7718561222_dec95c0a53_zA wonderful, kind, amazing man, known as The Candyman, David Klein, the originator of something you’ve all probably enjoyed – Jelly Belly jelly beans –  invited me to join his Internet board of entrepreneurs recently.  There is an interesting and wonderful interactive mix, including founders of big companies and inventors of ‘real cool stuff.’  Being a bit tired and trying to think of something creative for my contribution this month, I decided to invite these bright and naturally inquisitive people to ask me questions about specialty tea or tea in general for this post.  I was surprised as the volume of questions grew and grew.  Most either have not had loose tea, or are new to loose tea.  I’m sharing the questions – and answers – this month, with thanks to these lovely virtual friends!

“What is the exact process, from its packaging to that tasty cup of goodness?”

Abbreviated answer:

Tea is an agricultural product that is picked and then ‘processed’, graded, and sold to packagers/importers/blenders/wholesalers, then resold one or more times to distributors and/or retailers, before it reaches shelves or consumers.  (There are some companies that specialize in direct from grower to consumer model.)

What is loose tea? How does loose tea differ from the products I can buy at the store?

Leaf tea might be a better term than loose.  Mass merchandiser teas are usually in bags and usually contain the lowest grade of tea, or dust/fannings, which are the end result of a series of sieveings, in graduated sizes, where the ‘dust’ is the end result and the lowest grade of tea.

What about differences in the clarity? I saw a post of you comparing clarity. Why is it important, what does it mean?

Clarity is the look of the tea.  Unclouded, bright looking tea has clarity.  Clouded tea can be tea that was brewed some time ago and/or chilled and stored.

Why is loose leaf tea not sold in stores as much as tea bags, what is the difference and why is it so expensive? Can I make my own loose leaf tea?

Shelf space in mass merchandise stores is expensive, and larger manufacturers have dominated it with tea bags filled with tea dust and extremely high profit margins.   Leaf tea is not generally more expensive; in fact, some have shown it to be about the same price per cup as tea bag dust.  You cannot ‘make’ leaf tea; it begins as a leaf and only becomes tea bag dust after sieving, as the broken bits fall through the smaller and smaller sieves.)

I drink iced tea all day . . . why are the flavored ones so yucky?

2468859659_b4f940decb_oEither they are low quality tea with low quality ingredients blended in or heavy oils sprayed on the tea, or they may be tea flavored with cheap flavor syrups. If it is bottled, it may be the use of preservatives or sweeteners.

How long after I brew tea is it ideal to still enjoy? including ice tea?

Tea should be consumed as quickly after brewing as possible to retain maximum taste and antioxidants.  This includes iced tea, which can be made by pouring double-triple strength hot tea over ice and shaking or stirring.

Are medicinal teas safe to drink or could they possibly interfere with over the counter or prescription medications?

There is no ‘medicinal tea’ category recognized by the medical profession at large that I know of.  And the FDA is extremely strict about using such designations.  Yes, there are teas and herbals that could interact with medication.  Your doctor should be able to help you with these questions.  WebMD also has information on this topic.

I love loose leaf tea. What makes black tea differ from green tea? Why does Earl grey taste so different from other black teas?

Tea designations such as white, green, oolong and black have to do with the amount of oxidation of the tea.   Earl Grey has bergamot oil added.

 What is “wither” of the tea?

Tea begins to wither and dry as soon as it is picked.

A group of questions from one poster:  What is a really good quality tea? What most impacts the quality of tea: growing process, picking, drying, fermentation or dirt?  How do you inspect quality of tea?

‘Quality’ was later defined by the questioner as how seasoned tea palates perceive tea.  Tea taste quality is affected by any number of factors including grade of tea, where it was grown, climactic conditions, and processing.  Brewing improperly will also negatively impact the taste.

What is best – white, green or black?

Best was defined by the poster as taste as well, and in this sense, ‘quality’ and ‘best’ are subject to the individual palate.

Which is most expensive?diane money

This depends on who is selling the tea.  Seriously, it does.  However, some aged pu-erhs can go for costs rivaling fine wine.  In general, oolongs are one of the more expensive general classifications.  There are rare teas that go for much more than other teas most consumers will ever know about or buy.

What notes can you taste with tea?

This depends on the tea as well.  With teas, notes can range from floral to toasty to smoky to nutty to earthy . . .  same with herbals . . . depends on many things.

What are some of the best teas in the world or regions? Why is leaf better than bagged? What are those fancy pyramid bags for tea?

Teas are ‘best’ or known to be great examples by a number of measurements.  Some believe the best oolongs are from Taiwan.  Dragon Well green tea from the West Lake District is known as superior to others classified as Dragon Well.  Leaf tea is a higher grade of tea than the dust in bags.  The pyramid bags, or sachets, allow for a better grade of tea inside the sachet.  However, some teas, like a tightly wound or large leaf tea still do not have room to properly expand and infuse in a sachet (in my opinion).

What are the grades or do you have a link?

Click here for Good general information on the subject.

Is there a definitive tea resource book or encyclopedia online for all things tea?

Read writings by James Norwood Pratt or Nigel Melican as a great place to begin.

The interest shown by this innovative group expresses, to me, the overall growing interest in specialty tea.  It excites me, stimulates and motivates me to get the word out on that beautiful leaf we here at T Ching all love so much!

Any input and/or expansion on the short and generalized answers I gave here – such as Austin or Nigel or others – please chime in!

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People asking questions, besides The Candyman referenced above:

John Sortino, founder of Vermont Teddy Bear; some people who have been on Shark Tank as contestants; Mychal Connolly (Mychal Connolly was named one of America’s Top 100 Urban Entrepreneurs for his body of work as the co-founder of the online baby-gift company. He was also named one of the Top 40 under 40 in Massachusetts by Business West Magazine. He’s been featured in the Boston HeraldBlack Enterprise Magazine and INC. Magazine. He has shared his voice on the power of changing lives through entrepreneurship with platforms such as NPR, CBS Radio, affiliate ABC and NBC TV stations. Mr. Connolly currently serves as a board member and spokesperson for Junior Achievement Western Massachusetts.); Tim Forrest  (Tim Forrest “world-class growth and expanding markets for Food Enterprises.” Your unique and challenging opportunities benefit from Tim’s creative execution. His selling more than $200 million in products to various retail channels and television networks QVC and Food Network began on the dock loading trucks for grocery, convenience, clubs, and foodservice more than 20 years ago. Tim’s ‘insider’ experience with the largest food companies in the world – Nestle, Unilever, and the organic industries’ largest, Hain-Celestial. After starting his own consultancy 10 years ago, Tim fills a special niche because he will provide resources and actions usually not readily available to most companies. Tim is Senior Advisor at Tim Forrest Consulting and Director of GoodFoodSales.); Ziggy Schnitzler of Ziggy’s Kettle Corn, Dr. Steven Nakisher of Talbott Teas (sold to Jamba Juice).

This article was originally posted to T Ching in January of 2015.