Know Your Rare Tea - Five Loose Leaf Tea Terms Explained

Tea

Technically speaking, ‘tea’ is leaves, buds and stems from the Camellia Sinensis plant that have been picked and processed. White? Green? Oolong? Black? That’s right – all from the same plant. The different types listed differ in how the farmer has treated the leaves- from the way and when they were harvested to the degree of oxidisation the leaf has been exposed to, and a great deal of exquisite craft and skill in-between. (A simple analogy for oxidisation is a cut apple – left to its own devices, it will turn brown - so with tea, darker teas are more oxidised.)

Also playing an important role in the flavour of the tea, to borrow a phrase usually associated with wine, is terroir. The natural environment, the soil, the altitude, climate... All have a part to play in the characteristics of the finished tea. Tea and wine have so many wonderful comparisons.

What about Chamomile Tea? Nope. Certainly not according to Benedict Cumberbatch who last year was quoted ‘shall I really vent now? I’m sick of chamomile tea being called tea.’ Hear, hear!

Chamomile, Peppermint, Lemongrass, Rooibos etc. often hastily have those letters ‘t-e-a’ snapping at their heels – however now we know that, technically speaking – not tea! They do not come from the Camellia Sinensis plant.  We call these ‘herbal infusions.’

Tea does, however, have some interesting other associations and definitions. According to Urban Dictionary, tea ‘is the best kind of gossip, typically shared between friends. It’s a bonding tool for people of all ages.’

I find this a rather charming example of history repeating itself – in the 19th Century, tea was informally known as ‘scandal water’ – meeting for tea was a great opportunity for people to gather in the afternoon and… gossip.

HAND ROLLED

This is not a phrase that you’ll find on the side of the box of teabags in the back of your cupboard. What you find in there is most likely mass produced CTC tea.

CTC stands for CUT, TEAR, CURL and is the industrial method of tea production. Tea leaves are passes through large cylindrical rollers that are lined with sharp teeth – cutting, tearing and curling the leaf into tiny pieces. The machines are enormous, created to make tea as cheaply and quickly as possible. (I’m not saying this is an inherently malicious and sinful method of producing tea – we’re just not its biggest fan). CTC is a bit like instant coffee.

Another method of tea production is known as ‘Orthodox’. All the tea you’ll find here have been produced by hand rolling or in this method. Orthodox means that the leaves have been carefully rolled in small batches on rollers, rather than hand-full by handful between palms.

So, when you see the phrase ‘hand rolled’ in the name of the tea – well, the clue is really in the name – the tea has been hand rolled, by human hands. This is a delicate, time consuming and skilled labour of artisanal love.

Here’s Henrietta attempting to hand roll some Sri Lankan tea, alongside a consummate professional...

I was allowed to try and hand roll some tea when I was visiting the Satemwa Estate last year – let’s just politely say that none of mine made it into our Huntington Hand Rolled

 

SILVER TIP

You may have heard of these before – perhaps called ‘Silver Needle’. We’re talking about the same thing.

Historically and depending on who you’re chatting to, genuine Silver Tips come from tea bush cultivars known as Da Bai (Big White) from the Fujian Province of China – often known as the birthplace of white tea. It’s fair to say that Fujian is world renowned for producing excellent Silver Tip tea – however, there are plenty of other skilled producers all round the world making a very high quality too.

Silver Tips are a white tea. We’re currently stocking ‘Silver Tip White Tea’ and ‘Silver Tip Jasmine Tea’.



These Silver Tips are the very first buds produced after the winter – they’re extremely delicate and considered by many as the highest grade of white tea in China.

During the cold winter there is no new growth on the tea bush, it’s hibernating – all the energy, sugars and carbohydrates have gone down into the roots. Towards the end of March the tea bush produces it’s very first buds – Silver Tips – these are then very meticulously plucked – if left a day to late, the bud will open up into the first set of leaves.

The fact that it’s picked before it opens up, means it has all that unique sweetness stored through winter still locked inside.

LEAF TO WATER RATIO

Enjoying loose leaf tea at home is something we’re striving to make easier. In fact, it’s already ‘easy’ so how about ‘accessible’?

We do understand that using loose leaf tea daily could seem a little daunting. However, please don’t let a plastic bag of tea dust get in your way. With a little knowledge and the right kit – you’ll never look back.  Understanding the ‘leaf to water ratio’ is the first step in the right direction.

It’s rather simple really. If you want to make a decent cup of tea, you need the right leaf to water ratio. Too much water to tea will leave you with a wishy washy, rather tasteless cup, too much tea to water and your palette will be overwhelmed with bitter tannins. The balance is found somewhere in between.

Every tea on our website will have the exact weight of leaf needed for a standard teacup amount of tea (150ml), and our own glass teapots are specifically designed to contain 150ml/300ml of water each. Be sure not to fill the teapot all the way up to the top – you want to add water to the point where the top of the spout meets the body of the teapot.



There will be full marks awarded to those of you who use a micro-milligram scale to weigh in the tea. For those of you who don’t a teaspoon or desert spoon can be a worthy substitute.

For broken grade teas, like Speedy Breakfast, 2.5g is about a heaped teaspoon. For whole leaf teas – like our Green Leaf, for 2g you’ll need about a dessert spoon.

INFUSION

There’s a word that you rarely hear at Rare Tea HQ. When it’s accidently uttered it gets the same reaction Harry Potter did mentioning Lord Voldemort’s name out loud. Shock, bewilderment and slight terror; that word is ‘Brew’.  I know this may upset some people. ‘But I love a good brew!’ I hear you cry.

‘Brew’ is synonymous with teabags and it’s used as a word to describe a ‘cup of tea’. It’s linked and engrained within UK tea culture, there’s no denying it. But we want to break all the old stereotypes. We want to flood your lives with pleasure, and make a far more delicious cup.

Instead, we call the act of steeping leaf in water- an ‘infusion’ and often talk about the ‘infusion time’.

When running trainings, we don’t send out ‘Brew Guides’ we send ‘Infusion Guides’. We’re not trying to be pretentious – we just think the world has moved on, tea deserves to be valued and appreciated. ‘Brew’ seems a little outdated for our liking. Instead of brewing your White Silver Tip, try infusing it…

Finally, brew has been championed and owned by the coffee and beer industry – isn’t it about time the tea industry got its own ‘word’?


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