Why is loose tea preparation so different from tea bags

Tea has been consumed in China for about 2000 years. The consumption is largely in its original form – loose leaves. The western society has adopted the beverage during the contemporary years, but in a very different and commercialised form called tea bags.

There are fundamental differences between loose leaf teas and tea bags, with the crucial one being the teas (not including herbal tea) in tea bags are heavily oxidized (note - different from fermentation). When this happens, the tea produces a bitter taste and rough texture and no longer refreshing. For this very reason, the teas used in tea bags are the teas we call tea dust, left over from sorting out whole leaf teas, but never from breaking up premium full leaves.

When it comes to tea preparation, there is really not much to be done about tea bags. A mug of hot water with a tea bag for a couple minutes is what you get.

Brewing loose leaf teas is however a very dynamic process. Loose leaf teas come in a very wide range of varieties, and require slightly different technics such as water temperature, brewing time and using different tea vessels; Combined with different personal preferences, such as the strength of the tea, you can imagine it is not as mechanic as some make it out, a fixed temperature, brewing time and tea leaf amount. My advice is to experiment, and enjoy the fun of it, until you discover your tea and the way you like it.

Here are some very fundamental basics when it comes to brewing loose leaf teas compared to tea bags:

  1. Most of loose leaf tea are hand handled. Make sure you rinse the tea leaves by adding hot water to the teapot with tea leaves in it for up to 10 seconds (until the tea leaves start unfolding). Dispose the water before brewing. This water has more contamination than taste!
  2. The loose leaves are in various degrees of tenderness: green teas are made of very young tip leaves (there are 300+ Chinese green teas made of different degrees of tenderness too); Oolong teas are made of mature tea leaves; Premium pu-erh teas are made of larges leaves from ancient tea trees (not bushes). The rule of thumb is, the younger the tea leaves are, the lower the water temperature should be used (not lower than 85oC). For example, use 85oC-90oC water for green tea and white tea, 100oC freshly boiled water for Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh tea.
  3. Loose leaf teas can be repeatedly used for many times by just adding hot water to the leaves. Depending on the tenderness of the leaves, green tea and white tea could be used up to 3-6 times and some of the aged Pu-erh teas could be used up to 30 times. What is dynamic here is each infusion has a different taste. Experiment and enjoy the fun of discovering! Only dispose the leaves only when the tea taste is no longer existing.
  4. I personally would NOT recommend to use overnight tea leaves.
  5. Use a small tea set where it is possible, Kung Fu tea set is known for this purpose. The small tea vessels (pots and cups) ensures the tea is freshly brewed and served, but not soaked. It may sound a bit pedantic, but trying out (again experiment!) the difference between a tea made from a small teapot, frequently brewed and served vs one made in a big teapot in the traditional way and feel the difference.
  6. Finally, remember the ancient Chinese say about making a perfect cup: Spring water is the premium water for a perfect brew; Open charcoal fire is ideal for boiling the water; The small tea vessels are best for tea making. It may not all be possible in our days, but you got an idea and try to be as close.