It was time for our monthly tea education meeting with Richard, and something was amiss in his office. You see, typically there are samples of unique teas from around the world littering his desk, the surface that we all gather around for staff meetings. Many of these samples come beautifully packaged and look just as exotic as they are, and others are in plain pouches that Richard will open up and hold beneath your nose when you ask about it, inviting you to try some.
But for this staff meeting, there was an all-too familiar box of tea on his desk — a box of tea you can see in your mind when you close your eyes and conjure it up in your imagination.
It was Lipton Tea. Yellow box, red logo, 16 tea bags he had purchased for just $1.29 at the local grocery store.
Why? Because Richard was about to explain the difference between whole leaf tea and CTC or "dust tea," as some call it. CTC stands for cut, torn and curled, which is exactly what happens to Lipton Tea leaves before they are packaged into the well known double-chambered paper tea bags. The first thing he did was tear into one of those bags and dump it onto a sheet of white paper. The particles of tea that came out were miniscule, but they still had both dark brown leaf fragments and tiny golden pieces from the tips of the tea, as well as woody looking pieces from stems of the tea plant.
A CTC machine, says Richard, takes tea leaves that have been harvested and withered with hot air until the leaves are like leather, and then grinds them repeatedly to get those tiny fragments. From there the tea is fermented. That means the wet, gooey tea (the mucky consistency came when the leaves were cut, torn and curled) is spread out for four to eight hours in a humidified room until a tea maker decides it smells just right, and then it's "fixed" in an oven; that is, cooked to the consistency you see in the tea bag.
Tea produced with more orthodox methods, like the whole leaf tea that you'll find in a sachet of two leaves and a bud, is also harvested and withered, and then it is rolled three times for 45 minutes each time. The rolling gives it the gooey consistency. From there our tea is fermented and then fixed.
So, as much as we talk about enjoying the full flavor of whole leaf tea, why is CTC-produced tea so popular? As Richard says, 98 percent of the tea produced in Assam, India, is CTC, as is 90 percent of tea produced in Darjeeling.
"It's cheaper, and more effective in a tea bag," Richard says. Perhaps obviously, Lipton tea is a lot cheaper than two leaves and a bud, and as for being "effective," one of those double-chambered bags of CTC tea does brew up an incredibly strong cup of tea.
But at two leaves and a bud, we love the nuanced flavor of whole leaf tea, and it makes us popular at tea gardens around the world. "The gardens love that we buy their tea, because it's the best quality," Richard says. But, we are a small operation, and as he puts it, we buy six tons of tea each year while Lipton has probably produced six tons of tea just while you were reading this blog.
So tell us, do you detect the difference between a cup of two leaves and a bud tea and a cup of Lipton Tea? What does the difference taste like to you?