Friday, August 29, 2008

Why I Love it Loose!

Why do I prefer loose tea to teabags? It could be because I'm very fancy, or because I like to complicate my life, but it's not. I love it loose because it's better that way.

I grew up in a tea drinking family. My mother kept a cabinet filled with teabags of all varieties and it was always a little exciting choosing which tea to drink. When I reached my mid-teens I turned to coffee and drank my share of Joe for many years. I would go through occasional tea phases where I would only drink tea. It was bagged tea and I enjoyed it, but my tea phases weren't long lasting. I would lose interest. In retrospect, this was probably because the tea was not that compelling.

I can't remember how I happened upon my first cup of loose leaf tea. It was an Earl Grey. I had been drinking bagged Earl Grey my entire life, and truthfully, never much cared for it. I found it to be dull and bland with a weak flavor that I had difficulty identifying. But when I first experienced the aroma and later the crisp, bergamot fruitiness of the loose Earl Grey tea, I was completely delighted. I realized that I never really tasted Earl Grey tea before. Then I tried an English Breakfast and had the same experience. Who knew that unflavored tea could have so much flavor! This was a profound experience for me because those first couple of cups of loose tea were so compelling that they set me on a life-altering path.

I soon discovered the reason loose tea tends to be better than bagged tea. When tea is manufactured, one of the final steps in the manufacture is sorting and grading of the tea. The tea leaves are passed through sieves in order to sort out the larger leaves from the smaller leaves. The larger leaves (sometimes graded as Orange Pekoe or Flowery Orange Pekoe) are higher grade teas than the smaller pieces (or Broken Orange Pekoe). The smallest pieces that pass through all the sieves are known as fannings or tea dust. These fannings are often reserved for the manufacture of bagged tea.

That already sounds kind of disgusting, but, the truth is - dust of fine quality tea will be fine quality tea, and flowery orange pekoe leaves of poor quality tea will still be poor quality tea. I believe the main problem with bagged tea arises because the small pieces of tea have more surface area. The greater surface area means that more of the flavor yielding essestial oils in the tea leaf are exposed to air. Any off flavors will be magnified. And another thing: once exposed to air, the staling process begins. The smaller the tea particle, the more quickly it will become stale and lose its inherent flavor characteristics. And for me, that's the biggest problem with bagged tea, especially supermarket varieties. There's no way to know when it was produced and how long it has been sitting on the supermarket shelf. Your brand new box of Earl Grey tea may be fresh and wonderfully satisfying or it may be years old and completely stale the day you open it.

And there's no reason to use bagged tea for convenience because it's really simple to brew loose tea nowadays. There are so many nifty brewing devices. Stop in the shop and I'll be happy to show you a variety of options. I really love the Smart TeaMaker, and other choices like pots with built in infusers, tea sacs, infuser mugs, and even teaballs (not my favorite - but I'll save that for a different post) also work really well. It's just as easy to infuse high quality, beautiful, aromatic and delicious loose tea as it is to use an old, stale, dust filled tea bag.

Oh, and loose tea is a better value too!

Gotta go, Earl's waiting.

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