When strolling down the tea aisle at a supermarket, have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by the vast and colourful selection of packaged tea on offer? While it may seem like there is a vast range of tea available, in reality, only a small percentage is sold in supermarkets. In fact, there are over 2000 different types of tea produced worldwide, falling into six categories: white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark tea. However, the majority of tea found in supermarkets is produced through the ‘cut, tear, curl’ (CTC) method, whereas artisan tea is produced through traditional methods by specialists. Here are six ways that artisan tea differs from supermarket tea:
Artisan tea leaves are almost always handpicked and carefully selected, with a focus on the newly-emerged bud and one or two leaves. Conversely, supermarket tea leaves are usually of lower quality and are plucked by hand or machine, making it more difficult to select specific leaves.
Rolling and Shaping or Cutting and Tearing
Artisan tea is often shaped and rolled by hand or small, specially designed machines that gently twist the leaves into a specific shape, leaving the full leaf intact for multiple steeps. In contrast, the CTC method used for supermarket tea sees the leaves loaded into large machines where they are cut, crushed, torn, and rolled until they achieve a uniform size. This process is not designed to improve the flavour of the tea, and CTC leaves generally lose their flavour after one steep.
There are over ten different grades of tea leaf, with the top five grades used for artisan tea. The highest grade is made up of whole, intact buds, while the lowest grade is made from the ‘dust’ left over from the CTC method. Higher grade tea will result in a more complex and aromatic tea than the lower grades.
Flavour: Nature or By Human Design?
Large tea brands need consistency in flavour, so CTC tea is blended each season to achieve the same flavour as the previous year. Conversely, the tea master uses their senses and intuition, particularly their sense of smell, to understand when artisan tea is ‘ready’. The same technique is used each year, but the flavour can change depending on growing conditions, much like wine. The flavours of artisan tea are more subtle and complex than those of CTC tea, making them more interesting to taste and evaluate.
Artisan tea is typically single-origin and left alone so that the complex flavours and aromas can speak for themselves. Occasionally, flavour is added to the leaves through natural plants such as fresh Jasmine leaves or roasted rice. Conversely, flavoured tea is commonly found in supermarkets, which are typically made with inferior leaves and have flavouring additives to strengthen the taste of the tea.
Pure-Leaf, Single Origin Tea vs. Herbal Tea
Herbal teas are technically ‘tisanes’ or ‘infusions’ and are not made from the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis. They are called tea because they are prepared in the same way as tea. Supermarkets often have a wide selection of herbal teas on their shelves, but true tea connoisseurs seek out pure-leaf, single origin tea.
While supermarket tea may be more accessible, it cannot compare to the quality and complexity of artisan tea. The hand-picked, hand-rolled, and carefully selected leaves of artisan tea produce a more refined flavour that is simply not achievable with CTC tea. With a little research and effort, it is possible to discover a new world of tea beyond the supermarket shelves.