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When Loose Tea Loses Its Way

By Randy Altman

Loose tea is often defined by what it is not, namely, tea not in a teabag form. However, loose leaf is really its own type, with its own issues.

At the level of the retail consumer, loose tea is generally equated with specialty tea. Even this generalization is changing, with the increasing popularity of pyramid-shaped-bags, sometimes called sachets. Loose tea has advantages and a few disadvantages. These factors are both objective and subjective. Loose tea is closely allied to the topic of connoisseurship, which is in turn linked to specialty tea.

Darjeeling is an entire region, at the foothills of the Himalayas in India, where the focus is loose tea for an upscale market. Probably every specialty tea store sells Darjeeling tea, usually as loose. There are about 80 estates in Darjeeling, and I have never seen a tea-bagging machine there. Yes, specialty businesses will bag the tea for the convenient-minded, but this tea is really designed for loose consumption. This aspect is not connoisseurship, but simple enjoyment.

Elite consumers in the U.S. probably assume most of the Darjeeling tea is sold in America, but this is not the norm. For example, a leading Darjeeling estate is Makaibari, which is certified organic, and even beyond organic to biodynamic. Makaibari is also Fair Trade and Community Forest Management. Europe buys the most from this prestigious estate, with the U.S. coming in second. Some of the newer markets are India and China. Makaibari manufactures about 120-tons annually. This places it in the larger category for Darjeeling. Anupa Mueller of Eco-Prima, based in Ossining, New York, is a teashop owner and relative of the Makaibari family. Mueller states that the typical figure of 30% of production yields in the broken and fannings grade. She also reports the fannings grade is teabagged by intermediate companies.

Contrary to almost every report of loose tea, fannings and dust are not the cheapest levels. I have physically climbed piles of bags of leftover tea product in a Darjeeling tea factory that was designed for use in making caffeine tablets. This was loose leaf tea, but below consumption level, yet still earning money for the cash-strapped estates. The high-quality loose leaf tea is sent from Darjeeling to Calcutta (now officially called “Kolkata”) in chests. The chests, which are reused, and found many with narrow cracks, are among the first vulnerable for airflow contamination.

Leaf vs. Bag
The old dichotomy between loose-as-elite and teabag-as-mass-market has taken a big change with the pyramid bags, which allow for bigger leaves. Pyramid bags are geometrically often tetrahedral, but the point is the same, to allow more space inside the bag for a fuller leaf. Harney & Sons, a leader in these sachets, says this format is almost becoming standard for tea-bagging at the super-premium level. Yet, any teabag is a barrier between the tea and the imbiber. Some bags do allow a fairly good view of the tea inside, but you still miss the feel of the leaf. The aroma, which is an important factor in connoisseurship, is less likely to be experienced in bagged tea. Again, some bags block the aroma more than others.

Obviously, loose leaf is sold differently than bagged tea, with bagged tea almost always sold by the bag count and loose leaf often by the gram (sometimes by the ounce). For example, Tea Trader, a teashop and catalogue business in Calgary, Canada, sells by 125, 250 and 500-gram amounts. Tins are sold separately at Tea Trader, as is customary, and they have the full range of tin sizes, from 50-gram to 1-lb. Special tins, however, cost slightly more.

The subject of tins brings up the issue of keeping the loose leaf fresh, which is its major disadvantage. Loose leaf is a sponge for odors, and most people keep tea in the kitchen, along with onions, garlic and the like.

Storage of loose leaf can be a real problem. Some specialty shops house the tea in glass jars, tightly capped to keep out air circulation, but in the storefront window to attract walk-in clients. This allows a major contaminant, light, to shine on the tea. This is also related to temperature, and tea should be stored under moderate (not hot or even warm) temperature. Far too much specialty tea is damaged by exposure to heat, such as on a truck during the summer. Specialty shop owners worry about the shipment when on the boat, but forget about the tea between the boat and the store. High humidity is another negative variable.

Loose Leaf Equipment
Tea is beautiful, as is much of Mother Nature, and loose tea displays the product at her best. However, not being in a bag presents the dilemma of how to brew it. Many devices exist for brewing tea loose. I use The Republic of Tea’s “The People’s Brew Basket,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: a flat-bottomed mesh with round sides, opened at the top. I can easily observe the tea as it brews, and it holds a good amount. This system requires something to hold the basket from sinking to the bottom in the large mugs I use, so I put in a tablespoon or teaspoon to prop up the brew basket. The brew basket is designed to fit snugly over a cup so as not to sink down.

My second-favorite method for brewing loose tea is the “tea ball.” Tea Trader sells four sizes, 1.5-inch, 2-inch, 2.5-inch and 3-inch, with the largest selling for only $4.50 (Canadian). I would recommend the larger size to allow the leaf to expand fully during infusion. There really are many methods to infuse loose leaf, and this is not the place to detail them all. I will point out, however, that even prestigious restaurants, with high-quality tea, serve loose leaf tea in a manner too binding to allow leaf expansion, and this truly separates connoisseurship from specialty tea.

Keeping Loose Simple and Accessible
Kusmi Tea is a recently expanding, venerable French company, which was founded in Russia in 1867. The company name, Kusmi, is short for the family name Kousmichoff. Kusmi moved to France in 1917, and are sold in elite establishments worldwide. In the U.S., venues include Dean and Deluca, Zabar’s, Whole Foods and Williams Sonoma. From 1867-1975, the company was owned and operated by members of the Kousmichoff family. They sold it in 1975 to the Orebi family, which controls the Orientis Group.

Kusmi sells three different Gift Sets (each contains five tins): Russian Blend, Green Tea and Orthodox Tea. The company educates the public about Russian tea by explaining these are blends of China, India and Ceylon tea according to the “Russian taste.” No, Russian tea is not from Russia. Kusmi consists of eight categories of tea: Exclusive blends, Green, Classical, Orthodox blends, Flavored Black, Organic and Caffeine-free, Herbal infusions and the gift sets. Kusmi states, “Black teas are prepared with whole fermented leaves, which give them this amber structure and an intense flavor.” The Ceylon tea is described as “black Ceylon tea, with long leaves.” Most of their green tea is from China, but they include a green Darjeeling.

The Republic of Tea, based in Novato, California, is one of the more successful American tea companies. Under the company’s website’s main menu heading –– “We’ve always got something brewing … discover some of our newest offerings” –– there are 18 loose leaf teas depicted in their natural glory. Some are expensive, such as the “old bush shui xian rare oolong tea,” which is $19 for 1.13-oz.

The Republic of Tea even describes its loose leaf white tea as “the most tender and sought-after buds available [to] produce the highest quality full-leaf White Tea.” Through this, the client can buy a paper reorder or re-fill bag for a slight price reduction, and use the original canister over again. This same pairing of canister and paper occurs with “British Breakfast Decaf Full Leaf.” Republic also sells herbal teas loose leaf, such as Red Chai, and again with the canister and paper twinning.

Loose tea, while no guarantee of quality, is generally a specialty product at the retail level. More than likely, however, the pyramid or tetrahedral shaped bags, which allow leaf expansion, will continue to catch on with specialty imbibers, if only because we are a hurried society. Loose tea has more going for it than beauty, especially for those that appreciate aroma or a strong brew, and it will continue to appeal to those sensitive to prestige or tradition. Loose tea means many things to the trade, and will always have a prominent role to perform in the global business.

About the Author: Randy Altman, in addition to being a knowledgeable writer on the subject of tea, has also advised the United Nations and other transnational organizations, and has held directorships and office positions at various non-profit corporations. He also holds several adjunct academic appointments.

Tea & Coffee - May, 2007

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