My path through the thickets and tundras of tea began with the near-mystical discovery of loose leaf tea. It was on a particularly balmy spring day in Vancouver in 2014. It was also when I learned about gunfu cha.
Since then, virtually all my experience has been with loose leaf tea and it’s sister medium, the tea cake. As Vancouver tea culture blossoms, more people are taking loose leaf brewing as a given, leaving the clumsy, uninspiring teabag in the dust.
In a word, loose leaf tea is whole tea leaves packaged together without breaking or otherwise compromising the structure of the leaf. If you’re familiar at all with retailers like David’s Tea or Murchies, you already know what loose leaf tea is like (and might even have a preferred brewing method).
Loose leaf tea, of course, can be perfumed, blended or otherwise modified post-harvest according to needs of seller and buyer. On a recent visit to a newer Vancouver loose leaf tea shop on the Drive, I encountered concoctions like a Japanese green tea blended with cucumber slices, and a “creme brûlée” pu’erh mixed with coffee pieces inside.
Now tea purists might consider this an affront to the fine lineage of pure-stock teas; but once a drinker has made the switch from dunking tea bags in the morning to mindfully preparing loose leafs-whether blended or pure-the gap between designer blends and the “real” stuff becomes much slimmer.
Why loose leaf tea
Which begs the question, why is loose leaf tea gaining over tea bags among the boutique crowd in the west and Vancouver in particular? One part is optics: the perceptual chasm between harvest time and the liquid that ends up in your cup is now much narrower. It feels somehow more “authentic” to drink whole leaves rather than the dust and fanning that finds its way into bags.
The other part comes down to chemistry and the ethereal dance of tea and water. Much of the aroma and essential oils that provide tea’s effluvia are lost when its leaves are crushed into pouches. Similarly, with more of the tea’s surface area exposed in bag form, there is a more abrupt, less subtle release of tannins, often resulting in a more astringent and bitter soup.
Once you enter the arena of tea storage and the aging process, a whole different set of considerations presents itself. Consider the ancient cake storage method, which was originally developed to concentrate and store large quantities of tea for long-distance travel to the outer reaches of the Chinese empire. Over time, it was noted how tea – especially pu’erh – compressed and sealed in this way traced along a much broader arc to maturity, offering a smoother, more mellow and complex pallet in the region of decades rather than years.
In this case, loose leaf tea falls out of favour except for immediate storage and consumption. If you choose to store loose leaf (and many experienced drinkers do), there are some factors to consider. With more of the tea surface exposed, loose leaf tea is more susceptible to light and airflow, which can result in a quicker peak and hollowing out of the tea flavour and aromas. It is generally best practice to keep your loose leaf tea sealed and in a dry place with little light exposure to forestall the faster aging process its naturally inclined to.
Finally, it’s always a healthy practice to keep a balanced stock of cake and loose leaf tea. The one you can chip off the odd while to note the subtleties of the ageing process and to train your palate; the other offers itself to more immediate and regular consumption, maintaining the same impact and rarefied qualities of cake tea – depending of course on the particular variety and the quality of your tea ware.
Take a look at our expanding Tea Map below for our recommended local resources for loose leaf tea. If you have a particularly favourite shop or brand, let us know in the comments below and as always, hang loose!