Posts in ctc
Pro Tea Tip: choose whole leaf teas

There are dozens of teas found on your grocery store shelves, and different ways to describe these teas. The different types might baffle you a bit, so let's explain the terms. I got excited to tell you about the historic side as well, hope you find it interesting!

The most common form of tea you'll find is teabags, no matter where you go. These bags contain often the lowest degree teas that are called dust and fannings. Unfortunately this is the type that the Westerners have adopted as tea. This is a product that was born after a high pressure to produce a huge amount of teas, as the Europeans discovered and fell in love with tea during their China travels. The demand was rising exponentially. Often the teas' flavors were mildened and altered by the long travels from China to Europe so the black tea, having the most powerful flavors, became the Western world's favorite tea. Unfortunately the other amazing, but sensible Chinese teas such as green and white teas suffered by the trip's length and unfavorable conditions, and therefore remained to be discovered later on. 

The Chinese tea was too expensive for the Westerners, and so the Englishmen decided to smuggle Chinese tea plants to their colony India and start making their own teas. The Indian work force was cheaper and the machines that were invented could create tea for fraction of the price for Chinese teas. These machines produced teas in a much faster pace, fitting the lifestyle of busy and unpatient Europeans.

As the black tea that they had received from China was of lesser quality and not that flavorful as intended, the Englishmen got used to using different additives with their teas, such as milk, sugar and honey. In India, they wanted to create something more robust, to have enough body and strength to taste the tea underneath all the milk and sweeteners. So they came up (thanks to industrial revolution) with CTC method. CTC is short for Crush, tear, curl and is really discriptive term for the method. The tea leaves are crushed, torn and curled into dust-like powder in order to create powerful aromas, that way extracting the flavors faster in the brewing process. The tea is pulverized so that the tea materia would fit in the tea bags. And because this tea was the lowest degree tea that was really powerful in taste, no one would complain that in this process the lesser grades of tea leaves were used. And that's how we got used to drinking the worst quality in the Western countries. And still we call it "tea", even though it couldn't be more further away from the real thing. 

After the lowest degree, dust and fannings, come loose leaf tea. This can be all sorts of tea, the only thing is that it isn't packed in a bag. This can be dust-like leaf substance, this can be broken leaves and this can be whole leaves. So if the tea is classified as "loose leaf tea", that isn't necessarily a choice for the better.

The highest category is whole leaf tea (known as well as full leaf tea). This is the traditional way of processing tea leaves. This term is misused quite often, so be aware. Whole leaf teas are always unbroken and almost always handpicked as this method requires accuracy: the leaves are easily destroyed and this alters the flavor, making the sharp flavors come out and dampen the subtle, elegant flavors. In whole leaf tea you really can recognize the full leaves and buds.

Why are the whole leaf teas so much superior than others, you might ask. The flavor of the tea comes from the tea leaves as they slowly open and unfurl. Different flavor compounds appear at different times. The bad flavors appear last and in brewing your tea you need to know when to stop the brewing before these unwanted compounds break loose. 

Whole leaves are seldom blended with other teas, so you can taste the real flavor of origin. This of course is the way we want to taste teas, because it is the origin (soil, climate, altitude, plant variety, picking style, part of the plant being plucked, processing method etc.) that makes the flavor in tea. It is always more expensive to produce, but it’s worth it!

Whole leaf teas won’t lose their flavors as fast and stays much fresher and more interesting, giving a really nuanced cup. Teabags become stale and dull quickly and they have issues with freshness. When you brew a teabag or broken leaves, the flavor compounds are transfered much faster to the cup creating uncontrolled brewing and most often over extraction, making the teas flavors straightforward without any nuances and bitter. 

Transparency in regular tea

In this post I want to tell you about the road from tea farm to the retailer, and why it's important to buy Direct Trade tea, i.e. tea trade that has no middlemen: the tea comes straight from the tea farm to the retailer. I'll dive into the history of tea trade and how we Westerners lost contact with the origin.

Tea Trade.jpg

Tea Trade

Most often, as you can see from the chart, tea has A LOT of middlemen, and the tea market is the buyer's market: the biggest tea buyers tell the farmers at what price the tea will be bought. Often the tea is sold in auctions, where the predictability is hard, and sometimes farmers get their share of money and sometimes it's under priced.

The more middlemen are in the mix, the cheaper the buyers need to buy their teas, as each and every middleman take their part of the cake. That means really low income to tea farmers and the younger generation is abandoning tea farming as a whole, because there are more prosperous and easy ways of making a livelihood. A report from Oxfam stated that tea workers’ wages are often below the poverty line, whether they are on certified or non-certified estates. When the farm owners get a low wage, they won't have the money to pay enough wage to the employees either and start compromising their working conditions and using questionable work force, such as child labor. When bought directly (and being responsible in choosing the right kind of farmers with right values) all these problems disappear, because finally the farmers get to say their price, not the other way round!

This situation is enabled mostly because the market is taught to buy cheap tea bags that contain the lowest grades of tea - dust and fannings. This is ground tea or the left-overs and rejects after larger leaf pieces are gathered for sale as loose tea and the name tells it all: its dust-like material that has nothing to do with real whole leaf teas. 

Why are the Westerners drinking this traditionally low-quality tea?

All began with the huge demand in the last century as the practice of tea drinking became popular. The industrial revolution played a part, as the production shifted from manual to machines. The commercialization of tea was the end of slow-produced tea and bigger leaves as they need to come to the market faster and the leaves take more space to pack in to bags than dust. 

One single machine  produces two-million tea bags a day and this required the tea leaf to be crushed and replaced by a lower grade. They started making CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl: tea is manually ground to tiny pieces and agitated so that the flavors become more robust) Big tea factories prefer dust tea because it is cheap and also produces a very strong brew; consequently, more cups are obtained per measure of tea dust.

So if you want to be ethical and have transparency in your tea cup, choose the right retailers and get to know the farmer behind the tea.