As consumers, we’re no longer happy to buy just any food and drink that is available. We want to know more about its origins and nutritional value and to good reason! We’re also spoilt for choice more than ever before so we need to find something to differentiate products by, right?
You might like to experiment with different types of tea or you might prefer the comforting taste of your favourite brand. But have you ever wondered what goes into your regular cup of tea? I have 5 sure signs to help you tell if you’re drinking a cup of goodness or just dust.
1. Tea bags vs loose tea leaves
This might be harsh to hear for some but tea bags are mostly made up of what is left when all the good quality tea has been taken away. That’s not true of all brands of tea, but it is for most of them. No wonder we don’t give it much respect when brewing a cup then. Three swirls of the spoon and it’s out.
Why do I say this? When mechanisation of tea processing came about in the 19th century, the traditional methods (all in a neat table here), most tea leaves started being processed using the CTC method. This stands for Crush, Tear, Curl and is still the way a lot of tea is processed today, especially that used in tea bags. And in order to obtain the brew most like in such a short space, the tea needs to be really small. Proper big leaves needs a longer infusion time to create a delicious cup.
One of the key criteria of drinking loose leaf tea is that you’re supposed to be able to see the leaf, whether it’s the unfurling of a Gunpowder pellet or the long strands of a Silver Needle. So when the best leaves are picked for loose packages, it would be inefficient if businesses binned the remaining broken leaves. These will be used for teabags or blends where whole leaf quality is not so important.
Having said that, not all tea bags are bad. To find out, simply rip one of them open. You should still be able to distinguish broken pieces (called fannings) rather than just dust.
If you’re still on the fence on the above, I get you! Convenience is hard to beat. Then, the next thing to look out for is clarity. Judge this before you add milk if making black tea!
Essentially, no matter how tall your cup, mug or glass is, you should be able to easily see the bottom. It doesn’t even matter if you see tiny specs of tea that have escaped from your infuser. The fact that you can actually see them is a good sign.
The next item on the list is taste. If you normally have sugar in your tea, this part will be trickier because the sugar is masking the real taste. Try to have a small sip. Is it bitter and clangy? Does it make you feel like the mouth is dry? That’s not good! While I’m not saying you should be tasting nutty or floral aromas (that comes with practice), your drink should be smooth and have flavour all on its own.
One of my colleagues whom I introduced to the wonderful world of tea has 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar in her daily brew. But she never feels the need to add sugar to any of the teas I’ve introduced her too because the flavour is so much nicer.
This is where things get a bit more technical but bear with me! If nothing else, you’ll get some good trivia knowledge for your next pub quiz. Though only used for black teas, tea grading is a good indicator of quality because it indicates the size and type of leaf. A medium graded tea is ‘Orange Pekoe’. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it has orange oils or flavourings like many people do! The orange part of the name comes from the Dutch House of Orange in connection with the fact that the Dutch East India Company was mostly responsible for importing tea to Europe in the beginning.
From Orange Pekoe – which is the general grading for the bud and first two leaves – it can go two ways:
- lower graded tea – Broken Orange Pekoe (not so bad), fannings (what you find in most tea bags) and dust (no jokes, that is the term!)
- higher graded tea – generally given to describe the other attributes of the leaves. As such, tea can be flowery (if the shoots were really young), golden (certain types of tea) going all the way to SFTGFOP (this is the trivia part!). SFTGFOP stands for Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe and this is only awarded to the best single-estate First-Flush Darjeelings, considered the champagnes of tea.
Much like whisky or coffee, origin is important in determining quality. Single estate teas are higher quality blends as they don’t contain leaves that have been exposed to different climates or soil conditions. That means the taste can vary slightly year on year and it should reflect the environment in which the plants grew. As single estate teas are a bit like fine wine, they are also a lot more expensive so think of them as a treat!
Even if you’re not buying a single-estate tea, knowing which country your tea comes from can still have an impact on its taste. Japanese and Chinese green teas, for example, are vastly different. Experiment and find out which ones you like best!