One of the decisions to make when purchasing tea besides the color of the brew is the finished tea leaf—whether it is intact or cut into tiny pieces. If you like to try different kinds of tea, you've probably already experienced both whole leaf and CTC tea even though you may not have referred to them using these terms. Knowing which type you're using will influence how you brew the tea and tell you other things about it.
Whole leaf tea is synonymous with orthodox tea. This tea is processed using the traditional methods described in Basics of Processing and may be found in a number of shapes and sizes—long and flat, curled, rolled, etc. If you examine the leaves after they've been steeped and have unfurled, you'll see they are composed of whole leaves, some buds, and occasionally stems, depending upon the kind of tea.
The alternative to whole leaf tea is CTC (crush-tear-curl or cut-tear-curl). CTC is a modern method of processing that cuts tea leaves into little bits. The result is a bold cup of tea that brews and acquires its dark color very quickly. If you're over 20 years old and from the Western world, it's probably the kind of tea you first knew as a youngster. Chances are you either love it or hate it.
Not long ago whole leaf tea universally was sold in loose leaf form while teabags were almost always made from CTC tea. This has been changing over the past decade. Major and minor tea producers have been packaging whole leaf tea in teabags or sachets for convenience and to appeal to a population increasingly tuned-in to high-quality teas. While the majority of teabags are still made using CTC teas, it's worthwhile to be aware of the differences.
Whole leaf (orthodox) tea leaves have been twisted, rolled or manipulated into some form during their processing. These are the classics that have been produced for centuries and have made tea the world's second most popular beverage. Traditional processing methods coax a plethora of unique, complex aromas and flavors from the tea leaves. You can expect vegetal, fruity, floral, smoky, or earthy tastes as well as everything in-between.
The ability to reliably re-infuse whole leaf tea is a huge point in its favor. Whole leaf teas can be steeped multiple times because the hot water gradually unfurls the leaves, each time bringing new essences to the fore. I can always get at least three infusions, and many times up to eight or nine infusions from a spoonful of tea leaves. The tea drinker also has a great deal of control over the robustness of the finished cup by varying the amount of tea leaves used and the length of the infusion.
The shapes, sizes, and smells of whole leaf tea vary widely. To get an idea of the aromas and shapes to look for in dry leaves, see descriptions for each individual type of tea.
Whole leaf tea is most often sold in loose form, so you will purchase it by the ounce or gram (see Loose Leaf Tea or Teabags). However, there is an increasing selection of whole leaf teas on the market packaged in teabags. The packaging may refer to it as pure leaf tea, full leaf tea, or long leaf tea if it's not called whole leaf tea. Most of the whole leaf teas sold in teabags consist of a base tea (most commonly black, green, or white) with added flavors, fruit pieces, or spices. Green tea with mint or white tea with vanilla and coconut are examples of the combinations you can find.
CTC processing was developed in the early 1900's when Great Britain launched tea production in India. The leaves of the tea plants grown in India, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, are much larger than those of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (the China bush), and the harvests in India are nearly year 'round. The frequency and sheer volume of harvests were overwhelming using traditional Chinese tea-making methods. Additionally, India's humid environment caused the tea leaves to rot during the withering process instead of developing their characteristic aromas. A new method of tea manufacture was required to accommodate these differences. Subsequently, the CTC process was developed.
In the CTC process, harvested tea leaves are brought to a withering room where their moisture content is decreased substantially. Leaves can be either withered naturally or in climate-controlled rooms. Those withered naturally are higher in amino acids and, because the process is slower, have the opportunity to undergo more flavor- and aroma-enhancing chemical changes than those processed in more controlled facilities.
After withering, leaves are simultaneously rolled and cut in a process that ruptures and damages the tea leaf cells far more extensively than traditional methods. In orthodox tea manufacture, the rolling process initiates oxidation which can go on for hours; the rolling and cutting phase in the CTC process damages tea leaf cells sufficiently and reduces the size of the leaves so that oxidation occurs almost instantaneously and very uniformly.
In the oxidation phase, compounds in the leaves are transformed. Theaflavins (responsible for briskness and astringency) have a chance to develop during CTC tea's oxidation while thearubigins (that mellow and round out the flavor) can only fully develop during an oxidation phase that is slower and longer.
Oxidation stops when the tea leaves are dried further in a firing process. By the end of the process tea leaves contain about 3–6 percent water. After drying, leaves are sorted, graded, and packed for shipping.
The CTC method of producing tea is very efficient, cost-effective and results in a highly consistent product that forms the backbone of the teabag industry.
In most grocery stores, you're likely to find a greater selection of teabags, and these are usually filled with CTC tea. If you tear open a teabag, you'll probably notice the contents to be small, regularly sized, cut up bits of tea leaves.
CTC teas are noted for their briskness and astringency; their flavors and aromas are less complex and nuanced than those of whole leaf teas. However, they remain the tea of choice for many tea drinkers perhaps, at least in part, because of their robust flavor. Using cream and sugar in CTC teas will mellow out their sharpness.
CTC teas are also known for their consistency. During processing, multiple batches of tea are combined to even out variations from different lots. It's possible for orthodox teas to be impacted by poor weather conditions in any given year, just like wines have good and bad years.
Because CTC tea is in tiny bits, all surfaces of the leaf particles are immediately exposed to hot water when brewed, and its flavors and aromas are released very quickly. Infusion time will take a matter of seconds. Too long, and the brew will quickly become bitter. You're unlikely to get a second infusion of tea from a teabag unless the first steeping was very brief.
You may occasionally find a loose tea that was processed using the CTC method. I was surprised by one of these in the past few months since nothing on the packaging gave me an indication of its status. For these, use the same tools for infusing as for any loose leaf tea. When brewing any new tea, just remember to check the liquid frequently when brewing since it can quickly become bitter if over-steeped.