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How to choose the best loose leaf tea

How do I find the best tea for me?

Tea comes in many forms and there has been much publicity about new teas coming onto the market and the health benefits of several. There are many speciality teas now to choose from so an important question often does not get answered – what tea am I going to like best?

Essentially all tea is the same plant – the more aromatic Camellia sinensis originates from Yunnan province in south-west China and a larger leaf, more strongly flavoured variety Camellia assamica originates from neighbouring Assam in India. The leaf is picked, allowed to wither and from there on the methods of production can vary giving a multitude of tea varieties. Of course, it is not only the method of making but the terrain and climate in which the tea is grown and produced that can make all the difference to the character of tea.

How to choose the best loose leaf tea

Here we aim to identify and classify the principal tea categories by their flavour and aroma and to talk about the sub-categories where these differences in tea production make a discernable difference to the finished drinking experience. It should be added however that to experience the differences between these teas most noticeably we are here talking about whole, unbroken loose leaf teas produced using traditional, orthodox methods. These may take slightly longer to infuse than smaller, broken leaf grades but it is well worth the extra patience. Being larger leafed the infusion will be more subtle, complex and less dominated by tannins which mean that small leaf teas cannot be brewed sufficiently long to allow these more complex, balancing flavour characteristics to become apparent without creating an unbearably tannic brew.

Brisk, biscuity, nutty, spicy and bold

The first group we will discuss is brisk with a biscuity character. Flavours may be bold, aromatic, nutty and spicy. It is this black style of tea that we are most familiar with drinking. The leaf is oxidised in air after withering and rolling. This process creates the distinctive tannins which gives black teas their characteristic briskness or astringency and biscuity note. It is for this reason that many of the fuller bodied black teas are traditionally drunk with milk. The caffeine content of black teas is the highest of any tea category: typically 19.9mg per 100ml compared with 10.6mg for green tea.

Noted for their medium body and wine-like character are keemuns from Anhui Province, known as the ‘burgundy of teas’. Chinese black teas are less plentiful than green but this is one for which they are famous. These were originally created for the export market, being less perishable than green teas on the long sea voyage to Europe and America. Yunnan teas are also typically black and have a full bodied character with a complex, slight sweetness reminiscent of tobacco and aromatic woods.

Full bodied assams (picked from the native Camellia sinensis v. assamica) have a well-known malty character with notes of raw sugar is a traditionally popular Indian black tea. They generally have plenty of tannin necessitating the addition of milk but the second flush pickings tend to be lighter and more elegant often with an evident tippiness of the young leaf. Light bodied, clean tasting muscatel Darjeeling teas (Camellia sinensis hybrids) are demanded for their brisk, clean taste and muscatel aroma. These teas should definitely be drunk without milk. Darjeeling first flush teas picked around March, are peach-like, brisk and with an aroma of muscat grapes. Second flush Darjeelings are more-full bodied and smooth, have a less fruity note but more of a muscat aroma. Nilgiri teas from the southern blue mountains use the Camellia assamica variant but produce a lighter bodied, aromatic and more fragrant tea, ideal for everyday drinking.

Close to Nilgiri teas in character are Sri Lanka’s fruity, aromatic Ceylon teas. These vary in body from the full bodied Dimbulas to the light Uvas, the most highly sort-after being the high-grown teas from the central upland area of Nuwara Eliya at an altitude of 4000-6500 ft. Ceylon teas have a fragrant, brisk character and are often drunk with milk. However, the lighter bodied Uvas, Nuwara Eliyas and the youngest picked, tippier teas are generally best drunk without. Again, the region tends to use the more robust Camellia assamica variant.

Adjacent to Darjeeling is Nepal which now produces higher quality teas using the Camellia sinensis variant. These teas are now more readily found on the international market. They share some of the characteristics of neighbouring Darjeeling, having a slight muscat note.

In East Africa Kenya is the home of much of our mass market tea, being strong, ideal for quick brewing. However, they are now producing some quality orthodox teas such as Tajiri which are attractively full bodied with an unmistakeable tanginess with notes of apple and caramel.

Fresh tasting, herbaceous, floral with low tannins

If you prefer more vegetal, herbaceous teas with little tannin then green teas may be more for you. Body can vary as much as for black teas – from light to full but the lack of tannins mean you would not add milk. These teas have less caffeine as these teas are not oxidised, being ‘fired’ in an oven or using hot air immediately after withering and rolling. They can vary from being quite astringent to being very smooth. They may also vary from floral to herbaceous and vegetal. As you can see there is great variety. Care should be taken with making green tea in not infusing with boiled water that is too hot. It should be allowed to cool for a few minutes before pouring on the leaf to ensure the tea does not become bitter. Unfortunately, this is a common mistake and has led to the perception among many that green teas are bitter.


Green teas originate from China and accounts for around 70% of its production. The most vegetal style are those from Yunnan Province. The wet region in the east, south of the Yangzi river including the provinces of Zhejiang, Hunan and parts of Anhui and Jiangsu provinces produce much of China’s green tea. The coastal province of Zhejiang is famed for its sweet, herbaceous pan dried Lung Ching (Dragon Well). Anhui is renown for its fresh tasting, vegetal Huang Shan Mao Feng.


Applauded for its smooth, vegetal style green teas is Japan, which as epitomised by its tea ceremony is second only to China in its veneration of green tea. Powdered Matcha has been given much publicity for creating frothy matcha latte. Creamy and healthy it achieves this through being drunk whole as the leaf is in powdered form. It can be very green for the leaf can be grown in the shade for several days prior to harvesting to increase the level of chlorophyll in the leaf and hence its smoothness in the cup. Sencha is the most commonly drunk tea in Japan and is partially grown in the shade. It is very smooth with a vegetal character. We stock Sencha Fukujyu as well as Sencha Gyokuro Ashi which is partially shade grown.


Regions of India famous for their black teas such as Darjeeling and Assam are now producing green teas which maintain the characteristics for which they are renown with the freshness and floral notes of good green tea without the tannins. Kenya now also produces good orthodox green tea which is recognisably east African. Our Rift Valley Green is a good example.

Little known are the smooth, aromatic and fresh tasting yellow teas. These are made in a similar way to green teas but covered in cloths after drying so that the aromas from the still warm leaf are re-absorbed. Our China Yellow Sun is a good example.

More complexity?

If you are seeking a tea more complex than green yet without the body and tannins of black try oolongs. These may be partially oxidised teas from China’s Anhui Province from where greener, fresher closed styles originate such as the famous Ti Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong). Alternatively, they may be the blacker, more oxidised and open styles of Taiwan’s Formosa oolongs. Vietnam also now produces high quality oolong teas from the southern, mountainous areas. We stock a closed style, discernably fruity, citrusy Imperial grade.

Light, soothing and honeyed

For late night drinking and for when you prefer a really light bodied, soothing cup then white tea could be for you. Traditionally made in Fujian Province, China from the downy white buds of the emerging leaves these budset teas are most sought-after pickings available only for a couple of weeks each spring. A famous example of such a tea is Baihao Yinzhen (White Down Silver Needles). These teas yield a lovely hay-like, buttery smoothness and delicate aroma with very little caffeine. After picking they are merely withered and dried, remaining intact. They can have honeyed notes of melon, peach or apricot. Other white teas can include young leaves with the buds, varying between 25 and 40%, such as Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) which have a slightly more concentrated flavour.

The increasing popularity of white teas has prompted such areas as Darjeeling and Assam to adopt Chinese white tea making methods to create very gentle teas that have some of the flavour features for which their own teas are renown such as the briskness and muscat aspect of the former and the maltiness of the latter.

A dependable combination of characteristics

Sometimes you might seek the consistent characteristics of a tea achieved through blending. The robust, full bodied nature of English Breakfast using Assam as a constituent tea makes it one of the most well-known. Ours is less full bodied than some as it contains Ceylon and Darjeeling to give greater complexity and lightness. Others, such as our Good Afternoon blend have a little of the unforgettable Lapsang Souchong to give it a memorable attractiveness. Some blended teas have the addition of flavouring such as the famous Earl Grey, having oil of bergamot, the Italian citrus fruit which gives it a subtle perfumed aroma. The constituent teas can vary but ours contains a traditional blend of China black with Darjeeling.

Clearly fruity, floral and spicy?

So, this leads me to the final flavour profile; that of flavoured teas themselves. They may be based upon black or green teas, the latter taking flavours well but the former appealing to our preference in the West for black tea characteristics of some tannin with a certain biscuitiness. Flavoured teas are made with the addition of dried fruit pieces or peel, spices, nuts and essential oils from fruits. The varieties are almost too numerous to mention but favourite and classic China flavoured teas include Jasmine and Magnolia. Popular flavoured black teas include Rose Congou and Vanilla. White tea has been used to create flavoured teas but we consider that these are so subtle that the addition of flavourings would overpower their fine tastes and aromas.

We do hope this article has given you a taste (almost literally) of the diversity of distinctive teas tastes available and that it will encourage you to explore within the categories of tea you like best. Happy tea wanderings!

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