Why Teas Are “Broken”?

Formosa Oolong
Formosa Oolong

“Broken tea”… amazingly, while I never encountered this term before I became an active tea geek, I used to think of tea itself as “broken tea” then, small flakes of something that faintly seems to be of natural origin, but no idea whatsoever, whether this was actually leaves once, or pieces of some wood or grain or…

Once I understood that tea is actually originally coming in the form of leaves, I started wondering, why they would “break” these beautiful leaves I had come to love so much in their natural form, and fill them into what is called tea bags instead of leaving them wholly and fill them right into the teapot? There’s an easy first answer to this: the first because of the second: there’s no way to fit beautiful  “non-broken” tea leaves into those unholy, highly constricted “tea bags, while the tea bag seemed to be such an imperative for the majority of consumers that the question why tea leaves are broken was actually ridiculing itself.

Now, I think/I believe/I hope/I sense there is a change to this overall perception of the tea bag being an imperative going on. Using tea without the bag seems to be a lot trendier today as it used to be. Still, I can see “broken tea” being sold from the shelves of discounter market chains and tea shops alike in large plastic packs, cans, boxes, etc. There must be more about breaking my beloved tea leaves than just the alleged necessity of putting them into the odd space-restricted tea bag.

There is… topic “tea blending”: just like whole tea leaves won’t nicely fit into tea bags, the also won’t nicely blend with other teas, due to different looks, haptic, and behavioral characteristics. Traded broken teas being blends is not the exceptional case, it is the regular one.

And then, what all broken teas seem to have in common: they are comparably cheap, this possibly pointing to a generally low quality of broken tea? While in general I won’t advocate the idea that cheap teas are bad teas and expensive tea is good tea, there is logically a certain tendency to lower quality when it comes to broken (or tea-bagged) teas. Why? Hmm… think of a tea producer producing good quality tea… why would somebody, anybody, nurture selected tea plants for years, assess their grade of maturity, the right point in time for harvest on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, then handpick them, always the 2 top leaves only, and even these only, if they have a young sprout with them, then carefully dry and flip the picked leaves over and over for different periods,  in different places, and with different light and temperature conditions, process them to the right level of oxidation and into the desired form, only to then break them all into tiny little pieces, blend them with some other broken tea (leftovers/rejects/excesses/cheap mass qualities?) of different origins, only in order to finally have it sold for pocket money from food discounter market chain shelves? No, I don’t think anybody would do that.

So let’s summarize: tea leaves are broken, so they

  1. fit in tea bags;
  2. are easy to blend with others;
  3. will not disclose their low quality by their obviously poor leaf grade.


Reviewing this article, I thought I should write a bit more balanced, as I usually try to, and contrast the con’s with the pro’s, but c’mon, which are the pro’s of breaking beautiful tea leaves into little pieces, only to achieve the above-mentioned 3 dubious goals? I can’t think of any. Any input? Anybody?

See more of  Thomas Kasper’s articles here.

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2 thoughts on “Why Teas Are “Broken”?

  1. Well said. I have often praised full leaf tea not just for its flavor but for the aesthetic as well (link removed per blog policy). You can enjoy, for example, Jasmine Dragon Tears without bothering to remove the leaves from the cup.

  2. Broken teas are not all poor grade tea, as you imply. During orthodox black tea manufacture the tenderest parts of leaf and tip are rubbed off first and are separated (as First Fines) – these are the very best quality and this fraction when fired and graded contributes to many of the broken grades (FBOP, BOP, and BOPF). Teas specifically made for teabag use are Fannings and Dusts not Brokens which are a primary grade of orthodox manufacture – Brokens are stronger liquoring, faster brewing and more intensely colored than Leaf grades.

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