When buying loose-leaf tea, make sure it smells fresh and vibrant. Check the packet labels to check whether you’re buying a blend or single variety. If buying flavoured tea, check whether the flavouring is natural or a ‘nature-identical’ synthetic. For example, Earl Grey tea flavoured with bergamot oil is far superior to Earl Grey tea with bergamot flavouring.
Black teas are graded by their leaf size, from whole leaf, to ‘broken’ and ‘fannings’, down to ‘dust’. The leaf grade will determine the tea’s brewing time: the smallest leaves are used in teabags because they brew very quickly. All grades can produce fine tea, albeit in different styles ranging from light and delicate to full-bodied.
All tea is made from the processed leaves and buds of the evergreen ‘Camellia sinensis’ bush. There are a huge variety of teas, however, generally classified by the size of the leaves and the way in which they’re treated. The flavour will vary according to the conditions in which the tea is grown, the soil and climate, the way the leaves are harvested and the manner in which they’re processed after picking.
A great advantage of loose leaf over bagged tea is your ability to see and smell the product before purchasing it. Generally, it’s better to buy more intact-looking leaves; a lot of crushed bits can indicate rough handling, excessive processing, and/or stale tea. Let your nose gauge the quality: Sniff for freshness and richness.
Tea has a long shelf-life, but both leaf tea and teabags should be stored in an airtight container or canister in a cool, dark place in order to preserve the original flavour for as long as possible.
More details on tea from the BBC Food/Tea…