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Loose Leaf Tea — Definition, Characteristics, Types

Loose Leaf Tea — Definition, Characteristics, Types

Are you a tea drinker who dunks a tea bag into a cup of hot water and considers it done? 

You are certainly missing out on the full flavor, health benefits, and enjoyment of quality tea! 

While tea bags are easy to use, fast and convenient, enjoying a cup of tea brewed from loose tea leaves is definitely a far more enjoyable experience. 

Making tea from loose tea leaves will require more time and effort, but it is worth the trouble. And, you will become an expert on all-things-tea in the process. 


What is loose leaf tea? 

Loose leaf tea is tea that does not come packaged in tea bags. It consists of individual leaves that are not crushed. The quality of loose leaf tea is high as it does not contain dust or fanning grades. It is known for flavor, aroma, and health benefits. Loose leaf tea is steeped before drinking. 

Tea blends, health teas and speciality teas are growing in popularity. Knowing more about the origins and types of tea is becoming an exciting topic for many tea lovers. 

Let’s learn more about loose tea.


Different grades of tea 

The easiest way to understand loose leaf tea is to see where it fits into the grades of tea that are available on the market. 

Dust grade tea is tea that is finely crushed and packed into tea bags. It is the lowest quality tea and is gathered from the dust or tiny particles that come from the tea leaves.

Fanning grade tea is made from very small pieces of tea leaves. These pieces are usually bigger than the dust particles. It is also generally considered to be a low quality tea and is packed into tea bags. 

Broken leaf tea is a higher quality tea. The leaves are not crushed but may be broken during the process. Broken leaf tea can be packed into tea bags that are usually larger than average. The tea will probably not contain dust or fanning grades.

Loose leaf tea is the highest quality tea. The leaves are preserved in their complete unbroken shape. Leaves may be twisted, flat, or furled. They will open up when steeped in water and release loads of flavor, aroma, and health benefits. 


The process of making loose leaf tea 

Tea growing follows age-old traditions and is a very labor-intensive process. Let’s look more closely at the steps that are followed to get the tea to your table. 

Plucking – picking the leaves is done by hand. Workers go into the fields before dawn and pick the young buds before they open. The process requires care and dedication. Buds with leaves must not be broken and only picked when ready. 

Withering – this process reduces the water content in the leaves. The tea leaves are spread out on large tables that are covered with jute or wire nets. The process can take up to a day or two depending on the type of tea and the flavor desired. 

Rolling – although this process was originally done by hand, in modern times machines are used. The rolling process causes the leaves to start the oxidation process by releasing enzymes and essential oils. 

Oxidation – this process gives the tea its darker color, aroma, and flavor. The tea leaves are placed into rooms with controlled temperatures and sprayed with water. The time of the oxidation process will determine the type of tea desired.

Drying – after oxidation the damp leaves are placed into humid rooms or onto drying tables. Other drying methods include steaming, baking, tumbling, and pan firing. 

Sorting – the dried leaves are hand sorted into grades. Loose leaf unbroken tea is the highest grade. Dust particles are lower grade and will be packed into tea bags. 


Tea bags or loose leaf tea? 

Tea lovers will certainly choose loose leaf tea over tea bags. The whole leaf has a larger surface that allows more flavor and aroma to be released into the water. You can also control the depth of flavor by steeping the exact amount of tea that you want. 

Tea bags contain the lowest quality tea, known as dust or fanning grades. These tiny particles are lacking in both flavor and aroma. 

For those who are eco-aware, tea bags are not an eco-friendly option. They are often treated with chemicals to improve their strength in water. They may also contain plastic that is non-compostable. 

Loose tea leaves may cost more, but they can be steeped multiple times, ultimately giving you a cost effective, high quality cup of tea. 


Types of loose leaf tea

Most of the well-known teas can be bought in the form of loose leaves. This will include, oolong, black, fermented, white, green, and yellow tea. 

All these teas originate from the camellia sinensis plant. 

The different types are determined by the length of the oxidation process and the fermenting process. 

Fermented tea like pu er has a very rich, strong flavor. Black tea gets its color from a fully oxidized process. 

White tea and yellow tea are more delicate teas that are not oxidized. After plucking and drying, they are heated or steamed. This retains the lighter color of the leaves.

Oolong tea can be found in lighter and darker textures depending on the length of the oxidation process. 


Health benefits of loose leaf tea 

Most people are aware that the health benefits of tea are not scientifically proven. That being said, it is commonly accepted that natural teas do offer many positive health benefits. 

Loose leaf teas have a larger leaf surface and release far more antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients into your water. 

Black loose leaf teas are great for energy and digestion. 

Oolong loose leaf tea helps with brain health and inflammation.

Herbal teas are known to relax, calm, and aid better sleep. 

Green loose leaf teas aid metabolism, dental health, and boost memory. 


Frequently asked questions about loose leaf tea 


Is loose leaf tea a higher quality tea? 

Yes, it is. The leaves are kept intact and offer far more flavor, aroma, and health benefits. Crushed teas, also known as dust or fanning grade teas, are the lowest quality teas. 


Is loose leaf tea healthy? 

Loose leaf tea is packed full of antioxidants, nutrients, vitamins, and minerals which offer a large range of health benefits. 


How long does loose leaf tea last?

Loose leaf teas usually have a long shelf life. Check the expiration date on the packaging. Depending on the tea and the manufacturer, you may find that it is up to a year or even longer. Store your loose leaf tea in a cool place with average humidity out of direct sunlight.