While many of you tea drinkers out there will know exactly what these two terms mean, I feel that there is often some confusion about the difference between the two. This is partly because tea is often both loose-leaf and full-leaf. But despite not all loose-leaf tea being whole-leaf tea, and vice versa, I have often heard the two terms used interchangeably. Needless to say, this can cause some confusion, especially for those newly introduced to tea.
Loose-leaf tea is tea that is not contained in a teabag, sachet, or other enclosing device. That is, the leaves are loose, and, as such, they are usually sold by weight. When brewing loose-leaf tea you need to be able to separate the leaves from the steeped tea that you drink, both so you don’t slurp down wet leaves and so that you can remove the leaves at the appropriate time to avoid over-steeping. A mesh infuser will do the job, as will a teapot with a series of holes at the base of its spout to prevent the leaves sliding into your cup as you pour your tea.
Whole-leaf tea is exactly what it sounds like: tea leaves that have been processed whole. That is, not broken up. When you steep whole-leaf tea, you end up with entire leaves in your infuser after they have unfurled and expanded in the water. They can be really quite beautiful! Pearl teas, such as this one, are some good examples of whole-leaf teas, but there are also many whole-leaf teas that are not pearls.
As with the example just given, much loose-leaf tea is also whole leaf tea. However, there are many teas whose processing methods require that the leaves be broken up to release flavours, and so although these may be sold loose they are not whole-leaf teas. Formosa Oolong is one example of such a tea (a review of it can be read here).
Similarly, not all full-leaf tea is sold loose. There are many tea companies that promote the consumption of high quality tea by making it more accessible through using teabags and sachets. With these teas, the integrity of the tea is maintained by using whole tea leaves, but they are not loose. Of course, this is not to say that you couldn’t take matters into your own hands and cut the bags open to make it into loose tea for a better steep…
So, although these two categories of tea often overlap, this is not always the case, and knowing the difference between the two is important to getting the teas that you want to be drinking in the form that you want to be drinking them.
See more of Elise Nuding’s articles here.
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