Does the size of your tea leaf matter? Yes, but not always in the way you expect….

Does the size of the leaf matter? Yes, but not always in the way you expect….

1. SOMETIMES SMALLER LEAVES MEAN HIGHER QUALITY: Quite often, a large leaf-size is an indicator of quality. However, it can also mean exactly the opposite! For example, most high quality Japanese teas come from tiny narrow leaves that half the size of their lower-quality counterparts. This is because the higher quality leaves come from the young, fresh buds of the tea plant while the lower quality tea comes from the larger, older leaves lower down on the stem.

2. SOME HERBS HAVE SMALL LEAVES BY NATURE: Also, certain teas must have a smaller leaf-size because they naturally grow this way. For example, Red Tea/Rooibos always has a miniature, needle-like leaf size simply because that is how the plant exists in nature. It is impossible make rooibos needles larger without altering the genetics of the plant, just as you don’t see apples the size of pumpkins. Chamomile also contains tiny grains of pollen and delicate petals that are extremely small in size. This is simply the nature of the plant. Every tea type is different.

3. SOME TEALEAVES ARE BROKEN ON PURPOSE: Some teas come from leaves are purposefully broken. Traditionally, Chai and Breakfast teas are made with a broken leaf grade because it gives the infusion more flavor, briskness, and strength—an important flavor requirement for both categories of tea. In other words, a small broken leaf is sometimes desirable to add strength to the brew, and allow it to stand up to milk, sugar, spices and other added ingredients. Because the leaf is broken, you tend to get little bits in your cup, but this can be easily prevented (more on this later…).

THE LEAF SIZE, OR “GRADE”: The broken leaf size, or grade, used in Chai and Breakfast teas is called BOP (broken orange pekoe). In the world of tea, “grades” ONLY refer to the SIZE and appearance of the leaf—grades say little about the quality. There are excellent quality BOP leaves and extremely low quality BOP leaves. The size of the leaf speaks only to the size of the leaf, whereas the quality depends on its flavor, complexity, aroma and freshness.

APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING: Just as you can have both high and low quality broken leaf grades, you can also have both high and low quality large leaf grades. In fact, you can even find two teas that look so identical you can barely tell them apart at first glance … but the difference in flavor is drastic enough that one can sell for $100+ per pound, and the other less than $5 per pound; one can have an incredible, complex, lingering flavor and aroma, while the other tastes flat or even downright bad.
If only judging a tea’s quality was as simple as looking at its appearance! That would make our job a lot easier! But appearance is not meaningless. A leaf’s appearance can sometimes give you hints to its flavor and certain signs often indicate quality (for example, we often look for golden tips on black tealeaves and a silver downy-white gleam on white tealeaves), but appearances can be deceiving. Some great-looking teas taste terrible and flat, while others live up to their expectations.

LEAF SIZE SHOULD BE SPECIFIC TO THE TYPE OF TEA: Every style of tea requires a specific leaf-size and appearance. Think of it like the breed requirements at a Dog Show (a Golden Retriever by definition, cannot look like a Poodle!). A broken leaf grade is normal and expected in a Chai or Breakfast tea, but the same shape and appearance would be abnormal and adversely affect the flavor of other tea styles. For example, most white, green and oolong teas should have a larger leaf size. In these cases, a large leaf-size (in addition to it’s flavor and aroma) will indicate quality because a large leaf is necessary for the specific tea type. Silver Needle should have long, smooth, needle-like leaves with a silver-white hue; the delicate leaf must be protected during picking, processing and shipping. Oolong Teas vary drastically depending on their specific subcategory. For example, an Amber Dragon/Bai Hao should have large, narrow, twisted brown leaves while Silver Mountain Water/Jade Oolong should have green, tightly-rolled pebble-shaped leaves that expand to reveal the full stem and first few leaves in hot water.

SUMMARY: So, although leaf-size is often an indication of quality and bigger is often better, this isn’t always the case; it really depends on the type of tea you are evaluating and it all comes down to flavor, freshness and aroma. Some leaf-sizes are naturally small and others are broken purposefully to achieve a specific flavor profile. Although leaf-size varies depending on the type of tea, the leaf-size should always be correct for type.

BREWING TIP – HOW TO KEEP SMALL LEAVES OUT OF YOUR CUP: Because leaf-size varies depending on the specific tea, different strainers are recommended for different types of tea. For example, oolongs and many full-leaf green teas, pearl teas and certain large-leaf black teas work well in strainers with large holes. However, red teas, certain herbal teas and broken-leaf black teas should be brewed in a fine-mesh strainer or a strainer with incredibly small holes. The strainer is always meant to match the tea type. Our Brewing Basket (by Finum) is our most versatile infuser and works with all leaf sizes. Fill-your-own tea bags (either Tea Pockets or Finum Tea Filters) are also a great option for keeping small leaf particles out of your cup.

You can view these brewing accessories at: http://www.octaviatea.com/categories/Teaware/.

To learn more about quality, flavor and leaf size, please see our Guide to Tea.

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