Are you new to the world of loose leaf tea?
Learn about the different kinds of tea and the best ways to make loose leaf tea in this article by Tegan Woo, founder of Amoda Tea.
I've always loved tea, but when I decided to explore beyond the selection of tea bags at my grocery, I discovered that the world of loose leaf tea was vast and overwhelming.
I hope you find this article as helpful as I did!
☕️ What is Tea?
Tea is the oldest beverage in the world and an essential drink in cultures all across the globe.
All true "tea" is made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis bush - black, oolong, green, white, yellow, and pu-erh.
Despite the fact that all of those teas come from the same plant, each tea you sip is unique.
This is from a combination of differences in terroir from region to region (just like wine), the season the leaves are plucked, changing climate conditions, the farmer's technique in processing the leaf and the many ways we steep them!
What about rooibos and herbal teas?
Herbal teas (like chamomile or mint) and the popular rooibos tea are actually not "tea" in the strictest sense, because they don't come from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Instead, they're called "tisanes".
That being said, I personally (and many others) refer to almost any infusion in water as "tea". I don't see the point here in complicating things with technicalities!
🌱 Types of Loose Leaf Tea
If all true tea comes from the same plant, then the difference in the final tea must come from the manufacturing, right?
This is true - the manufacturing process is specific to each class of tea.
There are six different types of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, pu-erh. You don't see yellow tea much in North America, so we won't cover that one here.
Think of the teas along a spectrum of oxidation.
Oxidation is the exposure of the tea leaves to oxygen in the air, which causes browning of the leaves. This is similar to how an apple browns after you cut it.
Green tea is not oxidized at all and white tea is lightly oxidized.
Black and pu-erh teas are on the opposite end of the oxidization spectrum and have darker brown leaves, infusions, and produce a deeper, more hardy flavour.
Oolong covers a range of oxidation in the middle of the spectrum.
After the initial drying stage, leaves destined for green tea are heated to kill the enzyme responsible for oxidization.
In China, the heating is done primarily by pan-firing or roasting.
In Japan, they steam the leaves.
These different methods plays a big part in why Chinese green teas taste and look so much different from Japanese green teas.
What Does Green Tea Taste Like?
Generally speaking, Chinese green teas have a wider range of flavours and sometimes a smokiness. They're also more of a yellow-green colour.
Japanese green teas are more "fresh" tasting with vegetal, grass and seaweed notes. They're a more true green colour in the cup and tend to be more delicate than Chinese green teas.
You should visit your local tea supplier and get a Chinese green and a Japanese green and compare them at home.
White tea undergoes the least amount of processing.
Only the tender young spring buds are used. The buds are allowed to wither then dry to prevent much oxidation of the leaf.
What Does White Tea Taste Like?
Because of the minimal processing, white tea is the most gentle and delicate in both look and flavour.
White tea offers a light and refreshing cup with light steamed vegetal flavours and sometimes light toasted bread.
Oolongs are the most complicated teas to manufacture!
Oolong teas are made from large tea leaves. The appearance (form, shape, colour) of finished oolong teas can range from light green to brown, long & twisted or rolled into tight little balls.
There's so much personalization and intricacy that goes into Oolong manufacture that they tend to have the widest array of flavours and aromas.
Some taste and smell of stone fruits, honey, floral (orchid is common), sandalwood and more.
You might hear oolong tea referred to as "semi-oxidized" loose leaf tea. Oolongs tend to be more oxidized than white teas, but less than black. The range is anywhere from 35% to 80% oxidation level.
What Does Oolong Tea Taste Like?
Your cup of oolong will vary in flavour depending on the amount of oxidation.
It may be sweet, creamy and soft (high mountain Taiwan), or roasty toasty (Chinese Wuyi).
Black teas go through a long manufacturing process.
They are withered (dried) after plucking, which is an incredibly important step in creating a solid foundation for further processing.
After withering, black teas are rolled to release enzymes from the leaf and then they are fully oxidized.
Some of the most famous black teas come from single regions and are named that way - Assam and Darjeeling in India and Keemun and Yunnan in China, for example.
Of course, we commonly see black tea as blends such as English Breakfast and Afternoon blends.
You might also see black tea as "broken leaf" and "full leaf". Broken leaf teas allow for faster and fuller extraction and more caffeine, so you'll see them more often in breakfast blends meant for the addition of milk and sugar.
What Does Black Tea Taste Like?
Again, there's a big variation in how black teas taste, but they are generally richer, stronger and darker than the previous teas, with a bit more caffeine.
Chinese black teas tend to have smoky notes and sometimes some chocolate and sweetness.
Indian teas can be heartier and bolder, with the exception of Darjeeling, which is lighter and refreshing.
Best to get out there and just start comparing them!
There are two types of pu-erh tea: Sheng pu’er (“raw” or “green”), which is not oxidized and Shou pu’er (“cooked” or “black”), which is oxidized.
Sheng pu-erh is the most prized. It is an investment – bought young and set aside to age.
Shou pu-erh is less expensive, but still delicious, and the type that you would normally buy to drink right away.
Like any other tea, there are varying quality levels. Pu-erh tea is the one type of loose leaf tea that is truly fermented.
Microflora and bacterial activity takes place on the leaf, actually fermenting the tea.
What Does Pu-erh Tea Taste Like?
Pu-erh teas are dark, earthy and hearty.
🫖 Essential Tea Brewing Tools for Beginners
Repeat after me: "I will not buy a tea ball!"
While there are many ways to brew loose leaf tea that are great, using a tea ball isn't one of them. They can be messy to use and there isn't enough surface area for the tea to steep well.
These days, you can even find teapots that come with a properly fitting infuser basket.
If you like the convenience of tea bags, look for biodegradable unbleached (brown) tea filters.
Lastly, since each type of tea benefits from different water temperatures, it's handy to have a variable temperature kettle. If you don't have one, it's not a deal-breaker though. Just steep more delicate teas for a shorter amount of time since you're using boiling water.
(Editor's note: I've had this adjustable temperature kettle from Oxo for a while now, and it's perfect for making tea!)
🍵 How to Make Loose Leaf Tea
The easiest way to steep tea is to just pour hot water over the leaves in a cup, and then sip carefully. However, this works better with large rolled teas like oolong rather than teas with small leaves.
Most of us prefer to strain the tea leaves from the liquid, and if you're a loose leaf tea beginner you're probably used to steeping tea in a tea bag.
The easiest way to create a similar experience with loose leaf tea is to use an infuser cup or basket, or biodegradable tea bags (as mentioned above).
An Easy Way To Steep Loose Leaf Tea
Step 1: Heat your water. If you have a regular kettle, wait for the water to boil. Otherwise, set the kettle to the recommended temperature (see below) and heat the water.
Use 1 teaspoon of tea per 8oz cup (250mL) of water. If the tea is quite bulky, like white tea, use 2 teaspoons.
Step 3: Pour hot (or boiling water) over the leaves and steep for the recommended time (see below).
Step 4: Remove the infuser cup or basket. Pour tea into mug or cup (if using a teapot), and add milk or sweetener (if desired).
Re-steeping Your Leaves
Many teas can be infused a few times. This is especially true for oolongs and pu-erhs, but try it out with all your teas.
With each subsequent steep of the same cup of leaves, lengthen the steeping time.
What this means is, don't throw away your loose leaf tea leaves after your first cup! Try steeping a second and a third infusion.
More bang for your buck!
🌡 Suggested Tea Brewing Temperatures
White or Green Tea: well below boiling (76° C - 85°C / 170° - 185° F)
Oolong: below boiling (85°C - 98°C / 185° - 210° F)
Black Tea: just off a full boil (96°C / 206° F)
Pu-erh: full rolling boil (100°C / 212° F)
⏲ Suggested Tea Steeping Times
These times should help you get started on brewing a delicious cup of tea, no matter what kind you have.
You will have to brew a few cups before you discover what exact times give you the flavour that you enjoy most.
White Tea: 3-5 minutes
Green Tea: 1-3 minutes
Oolong Tea: 3-5 minutes
Black Tea: 3-5 minutes
Pu-erh Tea: 2-5 minutes
Herbal Tea: 5 minutes
🙋🏽 Frequently Asked Questions
Earl Grey tea is actually a flavoured tea, not a type of tea. Most Earl Grey teas are made from black tea flavoured with oil of bergamo (a citrus fruit).
Technically, no. Although we brew and drink it like actual teas. All true teas are made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis bush, and rooibos is made from a member of the Fabaceae plant family which is native to South America. It's an herbal tea, or tisane, like chamomile or mint.
No. While a variable temperature kettle can be handy, you can certainly brew tea without one. If you're brewing a delicate tea (like Green tea) with a standard kettle you can open the lid to let the water cool down a bit before pouring it on the leaves. Also, brewing the tea for less time may also help prevent it from tasting bitter.
This guide to loose leaf tea for beginners was originally published in on June 09, 2015 by Tegan Woo. It has since been edited, expanded and re-published with updated product links.
Please note that specific products mentioned may not be the exact ones that Tegan recommended, as product listings have changed over the years.
This is not a sponsored post. Images were provided by Tegan Woo.