Almost every tea drinker starts the tea journey with tea in tea bags. They are not only widely available, but very convenient too. If you get hooked on tea while trying teas in tea bags, at some point you will want to try loose leaf tea too. And that’s where – for most tea lovers – the whole tea magic begins. What is the difference between tea bags and loose leaf tea?
History of tea bags
Tea bags are actually a modern invention of tea merchants. For hundreds (even thousands!) of years tea was available only in loose leaf form, powdered form or compressed. Tea bags were invented at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States. The first patent for tea bags was filled in 1901 by Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren for an invention that was supposed to allow easy steeping. Another story says they were invented seven years later by an American tea merchant from New York. And it was purely by an accident. He was wrapping his loose leaf tea in silk pouches and his customers didn’t know they have to unwrap it before brewing. So, they simple placed the pouch in hot water, and the tea bag was born.
In the upcoming years, the popularity of tea bags allowed its further development. But, the type of tea leaf packed in tea bags changed too. It changed from full or broken tea leaf to tea dust and small particles called fannings. Regardless the leaf quality, tea bags became an irreplaceable „way“ of brewing tea. So irreplaceable that today, we have to re-discover loose leaf tea again.
The popularity of loose leaf tea started growing only a couple of decades ago. Many tea types such as green, oolong or white tea were almost unknown in many western countries until loose leaf tea started to gain popularity once again.
Difference in Quality
Both tea bags and loose leaf tea can be of a very high or a very low quality. In general, loose leaf tea is usually of a higher quality. That’s because regular tea bags usually contain tea dust and fannings, small particles left over tea production. Today, silken pyramid shaped pouches are available as an alternative and they can contain high quality unbroken full tea. The only problem? They may be made out of plastic and release high amounts of microplastic and nanoplastic into your cup.
However, loose leaf tea may be of a lower quality too. The quality will depend on many factors, from the tea plant to growing conditions, harvesting methods and processing techniques to storage. Technically, unbroken tea will always win over tea dust.
When steeping loose leaf tea you can see and discover things about your tea that you can’t see when steeping tea dust. You can see exactly which part of the tea plant you are drinking – buds, larger or smaller leaves, whole branches or just leaves. You can also judge the tea leaf by its color and shape. That’s impossible with tea bags.
Difference in Taste
Did you notice that not all teas are available in tea bags? Some intensely aromatic high quality teas would give a very bad cup if used as dust packed in filters. For example, some types of tea unsuitable for tea bags are Chinese dan cong teas, many rolled oolongs or silver needle buds. Tea leaves need space to expand and release their flavor, and that’s simply not possible in a tea bag.
Next, with loose leaf tea you can control the strength of your cup by adding more or less leaves. Tea bags contain a fixed amount of tea which is usually around 1-3 grams. Flavor is regulated with the water temperature too. Many people brew tea bags with boiling hot water, making the flavor even less attractive.
Next, the smaller the leaf particle, the faster it will deteriorate. This means that tea dust and fannings will lose freshness much faster than loose leaf tea. Remember matcha, a finely ground powder made of high quality loose tea leaves? It can lose freshness in as little as 4 weeks, exactly because of the particle size. Tea bags contain bigger particles, but they can still loose freshness very fast. If you opt for tea bags, store them properly or choose individually wrapped packages.
Another factor that will influence the flavor is the packaging itself. Some tea bags may leave a paper taste, especially if they contain more delicate white or green teas.
Difference in Cost
Regular tea bags generally contain about 1 to 3 grams of tea. One box containing 20 tea bags may only have 20 grams of tea. One tea bag is good for one infusion because tea particles in tea bags will release all their flavor in the first steep. On the other hand, you can re-steep loose leaf tea and even brew it in different ways to enjoy different flavor profiles. This means that the price per cup will often be less than the price of a tea bag. And it offer a better drinking experience too. In fact, some tea types may give up to 15 cups of tea in only one brewing session.
The highest quality tea is almost never packed in tea bags. Interestingly, tea ceremonies around the world always focus on loose leaf tea, never on tea bags. They always include the best tasting, highest quality teas.
How to choose between loose leaf tea or tea bags?
When deciding between loose leaf tea or tea bags, answer the following questions:
1. Am I drinking tea for health benefits?
If you drink tea to enjoy the health benefits, loose leaf tea may be a better choice. The only exception is when you want tea with a higher caffeine content – tea bags may give a more caffeinated drink in a single steep than loose leaf tea.
2. Do I want to make tea as fast as possible?
If you want to have your tea ready in no time, tea bags are better. To brew a perfect cup of loose leaf tea, you will need at least some utensils, such as a teapot, strainer, or even a whole tea set. With tea bags, you will only need a cup. They are simple to transport and take with you when traveling or to work.
However, you can brew loose leaf tea in tea bags too, and enjoy better flavor without compromising on quality. To make brewing loose leaf tea as easy as possible, choose re-usable cotton filters or disposable paper filters.
3. Am I drinking tea to enjoy the best possible flavor?
To enjoy the best flavor always opt for loose leaf tea. Usually, the only tea bags that can compete with loose leaf tea in terms of flavor are silk pyramid shaped bags. They contain loose leaf tea too. Loose leaf tea will have many flavor notes that you can discover by re-steeping the leaves.
4. Do I want to reduce the waste?
If you want to reduce the waste, loose leaf tea wins, especially if it comes in bio-degradable packaging. Brew it it a teapot to keep waste minimal.
5. Do you want to enjoy tea with milk and sugar?
If you enjoy drinking tea with milk and sugar, flavored loose leaf tea may be the best choice. Top quality pure loose tea is almost always drank pure. But flavored high quality loose tea may give a strong, full-bodied infusion with creamy and smooth notes that you can further enhance by adding milk or sugar. Sugar and milk are almost a must for black tea in tea bags too, but from a very different reason – to make taste better in general.
6. Do you want to make a tea latte?
For making lattes, stronger teas are better. You can get a stronger brew by choosing CTC teas with leaves shaped as tiny pellets, teas with small broken leaves or – tea bags.