Everything you need to know about loose leaf tea

So, you’re interested in loose leaf tea? Well, you’re in luck!

Here at Team Tea, loose leaf is our bread and butter. We work directly with growers from all over the world, as well as specialist tea importers, to ethically source the finest loose leaf teas.

Our experience of sourcing teas, combined with drinking a lot of tea ourselves, has led to us becoming experts in the field of loose tea! Our founder, Valerie, is actually also a qualified Tea Sommelier, certified by The UK Tea Academy. Whether you’re wondering what the advantages of loose leaf tea are, or you have some questions about a particular type of tea, this guide has got you covered.

A photo of our founder, Valerie, picking tea leaves in Japan. Valerie is wearing a hat, with beautiful blue sky overhead and a basket of tea leaves in hand.

Why loose leaf tea?

The big question you might have is, why loose leaf tea?
Well, we’re here to tell you that there are many reasons why loose leaf tea is better than tea bags!
  1. Better taste – typically tea bags don’t contain the same quality of tea that you’ll find in loose leaf tea. Loose leaf tea features whole leaves, which produce the best flavour. Tea bags tend to hide the broken bits and dust which don’t produce the same results.
  2. It’s better for the environment – loose leaf tea doesn’t require the manufacturing of tea bags, for starters. But, did you know that most tea bags contain plastic? And we all know that plastic is bad for the environment.
  3. Personalisation – tea is a very personal thing, some people prefer it stronger and others have an extra small or large mug. Loose leaf tea allows you to get the perfect flavour for you. It’s better to add more tea (which you can’t do with a tea bag), than it is to brew your tea for too long, for example.
  4. Aesthetics – watching a jasmine or black dragon pearl can be quite satisfying. There’s also a ritualistic or mindfulness element to brewing loose leaf tea for a lot of people.
We’ll be writing an entire blog post in the future, settling the battle of loose leaf tea vs tea bags – so stay tuned!

A cup of freshly brewed loose leaf tea, sat alongside an open tin of Team Tea's Tai Ping tea. The scene is beautiful set with a surrounding of fresh flowers.

What types of loose leaf tea are there?

Strictly speaking, tea refers to a single plant, Camellia Sinensis. The different types of tea that you might think about, such as black or green, refer to different ways of processing the leaf.

If it is not camellia sinensis, then technically it’s an infusion (sometimes known as a tisane).

There are six main categories of processing the leaf, which results in the different types of tea that you might be used to seeing (and drinking!). Each of the categories is determined by the levels of oxidation or fermentation of the leaf.
While we’re used to pigeonholing teas into these six main categories, there are many teas that don’t fit neatly into those boxes!

Let’s take a whistle stop tour of the main categories…

Black tea

Around 95% of the tea drunk in the UK fits into this category. When most people think of a cup of tea, they’re thinking of black tea.

Black tea is fully oxidised, which accounts for its darker colour. It also usually has a stronger flavour than other types of tea. It’s commonly thought that black tea is the highest in caffeine content, but actually there are so many variables that impact this, it’s quite a sweeping statement. Everything from the climate that the tea is grown in, to what temperature water you use and how long you brew it for, impact the caffeine content of a cup of tea!

The most common ways to drink black tea are with milk, sugar or lemon. However, we’d recommend trying our black teas without anything extra added, because they are delicious by themselves. We like to compare it to whisky – you wouldn’t add coke to your aged single-malt whisky, but you might with your Jack Daniels (sorry, Jack!).

If you’re making tea with a tea bag – add as many additives as you like, more often than not, they’re made with a poorer crop. But, if you’re going to try a top quality tea like our Ruby 18, try brewing it for the time stated on the pack, and don’t add any milk or sugar. You might just be surprised at how tasty it is!

Our favourite loose leaf black teas include:

Team Breakfast loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Earl Grey loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Peregrine Mountain 1st Flush loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.

Green tea

In contrast to the complete oxidation of black tea, green tea is unoxidised. Soon after picking, the tea leaves are heated to destroy the enzymes which cause oxidation. This results in a much lighter green colour, as well as a more delicate and fresh flavour. 
This processing results in the preservation of a higher level of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in green tea. However, most of the benefits are actually down to what’s naturally in the plant, rather than how it’s processed. The processing just helps to preserve more of what is naturally found in the leaf.
The most common way to drink green tea is without any additives, though sometimes a sweetener (e.g. honey) or a hint of lemon can be added, if it’s your preference. Our recommendation would be to brew your green tea at a lower temperature. If you’ve tried green tea in the past and found it has a bitter edge, it’s probably because the water temperature was too high.
Our favourite loose leaf green teas include:
A product image featuring Jasmine Dragon Pearls. It shows three cups in a row; the first has the pearls in, the second shows them with water added and unfolded, the third is the brewed tea.En Shi Yu Lu loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Genmaicha 'Popcorn' Organic Green loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea. 

Oolong tea

Sitting right in the middle of black and green tea is oolong! It’s a semi-oxidised tea, where the leaves are first bruised or rolled in a bamboo drum. They're then left to sit for a few hours, before going through heating to destroy the enzymes.
The amount of oxidation determines the colour and flavour of the tea. A longer oxidation period will result in a darker, stronger tea – closer to black tea. A shorter oxidation period means a lighter, floral flavour – more akin to a green tea.
Oolong teas are typically a light or golden brown colour once brewed. The flavour of oolong tea can vary a lot, depending on the production process. Often they’re quite delicate and more fragrant.
Our favourite loose leaf oolong teas are:
Gaba Oolong loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea. Orange Blossom Oolong loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Tie Guan Yin loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.

White tea

White tea is a bit different to everything we’ve talked about so far, because it’s the least processed of all the categories of tea. The leaves are simply plucked, sun-dried and bagged!
The process of drying the leaves in the sun brings out the natural sugars in the leaves. This gives white teas their smooth, gentle sweetness. Often this comes across with stone-fruit notes, such as apricots.
There’s no additional heating or rolling involved in this process, which helps with the delicate flavours, as rolling develops flavour.
Some white teas use young leaves and buds of the tea plant. These are called “silver needles”, because the young leaves have a silver coloured fuzz on them.
Our favourite loose leaf white teas are:
Yin Zhen Organic loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Tinderet Kenya White loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Wild Tree Buds loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.

Yellow tea

Yellow tea is very similar to green tea, but goes through an extra step. The tea leaves are encased and steamed. This process allows the oxidation of the leaves, but at a much slower rate. This is often considered fermentation, as much as it is oxidation.
We’re often asked what the difference in flavour is between yellow and green tea. Our best answer is that yellow tea has more of a hay flavour and green tea is more like fresh grass!
Yellow tea has become increasingly rare, with only a select few speciality tea making areas still creating it. This also means that yellow tea is becoming increasingly costly.
We’re fortunate enough to be able to stock our loose leaf Kekecha yellow tea.
Kekecha Yellow loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.

Dark tea

Dark tea is also known as fermented, or post-fermented tea. These teas undergo months or years or fermentation. This process affects both the smell and taste of the tea. They have a much more mellow taste than a black tea, with reduced astringency and bitterness.
The most famous dark tea is puerh, or pu-er. The extra time that it takes to create dark teas can also make them extremely valuable, much like yellow tea. They’re often pressed into bricks or cakes before ageing – going back many years, these cakes were used as currency! They can also be highly decorative and are sometimes given as gifts or commemorative items.
You can find two dark teas on our site:
Spring 2016 Shu Puerh loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Queen of Puerh loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.

What about decaf loose leaf tea?

Decaffeinated tea is the same plant as tea, but has had the caffeine removed after picking.
Infusions are often bundled into the category of decaffeinated tea, though they aren’t technically tea!
Fun fact: it’s actually believed that the caffeine in tea (and other plants that caffeine is found in) has evolved as a natural insecticide to protect plants from insects!
Our favourite loose leaf caffeine-free teas and infusions are:
Decaf Breakfast loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Vanilla Rooibos loose leaf tea – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.Turmeric Gold Organic loose leaf infusion – three cups showing the plain leaf, the unfurled leaf with the water added and then the final brew of tea.

How to brew loose leaf tea

One of the common misconceptions about loose leaf tea is that it’s more work. If you’re used to chucking a bag of tea into a cup and pouring some water over, then perhaps it’s a little different. But we promise you, it’s really not that much work – and the results are worth it!

If you stick with loose leaf tea long enough to create a habit, we’re sure you’ll never look back. According to scientists, it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. So, why not try 66 days of loose leaf tea?!

Here at Team Tea, we like to talk about the 4 dimensions of the perfect cup! We’ll give you a quick summary here:

  1. Water – fully empty your kettle before each use, and make sure to use filtered water.
  2. Temperature – check the correct temperature for your tea. Different teas like different temperatures – we include guides with each of our teas.
  3. Tea – use the correct amount of tea. This varies from tea-to-tea, person-to-person. We recommend an amount for each of our teas, but get creative and see what works for you.
  4. Time – it really is the fourth dimension! Time how long you brew for, then remove the leaves completely from the water. Brewing for too long could spoil the taste and make it bitter. As with the third dimension, this can be a personal preference, so try out our recommendation and experiment.

How to store tea

Storing tea in the correct way is pretty straightforward and can help keep your tea at its best. The last thing you want is a mediocre cup of tea because you kept it in the wrong place!

Here’s our top 5 tips on how to appropriately store loose leaf tea:

  1. Away from light – keep it in a cupboard or opaque container.
  2. Away from humidity – use an airtight container and only use a dry spoon to measure it out.
  3. Away from strong odours – tea is very good at absorbing flavours, so don’t store different flavoured teas with each other. Those flavoured teas and herbal infusions won’t do your other teas any favours!
  4. In a cool place (but not the freezer) – extreme changes in temperature can affect the moisture levels in tea. In a cupboard, or on a kitchen work surface away from sunlight is fine.
  5. Check the best before date – properly stored tea will last a long time. However, the more aromatic the tea, the quicker it will need to be drunk.

What are the health benefits of tea?

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way: we’re not health experts. However, there are some health benefits that we can talk about, thanks to the Tea Advisory Panel. They’re an independent body of doctors and dieticians, set up to answer questions about health and hydration when it comes to tea.

Thanks to the Tea Advisory Panel’s research, here’s a list of interesting facts and health benefits, that’s backed up by their research:

  • It’s the most widely drunk liquid after water and is actually just as hydrating as water (without adding things, such as milk and sugar).
  • Tea contains polyphenols. Polyphenols act as antioxidants in the body and fight free radicals. The polyphenols in tea are catechins, and the most powerful at stopping free radical damage is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a unique compound found in plants.
  • Tea contains caffeine which is a stimulant. The human body absorbs caffeine from tea slower than caffeine from coffee. Tea contains L-Theanine (an amino acid) which keeps the brain calm whilst caffeine wakes us up. This means that caffeine in tea doesn’t result in the same rush and crash that you get with coffee, which doesn’t contain this amino acid. Caffeine in tea affects the central nervous system rather than our circulation (as with coffee) so you don’t get the jitters.
  • L-Theanine is an amino acid that reduces physical and mental stress and helps to keep us calm. It exists in only 3 plants: tea, bay bolete mushrooms, and guayusa.
  • It is completely natural, as well as calorie and sugar free.
  • Tea contains trace elements and minerals from the soil in which it is grown. This includes manganese, zinc, folic acid, potassium and fluoride.

A lot of the research into the health benefits of tea has been conducted in Japan, where people predominantly drink green tea. Hence the research has been conducted on green tea.

This research is now being replicated on black teas and, as you would expect with them being the same plant, the health benefits are largely the same. There are small differences in research results between the types of tea, but they’re comparable to the differences caused by the age of the plant, or the water temperature you use when brewing.

So, which is the healthiest tea? All of them, as long as you don’t add milk or sugar!

A team of tea pickers in Darjeeling. Wearing head coverings to protect them from the sun, with traditional baskets on their backs to put the freshly picked loose leaves into.

How ethical is our tea?

As with any industry, there are a lot of ethical considerations when choosing a tea, or tea supplier. This is a topic that we’ve been meaning to talk more about for a while now, so you can expect a more lengthy article to address the different points in the near future.

Here’s what we can address right now though…

All of the importers we use are members of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP). They work on far-reaching programmes with real impact. This means long-term change programmes that are designed to improve the lives of workers, farmers, their families and communities. It’s about improving incomes, empowering women to be more independent, improving health and nutrition in tea communities. You can find out more on ETP’s website.

ETP also works with tea growing communities to deal with, and become more resilient to, climate change. As well as working with the ETP, the environmental side of things is an area that we can have a direct impact on through our packaging.

We’ve worked hard to ensure that our packaging is as environmentally friendly as it can be, whilst still being food-safe (a legal requirement). This means that all our packaging is recyclable or biodegradable.

We use cardboard boxes, along with paper packing tape and eco-flo packaging fill (a.k.a. packing peanuts), which is made from plant starch and 100% biodegradable. Our labels are also printed using uncoated paper.

Cups of Chai tea being poured out in Kolkata, India. A very large pan that's being used to make chai is in the background, with a man helping to pour the tea in the foreground.

A brief history of tea

Tea is indigenous to the Himalayan Corridor, an area covering Southern China (Yunnan Province), Northern Vietnam, Northern Laos, Myanmar and East India (Assam).

The history of tea being made into a drink has some historical origins, as well as some mythological ones! We’ll start with the myths and legends.

The legend

According to legend, tea was first discovered by accident in 2737BC, by Chinese emperor Shennong. He liked drinking water that had been boiled to ensure it was clean. One day, while one of his servants boiled his water, the leaf of a wild tea plant fell into the water. This went unnoticed until the emperor tasted it and found it very pleasant – thus, tea (or cha) was born.

There’s also a slightly more gruesome legend, originating in India, rather than China. Bodhidharma, the Buddhist priest credited with bringing Buddhism to China, was said to have spent 9 years facing a cave wall in meditation. Furious that he was unable to stay awake, he ripped off his own eyelids. Upon falling to the ground, they became tea plants and were later used by monks who used tea’s stimulating properties to aid meditation.

The history

The exact time that tea became a drink isn’t known, but the legends we’ve just talked about may not be far wrong with their timeline. Ancient texts talk about tea being used for all kinds of purposes. Primarily, it seems to have a place in history as a medicinal drink.

Once the 2nd century AD hit, tea started to be traded out of China, along famous trade routes – the Silk Road to the West and the Tea Horse Road leading to Tibet.

It wasn’t until the early 17th century that tea reached Europe. So, while tea feels like an important part of our history here in the UK, we’ve only actually been drinking it for a few hundred years. That pales in comparison to the thousands of years it’s been present in other cultures!

Lush fields of tea in Japan. Endless green fields and trees are topped by a vibrant blue sky.

Tea producing countries

Tea is now grown in over 80 countries around the world. All the UK’s tea used to come from China, before we started importing from India, and now over 50% of the tea drunk in the UK is grown in Kenya.

Kenya’s equatorial climate, with its lack of seasons, allows tea to be harvested all year round. This creates a stable supply for the UK’s tea bag industry.

Specialist teas, however, like our loose leaf teas, originate from more seasonal climates. They’re often grown at altitude, where the slower growth and differences in environmental factors result in interesting flavours.

Here’s a quick rundown on famous tea growing regions:

  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Taiwan
  • China
  • Japan
  • Africa
  • Nepal
  • Korea
  • Vietnam

 And some emerging tea regions, featuring some surprising entries:

  • Georgia
  • South America
  • USA
  • Australia
  • UK
  • Mauritius
  • Azores
  • France

Thank you for reading! Is there anything we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments and we’ll be sure to get back to you. If you enjoyed this article, please bookmark it for later, save on Pinterest or share on Facebook and Twitter!