Have you ever wandered down the supermarket isle thinking you’ll try a new type of tea, then found yourself standing, eyes-wide-open in confusion at the vast and colourful multitude of packaged tea on offer?
While the number of teas available in the supermarket can feel overwhelmingly large, the range of tea on offer is not as extensive as it seems.
There are between 2000 and 3000 different types of tea produced across the world from the simple tea leaf. These fall into the six categories of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark (fermented or pu’erh) tea. But we only see around 1%* of this available at the supermarket.
The quality spectrum of tea
Like most products, tea comes in a large range of qualities and prices. Sitting at the mid-to-top end of the tea quality spectrum is artisan tea. Artisan tea covers the broad category of tea that is produced in the traditional way (the six types of tea mentioned above all fit in here). It is also known as ‘specialty tea’, ‘pure-leaf tea’ or ‘orthodox tea’. Artisan tea is sold by specialist tea boutiques and online retailers. It can be hard to find in New Zealand.
What you will typically find in the supermarket is tea produced by the ‘cut, tear curl’ method (known in the industry as ‘CTC’). This is used by well-known tea brands to produce tea (mainly black but sometimes green) on a large scale at a cost-effective price. CTC tea sits at the mid-to-bottom end of the spectrum.
So why is there such a difference between the two? Here are six ways artisan tea is different to supermarket tea:
1. Leaf quality
The leaves used for artisan tea are almost always handpicked^ and are chosen very deliberately: usually the newly-emerged bud and one or two leaves or the bud only. For supermarket tea, the leaves are typically lower quality and are plucked by hand or machine. Machine plucking makes it harder to select specific leaves so a mixture of new and mature leaves and stalks are taken off the plant. The leaf selection for your tea matters because the younger buds and leaves are richer in nutrients, higher in aromatic oils and produce more complex flavours than the older, more mature leaves and stalks.
2. Rolling and shaping or cutting and tearing
For artisan tea, shaping and rolling is often carried out by hand (particularly in China) or by small, specifically designed machines that gently roll or twist the leaves into a specific shape. This not only creates a visually appealing leaf, the careful handling leaves the full leaf intact which means you can steep the leaves multiple times. The CTC method sees the leaves loaded into large machines where they are cut, crushed, torn then rolled until they achieve a uniform size. This process is not designed to improve the flavour of the tea. CTC leaves generally loose their flavour after one steep.
3. Leaf grade
There are more than 10 different grades of tea leaf, with the top five used for artisan tea. The highest grade is tea made up of whole, intact buds; the lowest grade is made from the ‘dust’ left from the CTC method. CTC produces three grades: the fuller fragments of the leaf (‘broken’ grade) are used in loose-leaf boxes; the ‘fannings’ and ‘dust’ grades are generally used for teabags. Higher grade tea will result in a more complex and aromatic tea than the lower grades.
4. Flavour: nature or by human design?
Consistency of flavour is very important for large tea brands. CTC tea used in blends such as English Breakfast is generally blended each season to get exactly the same flavour as the previous – as their customers expect the same flavour year after year. CTC teas are also created stronger than artisan tea as the majority of drinkers will add milk (which naturally dilutes the tea’s flavour).
When crafting artisan tea, the tea master uses their intuition and senses (particularly smell) when understanding when the tea is ‘ready’. They use the same technique to process the same style of tea each year, but the flavour can change depending on the terroir/growing conditions, in much the same way as wine. The flavours are subtler and complex than CTC and this makes artisan tea really interesting to taste and evaluate.
5. Added ingredients
Artisan tea is typically single-origin, pure-leaf tea. Occasionally, flavour is added to the leaves through natural plants such as fresh Jasmine leaves (Jasmine Pearls green tea) or roasted rice (Japanese Genmaicha green tea) for example. Generally speaking though, artisan tea is left alone so the complex flavours and aromas can speak for themselves.
In the supermarket, you will often find flavoured tea such ‘Green tea with lemon’, 'Green tea with strawberry’ for example. These teas are typically made with inferior leaves and while they include the fruit or herb, flavouring additives will often appear to strengthen the taste of the tea (these are labelled as ‘flavour’, ‘flavouring’ or ‘natural flavour’ in the ingredients list). This creates a pungent, obvious flavour compared to the more subtle and intricate flavours of artisan tea.
6. Pure-leaf, single origin tea vs. herbal tea
Herbal teas made from dried fruit, flowers or herbs are technically ‘tisanes’ or ‘infusions’ not tea as they are not made from leaves of the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis. They are called tea because the way you prepare them is the same as tea. Supermarket shelves are teaming with these within the tea section – so its easy to see why we confuse them with tea! Artisan tea is always made with good quality tea leaves and, as above, typically just the leaf alone, no other added ingredients.
If you are a foodie interested in flavour, adventurous with what you eat and drink and enjoy learning about something new, you’ll likely love artisan tea. And if you prefer the comfort of knowing what you’re going to get in your daily cup and like your tea to be quick and easy to prepare, the supermarket has some great options for you.
Whether you’re drinking a milk oolong from the Alishan region of Taiwan or CTC tea from a bag, your daily cup of tea has a magical ability to make you feel calm and centred and alert and refreshed all at the same time. So no matter what you choose, you can’t really go wrong.
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• You will notice I use words such ‘generally’, ‘often’ and ‘typically’ a lot. Tea is an incredibly complex subject with hundreds of variations in how it is produced across different countries. My aim is to make it easier to understand for the emerging ‘teaist’ – and to do to that I often generalise to keep the blog short, succinct and the concepts easy to grasp.
• *This is my estimate.
• ^The exception to hand plucking for artisan tea is that some mid-grade teas in Japan are machine plucked (by clever plucking machines).
• For simplicity, points 1 – 4 above relate to black processing tea as this is the most common tea consumed in the West.
• At The Tea Curator we focus on single origin, pure-leaf artisan tea. We provide information about the tea’s flavour profile and provenance for every tea we sell.