Everything You Need To Know About Loose-leaf Tea

What makes loose-leaf tea different from teabags or any other form of tea? Check out this guide to find out for yourself.

Loose leaf tea on table
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Did you know that 3.7 million cups of tea are consumed around the world every day?

If you're reading this, it's likely you're an avid tea drinker and probably account for a number of those cups. You may be looking to expand your horizons beyond tea bags. If so, loose leaf tea has a lot to offer.

If you'd like to learn about loose leaf tea and why it's worth switching to, then this guide is for you. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about loose leaf tea.

How Loose Leaf Tea is Different From Tea Bags

If you're used to drinking teabag tea, it's good to understand how loose leaf differs. There are several factors that set loose leaf and teabags apart.

Better Taste

Loose leaf tea often tastes much more pleasant than tea bags. This is because teabags contain crushed-up tea leaves, leaving bags full of dust and fanning. This degrades the quality of the tea and results in a bitter flavor.

Some teabag manufacturers use broken leaves instead of crushed leaves, which may improve flavor. But for the fullest flavor whole loose leaf tea is best.

When brewing loose leaf tea the leaf expands and absorbs more water. This leads to a more effective infusion, allowing the true flavor of the tea to come out.

More Flavor Options

There is a limited selection of flavors when using tea bags. You may be able to buy herbal, green, and black tea, but you get little choice over the leaf type. You'll often be left with an anonymous blend of tea types.

With loose leaf tea, however, you have the choice of a wide variety of both leaves and flavors. For example, if you're looking for an Assam tea, you can choose anything from Assam Breakfast to Golden Assam.

Better for the Environment

Did you know that 96% of tea bags are non-biodegradable? This means they are not great for the environment. We use a PLA bio-degradable plastic mesh for our pyramid sachets. So they are as good as you can get, however, loose leaf is still better for the environment. Consider ordering teabags for when you are out and about, but loose-leaf for everyday home consumption.

Loose leaf tea comes with less packaging than teabags and shouldn’t contain any micro-plastics. Loose-leaf leaves can be composted and most packaging will typically be recyclable. This makes loose leaf tea an environmentally friendly alternative to most teabags.

The Legends of Loose Leaf Tea

Ancient legends place the origin of loose leaf tea in China, over 5000 years ago.

The story goes that one-day leaves from an overhanging tree blew into a pot of boiling hot water. The pot belonged to the emperor and herbalist Shen Nung. At this moment, loose leaf tea was born.

From there Buddhist monks brought tea over to Japan, and European traders battled for a supply line of tea from China. Now, from Chinese black tea to Japanese green tea, loose-leaf tea is enjoyed across the world.

A promotional video for Hangzhou China and West Lake Dragon Well Tea.

One of the oldest known types of loose leaf tea is Long Jing, otherwise known as Dragon Well.

According to legend, Chinese Emperor Qianlong went to visit the Chinese West Lake. While there, he paused to watch the tea harvest and decided to get involved himself.

While Emperor Qianlong was harvesting leaves he received word that his mother had fallen ill. In his haste, he stowed his tea leaves into his sleeves and headed for Beijing. The leaves became flattened.

Upon arriving in Beijing he went to visit his sick mother. As soon as he saw her, she noticed the aroma of the tea leaves he had picked. Emperor Qianlong then brewed the leaves for his mother.

From thereon Long Jing was produced to look like the flattened leaves Emperor Qianlong brewed for his mother. The tea has sweet floral flavor notes and an emerald green color.

How Tea is Produced

Before loose leaf tea gets to your mug it undergoes a long and complex production process. The tea leaves go through many stages before being ready for consumption.


Tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant. It typically thrives in tropical and subtropical climates but can be grown across the world.

The tea plant can be grown anywhere from China to Northern England. They must typically [grow for three years](grow for three years) before they're ready to be processed into tea.

Tea plants are categorized by size. Assam being the largest, then Cambodian followed by Chinese leaves.


This is a video I made showing how "Shincha" is made. Shincha is the first harvest of the year and is sometimes picked by hand.

When the time comes to harvest, leaves are picked from the top two inches of the plant. New leaves are produced every 7-15 days, these are known as flushes.

Some people believe different flushes affect the flavor of the tea. This is why when buying loose leaf tea, often Darjeeling, you may see the flush specified. Having the choice of flush is usually only available with loose leaf tea.

The harvested leaves are then inspected and sorted into black, green, white, pu-erh, and oolong tea.


Once the tea leaves have been harvested they are then withered. This means that they are dried out to reduce moisture. They are then ready for rolling.

The rolling process helps to promote oxidation. Traditionally, the tea leaves are hand-rolled. Nowadays, the tea leaves are rolled using machines to speed up the process.

Rolling the tea leaves is an important step in bringing out the flavor. As the leaves are rolled, oils are released that react to the air. This increases the flavor and smell of the tea leaves.


After rolling, the tea leaves undergo oxidation. This determines the color, strength, and flavor of the tea.

Darker tea leaves such as black tea are fully oxidized, making their flavor strong. Some teas such as green go through minimal oxidization, which is why they keep their natural color and light taste.

Tea Bag & Broken Leaf Production

After oxidation, loose leaf tea is ready for consumption. Teabag production follows these same steps but is processed differently after.

The leaves destined for tea bags are crushed instead of rolled. This serves the same purpose, to release oils and increase flavor. Crushed tea leaves allow for a quicker, but more bitter, infusion.

Due to the machinery used in production, some whole leaves become broken. Many Japanese green teas have broken leaves as standard. Broken leaf tea may have a different flavor than whole leaf tea.

Both broken and whole leaf tea can come as loose leaf. But almost all teabags will use broken or crushed leaves. This is one reason our teabags are special. We use the exact same tea you would buy loose, but put them in a pyramid bag, which gives the larger leaves room to brew property.

Some Types of Loose Leaf Tea

There are many types of loose leaf tea available. From different grades, flavors, and leaf types, there's something for everyone.

Albuquerque's premier tea store for fine loose leaf tea, The New Mexico Tea Company has a wide selection. The variety of loose leaf tea available can sometimes be overwhelming. So before choosing your tea, you may want to learn about some of the more popular types.

Assam Black Tea

Black tea is the most oxidized of all tea types. This results in its dark color, strong taste, and higher levels of caffeine.

One popular type of black tea is Assam. Though some variants such as Assam CTC may come with a slightly different taste, Assam tends to be bold and malty in flavor.

This makes Assam a great base for blended tea, as it provides a robust and full-bodied drink. Assam is often used as a base for breakfast teabag blends, so it's a great place to start if you're new to loose-leaf.

Sencha Green Tea

Green tea is known as a 'true' tea. This means that it comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Any tea that comes from this plant is also considered a 'true tea'. This includes black tea, for example, but not herbal or fruit teas.

Sencha is a premium Japanese green tea. Sencha is harvested using machinery, which can cause broken leaves. Despite this, Sencha is widely regarded as the best green tea in the world.

Japanese Sencha brews to a vegetal, mineral flavor. It makes for a refreshing drink. Sencha is typically used in Japanese tea ceremonies that mark personal importance.

Silver Needle White Tea

White tea is produced from the young leaves of the tea plant. Once they are harvested, they are dried out to prevent oxidation. This means that they are low in caffeine content.

The name, Silver Needle, refers to the way the tea leaves look. They are thin, sharp, and pale silver in color. White tea is a particularly delicate type of tea.

Silver Needle white tea boasts a smooth drinking experience. It contains floral, earthy, and sometimes sweet flavor notes.

Milk Oolong Tea

Oolong is a traditional Chinese tea. Its oxidization levels sit between 10-70%, putting it somewhere between Black and Green tea.

This means that it mixes the tasting notes of Black and Green tea. Oolong typically tastes more similar to Green tea, without the prominent vegetal notes.

Milk Oolong is a popular type of Oolong tea. Milk Oolong comes with a fresh taste enhanced by milk flavoring. This leads to a rich buttery-tasting tea.

Chamomile Herbal Tea

Chamomile is not a true tea and is a member of the daisy plant family. It was first used in the 1600s and has become one of the most popular herbal teas available.

Chamomile herbal tea has a floral taste with mild notes of honey. It provides a soothing drinking experience.

Other Teas

There are several other types of loose leaf teas and flavors beyond these five. This includes Rooibos, Pu-erh, and several others.

Every type of tea leaf comes with its own unique flavor profile and variations. Exploring the world of loose leaf tea can be a fun and interesting experience.

What You Need to Brew Loose Leaf Tea

Brewing loose leaf tea is not the same as brewing a teabag. The process of brewing loose leaf tea requires specific equipment. There are also several ways to prepare loose leaf tea.

In order to brew loose leaf tea, you'll need to get yourself an infuser. There are several types of infusers available.

Ball Infusers

Ball infusers are small mesh metal balls that you fill with tea and drop into boiling water. The benefits of using a ball infuser are its ease and portability. You simply scoop a spoonful of tea into it, close it, and you're ready to go. If you're traveling and don't want to miss out on your favorite tea, they are great to carry with you. The two main drawbacks are the mess they can create, and the lack of space for the tea.

When cleaning ball infusers you can find yourself dropping wet tea everywhere. This can be annoying to clean up when you just want to enjoy your tea.

The other issue is that they don't leave a lot of space for the tea to float and absorb water. This means the taste can be compromised.

Mug Infusers

You can buy mugs with built-in infusers. These usually come as a deep metal cradle that sits inside the mug. They can also be bought separately.

Mug infusers allow the tea leaves plenty of room to absorb water and expand. They often also come with lids to keep the heat in while brewing. This means that they provide a great-tasting cup of tea.

The only issue with mug infusers is that after several uses they can become clogged. This means that can take a while for the water to fully drain through the infuser. This can be avoided with a regular and thorough cleaning.

Tea Pot with Infuser

Another great form of infuser is the teapot. Most teapots come with infusers built-in. This is usually similar to mug infusers or three small wholes before the opening of the stem inside.

Using a teapot to brew tea creates a wonderful experience. Not only do you get to enjoy the design of your pot, but it provides the freshest tasting tea. This is thanks to the amount of room it affords tea leaves.

The drawback of using a teapot is that you can sometimes brew too much tea. This can cause unwanted wastage. It's best to only use a teapot when brewing for more than one person.

How to Brew Hot Tea From Loose Leaf Tea

The first step to getting a good brew from your favorite tea leaves is getting the water temperature correct. A variable temperature electric kettle makes this easy. If you just have a stovetop kettle (or even a pot or pan) you can still get the correct temperature by observing the bubbles of the water as it boils.

If you're brewing black tea, boil the water to boiling temperature. At sea level this is 212F, but at high-altitude, where we are, this is actually around 205F. For green teas, your water should be around 170F. And for other types of tea, or if you're unsure, look at its packaging for directions.

Brewing your tea with too hot of water can lead to a bitter taste, and too cool of water extends your brewing time.

Once you get your water temperature sorted out, you should pour your hot water over the tea leaves and, if using a mug infuser or teapot, put the lid on. Covering your tea while it's brewing keeps the water temperature at a more consistent level during brewing. It's not necessary, but if you find that your tea is not hot enough anymore after brewing, the cover may help.

Now it's time to leave your loose leaf tea to brew. It's generally a good idea to follow these brewing times to start. Ultimately it's about what you find makes the tea taste the way you want it to. But here is a guide to use at the start, before you know what you like!

  • White Tea: 4-5 minutes.
  • Green Tea: 2-3 minutes.
  • Oolong Tea: 3-4 minutes.
  • Black Tea: 4-5 minutes.
  • Herbal Tea: 5-7 minutes.

Brewing Iced Tea from Loose Leaf

Whether you enjoy the hot summers of New Mexico, live somewhere with a warm climate, or just love iced drinks, you can brew tasty iced tea from loose leaf tea.

Before brewing your iced tea, you'll need to choose the right flavor for you. Any tea can make for a refreshing iced tea, but the benefit of using loose leaf is the wide selection of herbal and fruit teas available.

There are two easy ways to brew iced tea from loose leaves.

Using Hot Water

Brew your tea the same way you would if you were just making hot tea, but use twice as much tea. This will make a more concentrated brew. Then pour over ice to cool down, and dilute it back to a regular streath.

Using Cold Water

If you're prepared to wait a little while before you're able to drink your iced tea, brewing with cold water is the best method. It will provide you with a fuller but smoother flavor. This is because the tannin in tea leaves is extracted more easily the hotter the water is. So using cool water leaves most of the tannin in the leaves, not in your water!

To brew iced tea using cold water you will need a water bottle, jug, or any container that can be left in the fridge.

Use about 1 tablespoon of tea per quart of water. Add the tea and cold water together in the jug and leave in the refrigerator for a few hours (or even overnight). The first few times you try this you might want to check on the strength every hour or so. This will help you get an idea of how that tea brews, and how long you need to leave it for your taste.

Often, you can just leave the leaves in the water, adding more water as you drink it. This usually is good for 2 to 3 rounds. But after a few days you will want to throw out those leaves, and start fresh.

Time to Put On a Brew

After reading through this extensive guide to loose leaf tea, you should have a better understanding of what it is and the brewing process.

The world of loose-leaf is huge and there's always more to learn. If you'd like to read more about loose leaf tea you can take a look at our blog.

Otherwise, it's time to choose a tea, put on a brew, and enjoy a lovely cup of loose leaf. Here at the New Mexico Tea Company, we have a wide variety of teas for you to choose from.

If you're ready to order, perhaps start with one of our black breakfast teas. If you're new to loose leaf, they're a great, accessible, place to start. Enjoy!