Steep, Stir, Sip: An Intro to Loose Leaf Tea

Want to join the loose leaf tea craze? We have the tips to get you infusing like a pro.

Whether you’re an ardent coffee drinker or you’ve been sipping green tea for years in order to reap the health benefits, you’ve no doubt realized that “tea culture” has invaded North America in recent years, and it’s not all coming in little round bags anymore. While tea has long since been a popular drink in Great Britain and Asia, it’s only in more recent years that Canadians and Americans have truly latched on to the tea craze, helping to make it the second most consumed beverage on the planet, after water. David Segal, co-founder of loose-leaf tea shop DAVIDsTEA, isn’t surprised that North Americans are jumping onto the bandwagon. “It can fit into your lifestyle so easily. You can have it in the morning or in the evening, it can be energizing, relaxing, soothing, or it can engage the senses. […] It’s such a diverse product,” explains Segal.

But why have loose leaf teas, in particular, become so popular and why should you choose them over the convenient bagged options? In terms of quality, loose leaf tea offers a fuller flavour than a bagged tea – this is namely due to the differing size of the tea leaves between the two forms of tea. While loose leaf tea is made of full or slightly broken leaves, bagged tea is made up of tea fannings, which are small bits and pieces of tea; when tea leaves get smaller, they dry out and their natural taste starts to dwindle. For the same reasons, loose leaf tea holds up better to multiple infusions of the same leaves – just pour some more hot water over the same tea leaves and literally get some more bang for your buck!

The range of flavours and options of loose leaf teas is also remarkable, from traditional to trendy. Many tea shops are embracing both types, such as DAVIDsTEA, as Segal explains: “We take a very creative angle [with flavoured teas], but at the same time we’re respectful to tradition, so we also source some of the best traditional teas around, whether it’s phenomenal senchas or assams from India or darjeelings…we like to have them all under one roof.”

Making a cup of loose leaf tea is very easy and doesn’t take much more time to prep than it would to pour yourself a bagged cup – plus, if you use teaballs, infusers, or teapots, loose leaf tea is more environmentally-friendly than bagged tea because no paper products are wasted. (Alternatively, most loose leaf tea shops also sell individual tea filter bags, many of which are biodegradable.)

To help you out before you head off to your local tea shop, we’ve broken down the eight main tea families and the key facts you need to know about each of them. As Segal says, “tea is really anything you put into hot or cold water that’s not coffee,” – so be sure to have fun and explore many different kinds of tea!

Black Tea

Made from the Camellia Sinensis plant, black tea is traditionally the most popular tea type in Western countries. According to Health Canada, black tea has approximately 43mg of caffeine per serving, compared to approximately 135mg of caffeine per cup of coffee. To create black tea, the leaves are fully oxidized, giving it a much darker colour and a stronger, sweeter flavour than either green or white tea.

Green Tea

Also made from the Camellia Sinensis plant, green tea originally hails from China, and is also heavily produced in Japan. According to Health Canada, green tea has less caffeine than black tea – approximately 30mg per cup. Unlike with black tea, green tea leaves aren’t oxidized. Green tea is particularly known for being heavy in antioxidants.

White Tea

White tea is the purest form of tea that’s made from the Camellia Sinensis plant, undergoing the least amount of processing. As a result, it contains the most antioxidants and the least amount of caffeine in comparison to black or green teas. Only the very young top leaves and buds of the tea plant (which are covered in a silvery white down) are used to make white tea, giving the unopened leaf its white appearance.

Oolong Tea

Fitting somewhere between a black tea and a green tea, oolong teas are semi-oxidized, and thus have similar properties to both. Oolongs are made from more mature, darker, and richer leaves than whites and greens.

Herbal Tea

Naturally caffeine-free, herbal teas are not actually made from the Camellia Sinensis plant! Instead, herbals (or tisanes) are made by steeping in water anything that’s not tea leaves, from fruits to flowers to leaves to seeds to nuts. Herbals are often recognized for their natural health benefits, such as peppermint as a digestive aid or chamomile for stress relief.

Rooibos Tea

Made from a South African shrub called Aspalathus linearis, rooibos teas are antioxidant rich and naturally caffeine-free. “Rooibos” means “red bush” in Afrikaans, and the name comes from the fact that when the green, needle-like leaves of the plant are cut and left to oxidize and dry in the sun, they shift to a mahogany red colour.

Maté Tea

This South American super-herb is packed with antioxidants and energy-giving stimulants – they’re just as powerful as caffeine, but without the crash after the high! Fresh maté is never consumed in its raw form, and the drink is actually just the liquor resulting from infusing yerba maté leaves in hot water.

Pu’erh Tea

With its very distinct earthy flavour, pu’erh tea has been used to control weight and aid digestion in China for more than 1700 years. Unlike other teas made from the Camellia Sinensis plant, pu’erh leaves are aged in burlap sacks and buried in caves or cellars for years before they are ready to brew.

Now that you know the basics about the main tea families, here are a few key tips for brewing the perfect cup of tea:

– Always keep an eye on the clock when you’re making a cup of tea, as any teas made from the Camellia Sinensis plant can become bitter if you steep them too long. Steeping time guidelines should be noted on any loose-leaf tea you buy, but usually 3-5 minutes is recommended.

– It’s also best to monitor the temperature of your water, particularly for green tea, as you can burn the leaves if you use boiling water. If you don’t have a temperature-controlled kettle, the easiest trick is to wait a few minutes after your kettle boils to pour your water. Again, temperature guidelines will be noted on the packaging for any loose leaf tea you buy!

– Tea leaves grow and expand in water, so be sure you give them a lot of room to move! For maximum flavour, pick an infuser that allows lots of room for your tea to grow while steeping.