There are only a few rules of quality that apply across all styles of tea, but one piece of advice that is commonly given to new tea drinkers is to look for whole leaves. In fact, we have given this piece of advice many times ourselves. When shopping for loose leaf teas with complex flavor, looking for intact leaves is one of our highest priorities. But some teas, like English Breakfast blends or matcha, are always crushed or powdered, even at the highest grades. What is the real benefit of brewing whole leaf teas, and can there be advantages to using broken leaves, as well?
Whole Leaf Teas
You may be familiar with the usual reasons for recommending whole leaves. Intact, the leaves have a smaller amount of surface area in contact with hot water, and therefore release flavor and caffeine more slowly into the cup. This makes them easier to brew, in general, without drawing out bitterness or astringency, and allows for multiple infusions that reveal layer upon layer of changing flavor. For those of us who drink tea all day long, the slower release can also help regulate caffeine content, as caffeine levels decline exponentially in each infusion. While whole leaves can seem intimidating to brew, they’re actually easier to strain and clean up than small broken pieces.
Whole leaf teas require careful handling during crafting, however, and the processes used by traditional tea artisans can be time consuming, resulting in a relatively costly tea when compared to chopped leaves harvested and crafted by machine. While the amazing complexity and intensity of flavor in these small batch teas is more than worth the incremental increase in price per serving, it can feel wasteful to brew a quick mug to chug before work if there’s no time to fully experience each infusion. They also require more space to expand when brewing, and take longer to fully open and release flavor. They’re not easily contained in convenient single-serving tea bags, and are often best appreciated with some specialized teaware.
Broken Leaf Teas
Until the Ming Dynasty in China, all tea leaves were brewed in powdered and broken form. Before the advent of roasting techniques that kept leaves separated, fresh tea leaves were steamed and compressed into cakes, then broken, powdered, and whisked into hot water, setting the precedent for modern matcha teas from Japan. Later, the European merchants that first exported Chinese teas found that they could fit more tea on their ships when the leaves were broken and packed more densely. In fact, the lower prices and bold flavor made broken leaf teas the most popular in the early European consumer market, as well.
When tea bags appeared, broken leaves quickly became the norm for everyday European teas. Along with the cheaper teas being produced in Assam and other parts of India, the single-serving tea bag helped to democratize tea in Europe and create a tea culture for the working class. Broken leaves helped large tea producers serve this growing market in many ways: they were quick to craft, easy to pack and brew in tea bags, and the single-brew bags made them simple to serve.
Unfortunately, along with bold flavor, bitterness and astringency are also released quickly into the brew when steeping broken leaves. While many European cultures offset this quality with milk or sugar, these unpleasant flavor notes can often be avoided completely in whole leaves by adjusting only the brewing method. In addition, broken leaves (especially when packed in tea bags) can easily disguise unpleasant added ingredients. Historically, this has included everything from benign fillers to toxic dyes. Today, the industry is regulated to avoid any poisonous additives, but powdered leaves and tea bags can still hide filler ingredients, dyes, and artificial flavorings or sweeteners.
However, this doesn’t mean that crushed or broken leaves are necessarily bad teas, it only means that extra attention must be paid to the ingredients list and the vendor’s reputation. The same convenience and cost advantages that launched tea bags to popularity still hold true for today’s tea consumers: a single serving of tea leaves that delivers bold flavor in one brew is often more convenient than a loose leaf tea comprised of whole, handcrafted leaves. In fact, whole leaf teas are often crushed for easier packing and brewing in high quality tea bags. In the end, a good tea, with low levels of bitterness and no additives, will deliver high quality flavor no matter what form the leaves are in.
Which of your favorite teas are made with broken leaves? How do you think it would change if the leaves were whole (or vice versa)? Let us know in the comments below!
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