But over time, with the more tea that you drink, the more you’ll be able to assess what makes the best loose leaf tea so special and more subjectively, what your favourite loose leaf teas might be. So, to get you started, I’m going to share with you my top 5 favourite loose leaf teas, why I think they look and taste great and ultimately, why you should be drinking only the best loose leaf tea.
1. Dragon Well
This green tea is only produced for 6 weeks during the spring in Hangzhou in south east China. This means that the tea itself is a direct reflection of the season and origin in which it is produced; a provenance that makes Dragon Well tea one of the most famous teas in China. Not only is it highly revered for its expert hand crafting, being traditionally wok-fried into its iconic spear-like shape, but also for its distinct taste. Its young, spring picked buds and leaves are refreshingly complex, full of rich chestnut notes, a velvety smooth texture, and a lasting, sweet aftertaste. This is one of my favourite seasonal teas and one that I look forward to tasting the new batch of each year, as it really captures the essence of spring freshness and warmth.
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2. Ali Shan
This tea is grown in the lush, high mountain Ali Shan range at 1,500m elevation, way up in the peaks of central Taiwan where some of the best oolong teas in the world are crafted. At this altitude, the tea plants have to do much more work to survive the cooler temperatures, which means they have much deeper roots and more nutrient-rich leaves. Once processed, the result is a ball-rolled oolong, with whole pickings of leaves on their stems which are rolled into small green pearls. These fully unfurl as they infuse in hot water, revealing a totally aromatic infusion with plenty of fruity and floral notes to enjoy. Our current batch of this tea is produced on a small organic farm by the Chen family, who pride themselves on their beautiful tea garden and work in harmony with nature to produce their oolong tea. They also grow the unique Jin Xuan cultivar of tea bush, which produces large leaves that are prized for their natural and delicious milky flavour and texture, which is why the tea is often referred to as ‘milky oolong’.
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Did you know?
You’ll never find the best loose leaf teas like Ali Shan in tea bags. Not only are the highest, whole-leaf grades reserved for loose tea, but often the tea leaves themselves are much too big to fit inside a small tea bag. With significantly less packaging too, loose tea is always the better choice for the environment.
3. Jasmine Silver Needle
This tea represents the skill and craft of Chinese tea making at some of the highest and most precise levels. Silver Needle is the highest grade of white tea crafted using only the youngest, silver haired buds of the tea plants that appear in the earliest part of the spring season. Carefully handpicked to avoid any bruising, these buds are simply withered and then slowly dried to create a pure, sweet and delicate, high-quality white tea. But these silver needle buds are then elevated to the next level through a process of traditional scenting with real jasmine flowers. This occurs in Guangxi, the home of Chinese jasmine, where the tea is transported in the early summer to be traditionally scented with fresh jasmine blossoms each night for five whole nights. This labour-intensive process of removing and re-laying out fresh jasmine blossoms each day is what imparts the vivid and authentic floral fragrance you’ll find in this tea.
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4. Wuyi Oolong
Deep in the heart of Fujian province in the south east of China lies the Wuyi Mountains – an ancient site for tea making and the home of both oolong and black tea innovation. Wuyi is perhaps most famous for its production of minerally and sweet tasting roasted oolongs that fully reflect the rocky and mineral rich terroir where this tea is grown and crafted. Throughout the centuries, the tea farmers of Wuyi have cultivated their own unique varieties of the tea plant to produce their oolong tea, some of which are steeped in mythology, such Da Hong Pao (or Big Red Robe). A single batch of this tea produced from the oldest mother trees is one of the most expensive and sought-after teas ever produced. I love the long, twisted leaves of Wuyi Oolong for their often-caramel sweet taste and prominent mineral-earth flavours. They have a rich and satisfying texture that can even be reminiscent of lightly roasted coffee.
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Did you know?
Many of the highest quality teas from China are infused ‘gong fu’ style – that is, using a small teapot or as is most common in China, a Gaiwan; literally a small ‘bowl with lid’. The technique here is to use a high proportion of leaf to water and enjoy multiple, short infusions of the same leaves. This delivers a more concentrated view of the quality in flavour and aroma of the tea as it develops over a long drinking session.
5. Vintage Imperial Puerh
Puerh is a unique style of tea from Yunnan province in the south west of China, prized for its complex, fragrant and bitter-sweet taste. Although similar styles of tea making can be found in a few other provinces, the resulting tea can only be called puerh if it is from Yunnan. There are a few reasons as to why puerh is so unique and celebrated throughout China, even though it is fairly uncommon in the West. It is also produced using the indigenous varietal of the tea bush, which is grown in the wild or cultivated into ancient tea gardens with full sized tea trees of 15ft that can be hundreds of years old. This is what helps to give puerh its unique flavour and character, with a lasting transformative taste from initial fruit and floral notes with hints of bitterness to a long and sweet finish with lingering mineral complexity. Thanks to its distinct processing, puerh is also known for its ability to mature and age over decades, often being pressed into cakes or bricks for storage and trade, with many collectors paying a high premium for puerh tea of a particular vintage or even from particular gardens.
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Recommended loose leaf teas
- Green TeaDragon Well (Longjing)Fresh, Velvety, InspiringFrom Wangfu Garden, Zhejiang, ChinaOut of stock
- White TeaJasmine Silver NeedleJasmine, Honeydew, VanillaFrom Yinpan Garden, Yunnan, China£13.0050g
- Oolong TeaWuyi OolongCacao, Stone Fruit, RoseFrom Huangcun Garden, Fujian, China£19.0050g