why we choose to use loose leaf tea

Pictured below are two black tea blends of a low-mid (left) and mid-high (right) grades. As a rule of thumb, the fuller the leaves are, the better the tea it produces. Whole individual leaves are broadly described as loose leaf, and are inherently of a higher quality [1]. The process used to prepare tea matters greatly too, but for now I’ll focus on the idea of ingredient quality; better ingredients yield better products.

Most boba shops rely on sugar and creamer for their drinks’ flavor profiles. Our challenge was to have a milk tea that tasted good without being too sweet or creamy. We felt that tea should be the focal point, and that milk and sugar should serve to balance and highlight the tea. Darwin talked about why we choose to use milk as our creamer here and the decision to stay away from non dairy creamer. One of the reasons is that non-dairy creamer coats your tongue with a fatty mouthfeel and seriously affects the taste of the tea. But additionally, we wanted to be conscious of the source and nature of our ingredients and felt that creamer powder lacked this distinction. Our unofficial kitchen motto is “keep it real”. Why use creamer powder when there are just so many wonderful dairy and plant milk options out there?

Of course, not all “powders” are bad. Matcha, for example, by definition is a concentrated green tea powder made from carefully cultivated green tea leaves that have been ground down. What’s crucial in a good matcha is that the producer starts with really good quality green tea leaves to begin with and that the matcha used has a purity to it (some matcha lattes are made with powders already cut with sugar or vanilla flavorings). But as a whole, loose leaf is usually far superior, and therefore the obvious choice when given the option. “Better” is a process, and better ingredients starts with a hard look at where our products are made and what they’re made from.  

When we set out to have milk tea that tasted good, we took on the limitations of using ingredients that were as natural and high quality as reasonably possible. As they often do, these constraints actually drove our creativity forward. Every boba place has a classic house milk tea out of a black tea base, and many boba fanatics (us included) use this as a litmus test for the place’s potential. We knew that we too had to start there. The very first semi-decent drink was a black milk tea, made out of Darwin’s home kitchen, from a handful of black tea, some whole milk, and cane sugar. We then realized we wanted to maintain a level of purity to the tea in each milk tea, so we expanded the milk tea menu by adding actual tea options. Black. Jasmine Green. Genmaicha. Oolong. Earl Grey. Where most most boba shops average 3 to 4 tea bases, we have 11; each base being an actual, individually brewed tea concentrate. 

On this journey, Camellia Rd Tea Bar has become as much a tribute to tea as it is to boba. Most tea as we know them, such as black, green, oolong, all originate from a single plant, Camellia Sinensis, and therefore (most) all of our milk tea menu originates from this single plant as well [2] The tea is planted, grown, harvested, and processed differently to give us almost endless variations. But we realized that not all loose leaf teas are made equally. We searched through farms, suppliers, and other tea experts for different candidates which lead to countless experimental milk teas. Everyone who joins us the Camellia Rd Team gets into the habit of regularly tasting our menu items, and including hit-or-miss milk tea tests. For every menu option, there are probably 10x as many failed experiments. And we shared our process with our Camellia regulars too. We’d ask them if they’d like to try a sample, and occasionally, they’d ask us about loose leaf teas. [3] Our pursuit to being a tea-based boba shop, had gotten some people interested in tea.* 

Two years later, we’ve still on this process of better. And we’ve started asking many more questions. How was this tea grown? Who were the farmers? What were the impacts of our sourcing? How does global trade policy affect us? A lot of these details needed attention, and while we may not get all of them right, it’s another step in our journey for better boba milk tea. So this fall, we’ll be opening up a small and more intimate tea retail location, Camellia Rd Loose Leaf, dedicated to finding and sourcing loose leaf teas. We hope to share a cup or two of tea with you.

[1]  (we named our newsletter, “The Orange Pekoe”, after a grade of loose leaf teas. sign up for the newsletter here)

[2] Camellia Sinensis is where the “Camellia” in Camellia Rd comes from.

[3] The very first sample of loose leaf tea was just given out in a ziplock bag.

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