Full Leaf & Whole Leaf
Full and whole leaf are synonymous. It means that the leaves have not been crushed or cut. Contrary to popular belief, it does not mean that the leaves are flat, broad, open, full leaves. The closest tea to meet that description would be our Pai Mu Tan (white tea: also known as White Peony or Baimudan).
Whole leaves preserve the pure flavor of the camellia sinensis plant, only altered by whether they've been oxidized long enough to qualify as white, green, black, or oolong tea. (You can learn more about oxidizing in our blog explaining the differences between white, green, and black tea). However, it's very rare for anything other than a white tea to be a whole leaf. The whole leaf, not rolled, carries a very delicate flavor which is best suited to white tea, which is also the least oxidized.
Rolling the tea after it has been withered as a whole leaf is what allows tea to take on different flavor profiles and nuances, depending on how the tea is rolled. The reason most teas do not look like a broad open leaf is because green and black teas (the most popular and common tea types) are almost always rolled in some way. For oolong, its unique flavor actually requires that it be rolled in some way.
Besides, creating a deeper and varied flavor profile, rolling the leaves also preserves the maximum amount of flavor. It allows the tea leaves to release this flavor through steeping as the leaves unfurl.
What is loose leaf tea?
In a very general definition, loose leaf tea is tea that does not come prepackaged in teabags. Because it is not crammed into a tea bag, loose leaf tea uses tea leaves of a much higher quality than your typical tea bag. To drink, you just place the tea leaves inside of a steeping ball, french press, or some other infuser to prepare the tea. When you taste a cup of tea from a teabag and a cup of loose leaf tea side by side you can really taste the difference.
Loose leaf is different from full/whole leaf because, while it may have whole or full leaves, it could also have broken leaves. It would be rare for a loose leaf tea to have dust or fanning grades. The only exception is in tea blends. For instance, when you have more than just a white, green, black, or oolong tea: instead, you have one of those as a base tea, and you also have non-tea ingredients blended with it.
Our Organic Healthy Heart tea is a great example of this. It has white tea (whole leaf), green tea (full, rolled), hawthorn berries (whole), turmeric (powder), and cinnamon chips (cut, and sifted). Turmeric is the only powder used in this blend, and it's due to the fact that turmeric is best absorbed as a powder, instead of as a cut and sifted root.
What is the difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags?
Tea can be categorized into many different grades. There are four overarching categories: dust grades, fanning grades, broken leaf grades, and whole leaf grades.
Whole leaf grades are the best and highest quality, maintaining the most antioxidants and vitamins. All of our teas at Full Leaf that have a white, green, or black tea base, will start as a whole or full leaf. It's not possible to blend a whole leaf with other ingredients and have it come away as a whole leaf since whole is the most fragile of leaf types. When they're incorporated into blends, they necessarily may become broken due to our blending process (however, we blend our teas by hand to minimize this).
For full, rolled leaves, damage is minimal since the rolling process protects them during the blending process. This means it's still whole leaf grade by the end of the blending process, but the other non-tea ingredients will have a completely separate grading system.
The teabags you can buy at the grocery store normally contain dust and fanning grades of tea. Tea must be crushed or cut to be packaged into teabags. Dust and fannings are the small particles that are created when the tea is crushed, and most tea experts consider it a waste product of proper tea leaves.
Why does this matter?
When tea is broken down, it affects not only the taste of the tea but also the nutritional value. Tea that is broken can taste more bitter due to a higher amount of tannins being released when steeped. Whole (and rolled) leaf tea, on the other hand, expands and unfurls as it is steeped. This produces more flavor and provides a certain freshness to the tea. When the tea is not trapped in a teabag, it can expand more and create a stronger flavor.
While some may argue that you get more nutrition out of the broken leaves because it releases more into the water, there are a number of issues with bagged tea. First is the bag itself - most brands of tea available at your local grocer or convenience store are using teabags with plastic. The plastic helps strengthen the teabag in the production line to prevent tearing and help it be handled through multiple stages of production. However, it also makes it so that you could consuming plastic molecules with your tea.
Second, even if the bag is plastic-free, the teabag can absorb some of the beneficial catechins in tea, making it so that less of the nutritional value transfers to you. Third, teas that are pre-bagged have often sat on the shelf longer, and are necessarily exposed to more oxidation in their bagged form, than loose leaf teas stored in airtight containers. This means it will go stale faster, if it doesn’t already arrive stale, and it will have lost some of the nutritional value. Finally, the grade of tea that is stuffed into bags isn’t just lightly crushed or broken, it’s degraded to “dust”, so there is less nutritionally to absorb. (This is the case for tea grades, not other ingredients, as you'll find out shortly).
When you are drinking a tea which has a powder in it, you're doing yourself a disservice by trapping it in a teabag. Teas with turmeric powder, matcha powder, slippery elm (which is a cut and sifted bark, but during the blending process may create a whiteish "dust"), all should be in an infuser instead, which allows the powder to escape from the infuser and mix directly throughout the water.
Due to this, for the best nutritional value and ease of drinking, we recommend using one of our infusers. However, if you are very attached to bagged tea, we do have biodegradable paper teabags available that are 100% plastic-free, so you can drink with convenience and without worry or guilt. (I still don't recommend it for best results on turmeric, slippery elm, and matcha blend teas, but to each their own).Want to learn more about loose leaf tea and how to make it?