Choosing the Best Loose Leaf Tea


by Imperial Tea Garden February 12, 2018

How to Buy the Best Loose Leaf Tea

How to choose the best loose leaf tea?  Let's break down our top 5 elements in detail.  Each one is equally important in producing the best loose leaf teas. 

SEASONALITY

Seasonality and the timing of each harvest is paramount when producing fine quality loose leaf teas.  The correct "time" to harvest tea leaves depends primarily on the region in which they are grown.  "Peak" season is different for each tea producing country and region.  Timing the harvest is of the utmost importance.  It only takes a few days for a bud to grow into a large leaf and missing the peak days can destroy a crop, as well as style of tea may require that only the buds be plucked or that only a certain number of small leaves be plucked after the bud opens. If there is a dormancy period due to cool weather in the tea field, the first new shoots after this period are of the highest quality and thus the most sought after and usually the most expensive. This is because they have been building up nutrient reserves over the dormancy period for the new leaves. Many growing regions have special names for this first harvest. In India and Nepal, it is called the “first flush,” in China, these teas are known as Pre-Qing Ming teas, in Japan they are referred to as “Shincha.
Each growing region also has a special set of terms for referring to tea harvest periods. In India and Nepal, each harvest is called a “flush” referring to a period of growth in the tea plant. In China and Taiwan the terms used to denote tea harvests are dates in the traditional East Asian lunar & solar calendar.
Buying the Best Loose Leaf Green Tea Online

 

India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka Tea Harvests

Darjeeling (India) & Nepal
Primarily known for their distinct black teas, the Darjeeling and Nepali harvest period lasts from late March to early November and is broken up into 4 parts: first flush, second flush, monsoon flush, and autumnal flush.  The finest Darjeeling teas are produced from first and second flush.
  • First Flush: March – April
  • Second Flush: May – June
  • Monsoon Flush: July – August
  • Autumnal Flush: October – November
 
Nilgiri (India) & Sri Lanka
The lack of a cold season in growing regions such as Nilgiri in South India and Sri Lanka, tea plants can be harvested year round however "Peak" season is from December through February for high mountain grown Nilgiri black teas.  Sri Lanka or Ceylon teas are very seasonal.  The best teas from the Eastern District of Uva  peak from June through September due to the southwest monsoons.  Northeast monsoons result in the teas from Dimbula and other western districts to peak from December through March.  Nuwara Eliya straddles the eastern and western districts allowing for year round production of some of the best black teas on earth.

 

 Assam (India)

Full body and malty Assams peak during the second flush.  Tea bushes are dormant due to cool weather from December through February. 

 

China & Taiwan Tea Harvests

China is known for fantastic varieties of both green tea and black teas whereas Taiwan has earned a reputation for producing masterful green and oolong tea. The harvest season in China and Taiwan varies among the different growing regions and elevations, but in general, the harvest season begins as early as April and can last until late November. Finished teas that are made from young leaves or buds and have a more finite growing season will typically be harvested on or near dates on the East Asian lunisolar calendar.
  • Qing Ming “clear bright” - tea picked before April 4-6
  • Yu Qian “before the rains” - tea picked before April 20
  • Gu Yu “grain rain” - tea picked before May 5
  • Li Xia “start of summer” - tea picked before May 21
Generally China has year round tea production depending on geographical location, however quality rapidly declines for tea leaves harvested after the first crop. Best quality is harvested between March though May.  Tea produced from larger old growth that doesn't follow a strict harvest calendar is inferior.

 

Japan Tea Harvest

The harvest season in Japan varies by geographical region as well but typically begins in late April and ends in May. Japan’s sought after first harvest is called Shincha.  Japan has four distinct harvest periods but the quality of teas produced from each harvest declines. Look for teas harvested before May to avoid being disappointed! Most quality loose leaf green teas from Japan are produced and consumed by locals.
    • Shincha “new tea” - The name given to the first harvest of the year
    • Ichibancha “first tea” - Includes entire first harvest season including shincha and typically occurs from late April to May
    • Nibancha “second tea” - The second harvest of the year taking place June to the end of July
    • Sanbancha “third tea” - The third harvest of the year
    • Yonbancha “fourth tea” - The fourth harvest of the year and can take place as late as October

    African Tea Harvests

    The East African tea producing countries (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Ethiopia) are able to produce and harvest year round due to the lack of a cold season with peak tea production coinciding the weather.  The best teas are harvested during periods with low rainfall and bright sunny days.  January/February and July/August are peak harvest times for these tea producing countries.  These regions are all producing great loose leaf tea, however, hand plucked over mass produce mechanized harvesting will always yield better results.

     

    Tea Classifications

    • Class > Magnoliopsida

    • Subclass > Dilleniidae

    • Order > Theales

    • Family > Theaceae

    • Genus > Camellia

    • Species > Sinensis

     

    Tea Cultivars

    A cultivar is a plant selected for desirable characteristics that is maintained by propagation through human intervention.  Nothing is left to chance.  The tea master uses only tea bushes from this strain and only adds additional plants though clones or stem cuttings which can be rooted or grafted to existing bushes.  Cultivars that have been propagated by stem cuttings or grafting guarantees the offspring will retain the characteristics of the parent plant.
    There are several ways to cultivate tea bushes.  Use of cuttings and grafting are common methods.  Using cuttings is the same process done when cutting and rooting a household plant. Grafting is a horticultural technique whereby tissues from one plant are inserted into those of another to join them together.  In most cases, one plant is selected for its roots and the other plant is selected for its stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits (the scion). The scion contains the desired genes to be duplicated in future production by the stock/scion plant.  There are too many tea cultivars to list but the two most common are Sinensis and Assamica.

    Tea Varieties

    In contrast with a cultivar, a "variety"  can be found growing and reproducing naturally in the plant kingdom. Plants grown from its seeds will often come out true to type and can equally produce excellent tea.  Varieties occur naturally as plants grow and acclimate by seeding and reproducing new varieties in the wild.  If you remember that "cultivar" stands for "cultivated variety," you will have no problem remembering the difference between the two.

     

    Tea from Camellia Sinensis has been propagated and harvested for millennia based on unique geographical locations and weather suited for each cultivar.  There will be good crops and bad ones depending on weather patterns primarily affecting yield and to a lesser extent quality.  Cultivars are chosen specifically to survive and prosper during times of excessive rain, drought, heat and/or sunshine.

    The majority of us are not experts in this area.  We trust the tea masters who have been handed down the secrets for producing the finest loose leaf teas and we are blessed to be able to enjoy them! Our advice is that once you find a particular tea that you enjoy, stick with it regardless of the type of cultivar or variety. 

     

    Choose The Best Tea Growing Regions

    China

    Tea has been cultivated in China for nearly 5000 years and has been the leading producer in both quantity and quality. Most Chinese green teas and oolong teas come from of Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian Provinces and set the standard for what quality teas should taste like.  Chinese black teas are mainly produced in the provinces of Yunnan, Hunan, and Sichuan. They often have a smooth, mild and sweet flavor. The best known black teas are from Keemun because of the remarkable wine like characteristics.

    China is also one of the few countries that produces specialty teas infused with fragrant flowers such as Jasmine, Rose or Lychee. These teas are processed by steaming the leaves with flowers and blossoms so that they absorb their flavor and taste. The production of these teas coincide with the harvest cycle of the fresh flowers.  Dragonwell Lung Ching is probably the most widely known in tea communities but there are so many quality green and white teas available that it take years to fill your tea passport.

     

    India

    India as a whole is the 2nd leading tea producer and is known for some of the best black teas in the world. The majority of the tea produced in India is black although there is an increasing amount of green and white teas being produced from from the best tea estates.  Over 70% of the tea produced in India is consumed within the country itself and the rest is exported.  While the volume the entire country produces is impressive, there are three distinct tea growing regions in India – Darjeeling, Assam and the Nilgiri region.

     

    Assam

    Assam is the largest tea growing region in the world. The high plateau in northern India straddles the Brahmaputra River.  Tea bushes are dormant during the cool weather from December through February.  The first harvest of the year starts in February after the dormant period.  First flush teas from Assam have a fragrant  flowery character and are golden yellow in the cup.  Full bodied and malty Assam teas peak during the second flush.  The very best Assam teas are harvested from May through June during the second flush harvest period. The leaves release that full malty character that desired among tea connoisseurs. The color is now a rich coppery red to deep brown. Assam teas are the basis of many popular blends and make delicious iced teas as well.

     

    Darjeeling

    Darjeeling is certainly one of the most widely marketed tea growing regions associated with fine  loose leaf tea.  Located on the southern slopes of the Himalayan Mountains in northeast India, Darjeeling is undoubtedly one of the most famous tea growing regions associated with quality loose leaf black teas.  Some of the most precious teas are cultivated in the breathtaking landscape around the small city of Darjeeling.

    Darjeeling teas are cultivated at altitudes of 2400–6000 ft. The leaves harvested from the highest tea gardens usually produce the best quality tea.  Although the region has just the right climatic conditions for cultivating fine tea bushes, much depends on how the tea is processed.

    There are two distinct harvesting periods referred to as the 1st flush ( March - April) and 2nd flush (Mid May through June).  The tea produced from the reputable estates command high prices on the global market.  Mim Estate is our highest rated antioxidant black tea and certainly should be on your radar.


    Nilgiri & Southern India

    Southern India tea is cultivated in the hilly uplands of the provinces Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu at altitudes of 2400 to 6000 feet.  High grown Nilgiris are similar to Ceylon teas - Bright and Astringent.  Tiger Hill Estate is one of the finest black teas to showcase what this region has to offer.

     

    Sri Lanka

    Sri Lankan tea is often referred to by the old country name Ceylon. At around 60 % of its net export profits, tea is the most important export of Sri Lanka, a land of mild, subtropical climate and diverse vegetation. The most important tea-growing areas are located in the central highlands. Ceylon tea is divided into three categories: Low grown tea that grows under 650 meters, medium grown tea that grows between 650 and 1300 meters, and high grown tea that grows between 1300 and 2500 meters.

    There are three tea districts in the central highlands around Adam’s Peak:  If you are searching for one of the best teas on earth - Adam's Peak is certainly going to be at the top of the list.  A bit of knowledge and a discernible palate is a must when judging this white needle tea. Uva in the east, Dimbula in the west, and Nuwara-Eliya in between. Monsoon and passat winds determine the periods of quality. In the Uva district the best teas grow between June and September. In the Dimbula district the teas containing less tannin are harvested between December and March and have a softer, lighter cup than the Uva tea. In the Nuwara-Eliya district good-quality tea is harvested all year round.  Courtlodge Estate is one of Nuwara-Eliya best tea estates.


    Taiwan

    Taiwan was formerly known as Formosa so many tea drinkers and tea producers still refer to tea grown in Taiwan as Formosan tea.  Taiwan is famous for its gunpowder green teas even though it produces many fine oolong teas as well. The oolong teas from Formosa tend to be more heavily oxidized and closer to a black tea than a green tea.  Tea is grown throughout Taiwan but the best loose leaf teas comes from the higher altitudes. The first flush of the year begins traditionally on April 20th and reaches its peak on May 6th.


    Africa

    Africa produces around 15% of the world’s tea. The tea that is produced is almost exclusively CTC (crush, tear, curl) but more and more orthodox high end teas are cropping up due to high demand.  Check out Silverback white needle tea from Kenya.  Kenyan teas and have been our favorite for producing high grade loose leaf teas but we are looking to explore more teas from Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Ethiopia.

    A couple of herbal teas from Africa are worth mentioning because they are just so GOOD!

    Rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis) is a legume, the same family of plants to which peas and clover belong. It is native to the Western Cape of South Africa, where is it a popular drink; translated from Afrikaans, rooibos means “red bush.” Young branches are cut from the shrub once a year (December–April). These cuttings are finely chopped and bruised to promote oxidation, are then moistened and layered (a “sweating” step), and finally are dried. During this processing, the green leaves turn red, yielding a flavor that is somewhat woody, sweet, and creamy.

    Honeybush tea (Cyclopia sp.)(aka “Mountain tea” or “Cape tea”):
    In South Africa, its country of origin, honey bush tea, with its natural honey-like sweetness and flavor, is preferred over Black tea. The dried leaves contain little tannin and is caffeine.


    Japan

    Japan is the only major tea producing country in the world to almost exclusively process only green tea.  Around 97% of which is consumed internally which leaves very little available for export. Its three major tea-growing regions are Shizuoka, Kagoshima, and Uji. Tea spread throughout Japan after it was brought there in the 8th century from China by a Buddhist monk. The most important tea-growing district is Shizuoka, which lies in picturesque surroundings at the base of Mount Fuji. Half of Japan’s total tea production is harvested here. The other two important areas are Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu and Uji district of Kyoto.

     

    Nepal

    Since the privatization of many of the tea gardens in Nepal, growing conditions and efficiency have taken a giant leap forward and they are now producing some of finer types of tea that are reminiscent of Darjeeling varieties.  Jun Chiyabari has been a consistent producer of fine black teas and is our top pick. 

     

    Brazil

    Yerba Mate is the national drink of Brazil and even though it is not made from Camellia Sinensis it important to include.  The “green gold of the Indios” is obtained from the leaves of the evergreen maté shrub; the leaves are sold either green or roasted. Although Maté is an "herbal tea" it is loaded with caffeine.  In South America the locals drink maté tea from original drinking bowls known as “cuia” that are made from hollowed-out gourds. The bowls are filled  2/3 full with maté tea leaves and cold or lukewarm water (for the first infusion never boiling water) is added and allowed to brew and settle. A metal straw called a “bombilha“ deep into the brew while holding the straw shut with the thumb. Suck up the first bitter infusion and spit it out. Now fill the “cuia” with hot water and – drink!  Maté tea leaves can be used several times by brewing them again with hot water according to taste, and this can easily be done in the typical manner of preparing tea.

    Indonesia

    Java and Sumatra are noted for their coffee and tea production. The tea gardens on Java and Sumatra harvest all year round. Java shows a distinct peak in quality during the dry season during the months of July through October.  Quality and flavor of Javanese tea is low for the remainder of the year.

    Sumatra produces medium quality all year round. Indonesian teas are usually processed and used in blends for British markets. Most tea gardens specialize in producing teas for mass produced box store branded teas and tea bags and are not suitable for discerning loose tea drinkers.

    Argentina

    Nearly all of Argentinian tea is grown in the Northern Province of Misiones.  The harvest season is short but quality teas are produced from October and November with decent output  that extends through January.  The tea bushes are dormant  from June through August during the southern hemisphere winter months.

    Bangladesh

    Approximately 85% of the tea gardens in Bangladesh are located in the region of Sylhet.  Production is from April to December with harvesting suspended from January through March due to cool weather. Peak quality is harvested in May and June and suitable for those looking for premium teas otherwise production is mediocre at best.

     

     Top 10 Tea Producing Countries by Volume (2016 Data)

    Loose leaf tea is harvested in over 40 countries with China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya producing 75% of the world's tea.  Each region has its own characteristics due to distinct soil and climate conditions.  Generally speaking, the higher the elevation a tea bush is grown the better the quality of tea.  Elevation is one of the most important criteria for growing top rated loose leaf teas because of the micro climate.  This is not to say you can't find good lower elevation loose leaf teas because you can. 

    Elevation is one of the largest effects on localized weather.  Tea bushes grown at higher elevations tend to receive lower temperatures and higher amounts of precipitation than the tea bushes at grown lower altitudes.  Air pressure is lower at higher altitudes and so is the capacity for air to hold water vapor.  As warm air rises, it expands and cools and cannot hold all its moisture.  This causes clouds to form and the moisture is released as rain or snow depending on the air temperature.  As a result of the increased precipitation, valuable water is delivered to the roots.

    The windward side of mountains has the highest rainfall and the leeward side (opposite the wind source) of mountains tends to be drier. Tea bushes need an ample supply a water and  grow better on the windward sides of mountain ranges. 

    Tea Bushes grown at higher elevations get more rain, more cloudy mist, more sunlight, more temperature variations, and less oxygen. These "adversities" effect of the flavor by adding desirable subtle notes and tones to almost all varieties of tea. 

    Low altitude tea production greatly outnumbers high mountain teas because there is more area for growing around the base of the mountains than toward the peaks. Lower supply also equates to greater demand.  Tea grown at lower elevations tend to be full bodied with more astringency than high mountain grown teas.  The increased astringency makes it more difficult for the novice tea drinker to brew. We recommend using a little less tea, lower temperature water and less steep time to combat the bitterness, however cream and sugar are often used as well.

    High mountain grown loose leaf teas are much more forgiving while brewing and still end up with a decent flavor.  It pays to buy high quality loose leaf tea rather than tossing a cup of  tea that is too bitter or trying to mend it with cream and sugar.

     

    Tea Cultivation, Processing and Classification

    Cultivation        
    Young plants are raised from cuttings obtained from a mother bush and they are carefully rooted and cared for in special nurseries until they are 1 to 2 years of age.  The mother bush is carefully selected for propagation based on individual properties and yield. The tea plants can then be transplanted out in the tea fields.  This process is known as cloning.  Tea can also be grown from seed, however, due to the degree of difficulty, cloning is the most widely used method of cultivating tea.  Tea bushes are planted from three to four feet apart and planted in rows which follow the natural contour of the landscape. Tea is also grown on specially prepared terraces to improve irrigation and to prevent soil erosion.

    Pruning and Plucking        
    Tea bushes are usually pruned every 3 or 4 years at 1-3 inches above the last pruning cut. This type of pruning is called light pruning. Trimming back encourages new shoots to form and increases yield. Regular pruning cycles encourages a fresh supply of new shoots and further increases yield.  Pruning also maintains the shape and vitality of the overall tea bush.


    Regular Pruning and Harvesting Tea Bushes Produce the Best Tea


    Harvesting fresh young shoots from the mature tea bushes is known as plucking.  The location of the leaves relative to the tea bush greatly determines the quality of the finished product.  The youngest emerging buds are often reserved for the finest quality teas and are graded as flowery pekoe or more commonly known as tips.  The next set of leaves from the end of the growing stem are  classified as orange pekoe and pekoe respectively. The older and largest leaves closes to the main stem are called souchong.  Although this initial grading during the plucking phase can determine the final product value, it is the handling and manufacturing techniques that will weigh in the most when determining market price at auction.  

    Harvesting is carried out throughout the growing season and is referred to as the "flush" of a particular tea.   The flush of a particular tea is determined at the time of plucking.  "First flush" is known as the early spring plucking of new shoots.  "Second flush" is harvested from late spring through early summer, yielding teas with more body and fuller flavor.  While autumnal flush is the late season harvest.  Harvesting is a skilled job traditionally carried out by women and done by hand.  Expert care is taken while plucking the shoots. The leaves are carefully pinched and twisted when removed from the tea bush.  Handfuls of shoots are then placed into the carrier baskets resting on their backs.  After the tea is harvested in the fields, it is brought directly to the tea factory where it is further processed.


    Withering and Rolling        
    The withering process begins by evenly spreading the shoots out on trays, or fine meshed screens.  Withering takes place in open air room utilizing the effect of natural breezes to wilt the leaves or, in special facilities with controlled heating and ventilating equipment.  Regardless of the facilities used, the withering process effectively reduces the moisture content to about 50% of its natural state.  The leaves become limp and flaccid,  and are now suitable for rolling.

    The purpose of rolling is to rupture the cells.  During this process, plant enzymes are released and begin a chemical reaction when exposed to oxygen.  This process can be done mechanically or for high grade teas, rolling is still done by hand.  A wide range of equipment can be used for this process, including the traditional orthodox method or the C.T.C method.  After rolling the tea leaves are prepared to go through to the next stage of processing.  This is the point at which tea classifications such as green tea, black tea, and oolong tea differ based upon the amount of time allowed for the plant enzymes to chemically react with the open air.  This chemical reaction is known as oxidization.

    Oxidization        
    Oxidization, commonly referred to as "fermentation", is the most important stage in the manufacturing of oolong and black teas.  This process makes it uniquely different from green tea which is not allowed to oxidize.  Green tea skips this process and proceeds directly to the firing ovens to reduce the moisture content.  Oxidization is carried out in
    custom designed facilities.  Depending on the temperature, technique and the style of tea desired, oxidization time can range from 45 minutes to many hours.  The characteristic color and aroma determine the completion of this process based on tradition and knowledge.  Great skill is needed during this phase because it can dramatically affect the finished product if proper timing and air circulation are not followed.


    Firing and Sorting        
    Firing halts the oxidization process by subjecting the leaves to a stream of hot air.  Temperatures between 190–210 degrees Fahrenheit are required for about 20-30 minutes to produce black tea with a moisture content of 2-3 %.  The dried tea is sorted into different grades by passing it over a series of vibrating screens of different mesh sizes.  The passage of teas through this system produces a number of grades with evenly sized particles.  Teas are then packaged according to particle size and sold as dust, fannings, broken leaf, or whole leaf grades.

    Tea Processing Flow Chart Green Tea Oolong and Black Tea

    Types of Tea

    All tea comes from the evergreen tea bush (Camellia Sinensis).  The following terms only describe tea leaves after they are harvested from the tea bush and processed for consumption.

    Tea is classified into three basic types with smaller variations within each group:  


    1)  GREEN TEA

    2)  OOLONG TEA

    3)  BLACK TEA

     

    GREEN TEA

    Green tea does not undergo the oxidization process.  It has a herbaceous flavor and is green or yellowish in color. The leaves are sometimes steamed after which it is rolled, fired and sorted.  Oxidization is a chemical reaction that takes place when tea leaves are picked and begin to wither and die.  Green tea is not allowed to oxidize and is quickly dried, pan-fried or oven fired to dehydrate the tea leaves for storage.  This process retains many of the polyphenols, catechins, and flavonoids that are associated with the health benefits of drinking green tea.

     

    WHITE TEA

    White tea can really be thought of as a subset of green tea.  White tea is picked before the leaf buds fully open and are still covered with fine silky hairs.  The delicate buds are quickly air dried to produce some of the rarest and most expensive tea available.  White Tea is said to have three time more antioxidants than green or black tea.  Researchers for some of the large cosmetic companies have become very interested in white tea in recent years.  The polyphenols in white tea have been shown to be very effective in mopping up free radicals that can lead to aging, and wrinkles, and sagging skin but at Imperial Tea Garden, we offer green teas and black teas with equally high levels of antioxidants.

     

    OOLONG TEA

    Oolong tea falls somewhere between green tea and black tea in the amount of time the tea leaves are allowed to oxidize.  Oolong tea is partially oxidized and prepared by withering, rolling, fermenting and then drying.  The oxidization process continues for a predetermined time based on the master's skill and knowledge.  Two terms often used to describe oolong tea are “green” and “amber” style.  The “amber” styles are allowed to oxidize slightly more than the “green style” oolong tea.  This results in a variety of smooth teas available that bear the makers style and tradition.

     

    BLACK TEA

    Black tea is fully oxidized and often yields a full-bodied amber brew.  It undergoes five basic manufacturing stages: withering, rolling, fermenting, firing and sorting.  Black tea is allowed to oxidize which “ripens” the tea and creates a deep, rich, robust flavor with uniqueness based on the tea grower’s knowledge and skill. The oxidation process is commonly referred to as fermentation.  This is technically incorrect because "fermentation" is a process in which yeast is converted into alcohol and sugar is converted to and released as carbon dioxide gas.

     

    PU-ERH

    Pu-erh tea comes from the Yunnan province in China.  Pu-erh tea has a distinct earthy aroma.  This type of tea differs from other formed black tea because it is allowed to grow a thin layer of mold on the leaves.  Of course these are harmless cultures and are reputably known in China for their medicinal effects.  This makes sense because the antibiotic penicillin was first discovered through mold cultures.

     

    SCENTED TEA

    Scented teas are produced by harvesting the fragrant flowers like jasmine blossoms and layering them in with the harvested tea leaves.  Warm air is circulated through the mixture and the tea leaves become infused with the scent of the flowers.



    HERBAL TEA

    It should be noted that herbal tea or herb tea is not really tea at all, since they do not contain leaves from the tea bush (Camellia Sinensis).  Herbal teas are made from seeds, roots, flowers, or other parts of plants and herbs.  They are often blended to make unique tasting infusions and more formally known as tisanes.  Medicinal teas are herbal teas that are used for the treatment of ailments. These teas are gaining acceptance in western culture.




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