When I was a wee little child, it was my father who introduced me to the world of teas. This would have been in the mid 1970′s, and at the time we did not know that we had been hampered in our explorations by the restrictions of the tea industry.
Until very recently, America had been a tea bag world, and Lipton was the ruler of the kingdom. Sure you could find some herbal teas, and there were some brands that actually sold specific varietals, but it was Lipton who had a large chunk of the market place. At many of the restaurants and diners across the land, if you asked for tea, you were given a cup of hot water and a Lipton Tea Bag.
Lipton’s ubiquity lead to two distinct problems. First, people began to equate tea with the specific blend that Lipton had provided to their consumers. Their tea wasn’t a specific type of tea, but rather a blend of different teas from around the world that were designed to elicit a very specific “Lipton”-ish flavor. It didn’t matter which teas were added, as long as they tasted the same from year to year, from harvest to harvest. Lipton’s competitors, instead of offering different types of tea, began to create their own blends that replicated the flavor of Liptons.
The second issue was the quality of tea leaves that were being used. Producers of tea used in tea bags tend to use smaller, broken fannings and dust bits from the tea leaves. These pieces are often more inefficient in their ability to translate their taste without releasing an overwhelming amount of tannins. There’s a rating system (Orange Pekoe, which I’ll touch upon later) for the quality of leaves used in teas, and the tea bags are often filled with those of the least quality.
These tidbits of information wasn’t well known to many Americans in the 1970′s. Some folks were lucky enough to be able to find Twinings or Celestial Seasonings in their supermarkets, who at least provided different flavors and blends of teas, both of the herbal and regular varieties. But they are also hampered by the scourge of the tea bags – the lower quality product used in the bags themselves. (I’m also ignoring the fact that most herbal teas don’t actually use “tea”, in their blends, but, again, I’ll cover that at a later date).
If you want to enjoy teas at their best, loose leaf is the way to go. Flavors are bolder and less susceptible to excess tannins. Loose leaf teas also are easier to blend. With loose leaf tea people can and do create their own blends, whether individually or as part of a larger business. If one wants to truly explore tea, loose leaf is almost always the way to go.