As an old and not so wise tea chap, it drives me absolutely bonkers to hear the loose leaf crowd go on about how nothing in a teabag can be good because it just is not true, just as not every loose tea is brimming with goodness, flavour and "Ahhness"!
So what are the facts when it comes to leaf size? Well, apart from some hand rolled varietals, all tea leaves manipulated mechanically (rolled to you and me) will be twisted and fractured into everything from lovely large twisted grade (I refuse to call them leaf grades, as it suggests that anything smaller does not come from a leaf) down to smaller grainy particles, the smallest of which are unfortunately given, under tea grading lexicon, the term "Dusts".
Beautiful bright liquoring teas from small leaf particulate grades in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
No doubt the mention of "Dust" and those, much savvier than I, marketing types pounce and pronounce all dusts equal, be they created lovingly at the same time and from the same bush as your OPA (Large leaf grade) or be they swept from the barnyard floor, after feed time.
Of course, the above is not true for the tailored mechanical device the CTC (Cut, tear and curl) machine which was invented to break all leaf into teabag manageable grades but, once again, the grades derived do not deserve derision, without further upstream consideration.
Rich, bright and brisk CTC output from the East of Rift region in Kenya
What happens in the field from topography, climate, planted material, agronomy and harvesting is far more important to a great cup of tea than the size of the finished product. Just as you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear neither can you make a wonderful cup of "Ahhhness" by taking poor quality raw material and molding it into a nicely twisted large leaf grade. It is, to continue with the Suidae analogies, like putting lipstick on a pig.
So, stepping back a bit, let's consider a very rough articulation of inherent leaf quality.
It should be noted that these compounds, responsible for tea quality, are manufactured in the freshest new buds of the tea bush, those leaves yet to unfurl and most likely to be attacked by aphids and other insect life. So it is that precursors to polyphenols and caffeine are manufactured as a natural bitter brew to ward of these unwanted diners and then, as the leaf ages, these complex into that chemistry that affords us aroma, flavour, briskness and other positive adjectives, that you can give this wonderful beverage. The optimal brew is between that first bud and the formation of two leaves, after which these flavoury happenings get complexed further into more structural materials such as lignin and other woody matter.
Suffice to say, it makes sense that when and what you harvest is a darn sight more important than the size of the leaf you produce from it, though in either production one can really screw things up by how you transport and manufacture leaf into the finished product but, as the old adage has it "sh*t in, sh*t out"!
And before you start screaming "Charlatan!" from the roof tops take a look at this extract from the venerable Tocklai Tea Research Institute in Assam whose analysis illustrates the point magnificently.
For clarity TF =Theaflavins (So called because they are where much of flavour is derived) and TR = Thearubigins which are larger molecules responsible for body, colour and some richer flavour notes.
So, with the above in mind, over 70% of total TF and TR is found in the top two leaves and a bud (includes the upper stem) which rather proves the point, harvesting is key to quality.
So, in conclusion, I can take top two leaves and a bud and run it through a normal process and produce a variety of grades, after sorting that includes leaf and dust and they shall both have benefited from the same TF/TR mix.
Sorting room: Sri Lanka
However, it's not just what you harvest or when but where too.
There is good evidence that tea, like many other vegetative crops, deliver their best flavour when grown slowly and under certain conditions of managed stress. And so it is that areas of leached soils, altitude and periods of dormancy tend to create the opportunities for exceptional teas, whereas those areas without seasonality, blessed with rich soils and an abundance of rain and sun find it more difficult.
So percentages of TF and TR may be irrelevant if your absolute content is low and these, natural restrictions then dictate a producer's strategy, to go for volume. This may not create the best liquoring cup in the world but it can still, with skillful manipulation create an aesthetically pleasing leaf that, depending on the consuming market, is "good enough" but is still far from good.
Beautiful black leaf from the Lankaran region of Azerbaijan
So, where are we? Any closer to helping you see the wood for the trees?
When we started Ela's we did not presume to convert loose tea drinkers to bags or vice versa, that's why we have a range of both formats, but we did use our well founded understanding of quality and leaf to ensure that both formats get the same focus when it came to sourcing of quality ingredients.
As a taster, one is often asked "What is the best tea?" and my answer is always "Whatever you happen to like!" and so it is with formats, both offer a way of drinking the best beverage on the planet but it is one of personal choice.