What is Loose Leaf Tea?

What exactly is tea?

Technically, what we know as loose leaf tea (also known as cha, chay, chai, te, tee, etc. depending on how your culture first traded in it) is the leaf of a plant that is originally from a branch of the Camellia family called Camellia sinensis. Its two major commercial producing varieties are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China plant) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (India plant). This plant has been manufactured in a few different ways to become what we know as the six different types (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark).

How is tea made?

There are two main manufacturing techniques to produce drinkable tea: orthodox and CTC (crush, tear, curl). If you’ve ever drunk tea from a bag that was purchased at a grocery store in the United States, you have had CTC tea. If you have ever had tea that was whole leaf or unfurled from a ball or twist, you have most likely had orthodox tea.

A lot of the CTC tea that is mass manufactured is what we in the USA would call black tea.

Orthodox loose leaf teas, the ones you will see marketed as “premium” or “specialty” loose leaf tea come in a range of types and kinds of manufacturing methods from completely hand-made to mostly machine made. See the table below for the typical category separations.

Type of Tea (Color by Chinese definition) Oxidation Level
Green None
White <5%
Yellow <10%
Oolong (Blue) >15% to <80%
Black (Red) 100%
Puerh (Black) None, Fermented
Table paraphrased and represented here from “The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” by Mary Lou Heiss. This book is required reading for the true tea devotee.

What isn’t tea?

If you have ever had Chamomile, Mint, or Raspberry tea, you were not drinking tea. You were drinking what is referred to as an “Herbal Tea” or “Tisane”. These are not made from the Camellia sinensis plant and are therefore not qualified to be tea.

In the United States we refer to any beverage we boil as tea, even though it is not. Otherwise, I would be enjoying lots of chocolate tea with marshmallows over the holidays when it’s really just hot chocolate.

You will only see us here at Caravan refer to non-tea based types of beverages as Herbal or Fruit Brews, because, well, that’s what you’re doing and we find it important to place that distinction.

Will tea cure me of X, Y, or Z?

Nope, tea will not cure you. Tea IS full of healthy amino acids and catechins, such as L-theanine and Thearubigins, that can help your body and mind, but it can also have downsides, such as non-protein based iron absorption issues (so wait an hour after you eat if you’re a vegetarian) and can cause kidney issues if you drink way too much (think 5-6 liters a day).

It can help you de-stress, give your body extra antioxidants, put you in a better mood, and make you perform better cognitively but it isn’t a magic pill and it doesn’t cure cancer.

Can tea help me lose weight?

That depends. If you’re switching out soda for loose leaf tea, not sweet tea, then, probably, yes. Since tea has less calories you’re making a healthier choice and cutting down on caloric intake which might lead you to lose some weight. Will it help you lose more weight than a glass of water? Probably not. All of those “slimming” teas are usually a blend of herbs designed to help suppress your appetite and have very little to do with tea itself.

Tea is 99% water no matter how good it tastes (those are the natural flavinols giving you an amazing array of flavors and mouthfeel). P.S. Better tasting water will also give you better tasting tea!

So while it is a healthy part of a diet, it isn’t going to take away the need for a good diet and exercise to shed those pounds.

Is there decaffeinated tea?

Nope. There are teas which have gone through the process of decaffeination but even those have trace amounts left. All real tea (i.e. Camellia sinensis) contains caffeine as a defense mechanism from insects. This caffeine exists in higher quantities in the leaves so if you are caffeine sensitive try to go with stem-based teas instead or cold brew your tea (caffeine dissolves slower in cold water) so less caffeine diffuses from your leaves.

So, how much caffeine is in tea?

Every tea varietal (the genetically different subset of the plant) and even where that tea is grown can have a profound effect on how much caffeine that particular plant has. That makes it very difficult to give an accurate answer to this question. While the tea plant has more caffeine than coffee in its natural state by the time you’ve brewed it tea can have between 10 and 60 milligrams of caffeine per 8oz cup. Compared to a standard cup of coffee with ~97 milligrams.

The way the tea is brewed also contributes to the caffeine content in your cup. Caffeine dissolves faster in hotter water. Therefore, the hotter the water used to make the tea and the time the tea is stepped contributes heavily to the final amount of caffeine in your cup. If you want less caffeine, consider cold brewing or brewing at a lighter temperature for a longer duration.

What is so special about tea?

One of the best things about tea, other than its inherent nutritional values and cultural significance, is that it is the non-hangover inducing whisky of the people. Meaning that while it could have the pretentious nature of wine, with which many people compare its use of terroir, cult status, and collector fervor, or take on the hipster quality of craft beer, with its unending array of blends and artisan care, it does not.

Tea has those attributes, but rather than separate people into snobs (though they exist) and hipsters, it has the amazing quality of bringing them together. Tea is cross-generational, happy to be the sidekick in the armchair, the centerpiece of a night in, a supporter during a hard days work, or just a medium through which connection and life occurs.

To the world, tea is intertwined with so much of human history and culture it’s tough to know where its effects start and end. From being traded for war horses in Tibet because of the shortage of horses in China, to a Japanese Zen monk’s accidental contribution to the tyrannical political structure of Shoguns in Japan, to the British Opium Wars, the Russian Caravan trade routes, and Clipper Ship races between ships, tea has stood the test of time and taste.

For you, you get to decide what tea means to you. You decided what those moments of warm or cooling embrace look and feel like. You decide how your tea will provide you support or create new opportunity.

For our part of this deal, we’ll help guide you through what tea is in much more detail, how each type of tea is made, and how you can learn to best brew for you.