flowers. Herbal Infusions include many well-known herbs such as mint, flowers such as hibiscus and chamomile, roots like licorice and ginger, and other botanicals including rooibos and lemongrass. Tisanes are caffeine free and can be served hot or cold. Herbal teas have a long history, dating back to ancient China and Egypt, where tisanes were drunk for both enjoyment and medicinal purposes. Virtually any flower, fruit or herb that can be steeped in water and ingested can become a tisane.

Taste notes: There’s a large range of herbal tea flavors, including mint, fruit, and cinnamon. Some blends combine many herbs and even add seeds, berries, nuts, and even cocoa. The flavor and aroma will depend on the exact ingredients used. Some favorites of mine include Sssspicy and Zzz for bed time!

Now that you’re familiar with each type of loose leaf tea, you’re ready to learn how to brew loose tea. While it may seem more complicated than brewing bagged tea, (plopping the store-bought teabag into some hot water.) It’s just as easy to brew loose leaf tea! Here’s an easy how-to guide for brewing loose leaf tea: GET YOUR INFUSER HERE.

This article was written and published originally by Java Momma staff member Brie Porterfield. We thank her for her contribution to this blog post. Don't forget to pin this post so you can come back to it later and remind yourself all about our awesome teas!

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