There is something sophisticated about drinking tea made using whole or loose leaves and while the humble teabag serves its purpose in making a convenient and satisfying beverage, the flavours and aromas released when using unrestricted tea leaves creates a whole new tasting experience.
Before we explore which type of leaves you might want to try next, there are a few key points to bear in mind. Tea leaf grades are largely based on how much caffeine they contain. Leaf buds/tips contain more caffeine than mature leaves. The grade of the tea also effects the brewing time with whole-leaves taking the longest time to infuse and teabags taking a shorter time. Additionally, the highest-grade tea does not necessarily mean it will be the highest quality.
Whole-leaf tea is tea which consists of whole, intact leaves and it is not uncommon to find multiple leaves attached together at the stem in a batch. Higher grades of whole leaf tea consist of buds and one leaf or all buds (tippy tea), while the standard picking consists of the end bud and two leaves. Orange Pekoe is the standard reference point for a tippy tea.
Whole-leaves have a smaller surface area than loose-leaves and leaves in teabag which means there is less opportunity for the essential oils within the leaves to evaporate and a slower infusion rate. They therefore require a longer steeping time but result in a brew which has more notes to it and a higher caffeine level.
Overall, if you really relish a tasting experience and don’t mind paying a little extra then whole-leaf tea is for you. You can simply add the leaves to your pot or cup and enjoy.
Loose-leaf tea is made up of broken up whole leaves. There are arguments suggesting that when steeped, loose-leaves absorb more water as they infuse, than teabags, which in turn extracts a wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavours and aromas.
Earl Grey is a typical tea brewed using loose-leaves. Some loose-leaf teas are solely created from whole flowers or herbs and would therefore be technically classed as a whole leaf tea, for example Camomile tea, while others can be a blend of loose-leaves and whole flowers/herbs.
If you’re looking for better value tea than teabags, loose-leaves are just that as you are essentially only paying for the quality of the leaf. They are also more sustainable as you’re not paying for the processing and packaging involved in making a bag. The leaves are often better quality than those found in teabags and can be on a par with whole tea leaves. Single origin tea is also rarely sold in bags.
The simplest way to brew this type of tea is to add it to an infuser in your mug or pot or add it loose to your pot and strain the leaves as you pour into your cup. The great thing is, you can add as much or as little as you fancy!
Although a crowd pleaser, teabag tea is argued to be less nuanced than whole and loose-leaf teas. Traditional teabags are made of lower grade leaves broken up into dust and fannings and when steeped, release more tannins causing a harsher and more bitter taste.
However, modern day tea merchants are experimenting with adding higher grade leaves and using bigger teabags to enable more room for the leaves to expand to meet the demand for sophisticated tasting, yet still convenient tea. They are also designing different bag materials as it is thought traditional ones further hinder the taste potential of teabag tea. Teabags containing whole leaves do exist but again the same rules apply.