A common assumption: loose leaf tea should be brewed in a tea ball.
To which I say:
You are missing out on one of life’s pleasures: watching a tightly rolled leaf open, gracefully and gently, reminding us to pause and contemplate the act of making tea, the wonder of it.
Because if it’s loose leaf tea that is not black tea, chances are good that you need to give the leaves a lot of room to unfurl (that is, not a tea ball).
A statement that sometimes baffles people.
Yep, tea lovers whose experience has been confined to tea bags or to black loose leaf tea are missing out—on the beauty of the tea leaves opening and on the full flavor of the brew.
So what teas are we talking about here?
Generally (because, as in life and the English language, there are exceptions), anything not black—meaning green, white, yellow, oolong. But because there are a staggering number of varieties of each of these—made by different techniques, in different countries, with different environments and plant stock, and so on and so forth!—
Let’s narrow the field
and look at just a few of the green teas grown and produced in China, where the goal is to keep the leaves as intact as possible.
Why does “whole leaf” matter?
The advantages of high-quality whole leaves, carefully plucked so that they aren’t damaged, are many:
• the bud and tender first leaves have the highest amount of the inherent leaf properties needed for quality (for instance, amino acids, which are key to tea’s flavor and aroma)
• when leaves are plucked, they begin to wither of course, but if they are torn or bruised when they are picked, they start major oxidation prematurely; when tender leaves are carefully plucked so that they are not damaged, the oxidation can be both controlled and done gently so as to better retain beneficial flavonoids (making tea a healthy beverage)
• whole leaves retain more polyphenols (again, making tea a healthy choice)
• whole leaves retain more of the leaf’s properties that give flavor to the tea (making us want to drink it, and often permitting re-brews of the same leaves)
• because processing whole leaves takes more time than processing pieces of leaves, tea producers are able to develop the flavor nuances they seek
• whole leaves have less exposed surface area, making them less susceptible to moisture and thus able to maintain their flavor and quality for years
And why would the leaves be rolled?
For many types of green tea, the leaves are gently rolled during production. The rolling process breaks the leaf’s cell walls (here’s where that stuff you learned in middle school biology is actually useful), allowing oxygen to come into contact with the leaf’s essential oils and enzymes.
Leaves can be rolled in various ways and to form various shapes—ranging from needlelike to curls to pellets to pearls—each imparting specific flavor nuances. Rolling the leaves around the delicate bud protects it. While rolling can be mechanized, hand rolling is still preferred in China.
Whether you look at this as a science or an art, these techniques are crucial to the final product, and have been honed through the ages to yield incredible teas.
Brewing these teas
When tea leaves have been tightly rolled, you need to allow them room for expansion so that they can fully release their flavor. If you put pellets, for example, into a small tea ball, there won’t be enough room for them to open up and they will be squashed together, compromising the tea’s flavor.
Instead, use a very large filter basket. Or put the tea loose into a teapot that has a built-in web (strainer). Or measure the tea into any glass measuring beaker and then pour the tea through a strainer to remove the leaves. And be sure to look at the lovely tea leaves that have opened up!
Some beautiful examples
(click on photo to enlarge)
China Lung Ching or Dragon Well, TeaHaus #520, flat leaves.
China Palace Needle, TeaHaus #512, leaves and buds rolled into needlelike form.
China Gunpowder Temple of Heaven, TeaHaus #510, leaves and buds rolled into tight pellets.
Jasmine Phoenix Dragon Pearls, TeaHaus #537, premium tea, hand rolled into pearls. Note the unfurled leaf and bud in the last photo.
China Royal Jasmine Curls, TeaHaus #534, premium tea, hand rolled into curls. This is a good example of why these teas should not be brewed in a tea ball!