Loose leaf tea vs tea bags
We at Sweet Tea Junkie have had quite a few folks asking what makes our tea different from the store bought teas? When I explain the differences I like to go into detail about Loose Leaf teas which are in general a higher quality better tasting tea, and tea in ready to steep bags which are generally a lower quality. So if you have a few minutes… Leeeettt’s get reeeaaady to rrruuummbblleee! It’s Loose leaf tea vs. tea bags in a battle to the finish!
The Origins of the Tea Bag
The earliest known patent for a tea bag (called a “tea-leaf holder”) was filed on Aug 26, 1901 and granted on Mar 24, 1903. The inventors were Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Mclaren.
There is a story that is widely circulated across the internet that the tea bag was accidentally invented by New York Tea Merchant Thomas Sullivan in 1908 when he shipped out samples of his tea in silk bags to his buyers, who steeped the tea directly in the bags. Then in subsequent orders when Mr. Sullivan didn’t include the tea inside the silk bags some of his buyers became unhappy, thus a revolution in the tea industry was born..
In all likelihood Mr. Sullivan may have been the one to popularize the use of the tea bag, however from basic patent office research it is clear that he was not the inventor of the tea bag.
Tea in Tea Bags
Tea in ready to steep bags, such as what you find at your local grocer are all about convenience. The bags themselves are usually made of a filter paper material, however you will find tea bags made from plastic, to nylon, cotton, and silk depending on the tea company. Inside each tea bags is a determined amount of tea which will generally brew about 6 to 8 ounces, a single cup of tea. In the south especially you will often find quart or larger sized tea bags intended to brew up larger quantities of tea. Hey, we drink our tea by the gallon down here not the cup!
If you have ever opened up a tea bag you’ll quickly see what I talk about in terms of quality. It’s a ground up mess more closely resembling ground coffee than tea. In fact one of the grades of tea used in tea bags is actually referred to as “dust.” There are far too many grades and variations to list in this post but the main grades of tea found in tea bags are as follows: broken, fannings, dust.
- Broken – Broken leaf tea is exactly that, the remnants of a whole leaf that have been broken either accidentally or purposefully during processing.
- Fannings – During processing fannings are the pieces of the leaves that are left over. They are very small and considered low quality in the overall tea grading system.
- Dust – Dust is just that, they are bits of the tea leaves that have been ground or broken so finely that they literally resemble dirt or dust. Go ahead and open up one of your national brand tea bags and chances are you’ll see exactly what I mean. Dust along with fannings are considered the lowest quality teas and are what you’ll see most of in tea bags sold in stores.
The vast majority of tea in tea bags is a lower quality grade of tea made for convenience and quick infusion often at the expense of taste as we have seen above. Notice that I said “vast majority” and not “all.” There are some high quality, great tasting teas in tea bags these are usually from specialty retailers and not found in a grocery store.
Tea leaves destined to end up in a tea bag are generally harvested by machine as opposed to high quality loose teas which are plucked individually by the hands of skilled laborers to prevent damage to the leaf.
Loose Leaf Tea
Loose leaf tea is simply the loose leaf of tea. Any type of tea: White, Green, Oolong, Black etc. can be in loose leaf form and as we learned in a previous post all types of tea come from the same plant, the Camellia Sinensis. While the vast majority of tea available, about 94% as of this posting is in tea bag form loose leaf tea has begun a sort of Renaissance. As the knowledge of tea is spread more people are finding that there really is a big difference in taste and character between the tea bag teas and loose leaf teas.
There are two big differences in my opinion between tea bags and loose leaf.
First is visual. Breaking open a tea bag and laying its contents next to a small amount of loose leaf tea is one of the things that started me on the journey of learning more about tea. There really is no comparison between the two.
I encourage you to stop reading this post if you have tea in your kitchen go break open a bag and pour its contents on a plate. Doing this will give you a great visual, and an idea of what I am talking about. It may even start you on your own journey of tea knowledge!
Second is infusion. When you steep a tea bag the infusion happens quickly due to the leaves being broken so finely. Loose leaf tea, when given space in your cup or pot will unfurl allowing the full flavor of the leaves to be infused into the water. Many quality loose leaf teas are capable of being infused multiple times and will often reveal slight differences in taste with each infusion. I have heard it said by many tea experts that even the most expensive teas are a cheap luxury when you consider how many infusions you can get out of a single set of leaves.
As you begin learning more about tea and trying different types of loose leaf tea you will come to find what your personal preferences are. This is when you can make an informed decision on quality. There will be loose leaf teas that you just fall in love with, others that you wonder what people would drink it for! The care in plucking and processing tea leaves destined for loose leaf form is of greater importance than tea destined for tea bags.
For general information a large part of the quality of any tea has to do with where on the earth and at what elevation it is grown.
The Origins of Loose Leaf Tea
In the entire history of tea drinking, stretching back thousands of years tea has been for the most part in its loose form. Until the late 1800’s to early 1900’s no one knew of tea bags, and tea was in either loose form or the pu’er / brick teas which is compressed into shapes or matcha which is a powdered green tea used for tea ceremonies in Japan.
The brick style teas are simply leaves that have been processed in a way that allows them to be compressed and stored for longer periods of time. In ancient history these bricks were once used as a form of currency as well as by the Chinese to buy horses from the Tibetans.
The Verdict (Convenience vs. Taste)
Convenience: When it comes to convenience there can be no doubt that the tea bag is the winner. There have been some great new devices that make brewing loose leaf tea more convenient, but so far nothing beats pouring water over a tea bag in terms of convenience.
Taste: When you try loose leaf tea that has been properly prepared, whether by the cup or if made for Iced Sweet Tea the way we like it around here the victory goes to Loose Leaf Tea. There is a depth of flavor in the loose leaf teas that I have tried that I cannot find in the tea bags from the store.
So there you have it, I hope you have enjoyed Loose Leaf tea vs tea bags! If your main goal is pure convenience then the tea bag is going to be your friend. If however you realize the need in a hurried society to slow down, even if just slightly then I encourage you to try loose leaf tea. It really isn’t all that much more difficult to brew than your standard tea bag, and if you buy our teas we include a “Perfect Brew Recommendations Guide” which helps even the first time loose leaf brewer make the perfect glass every time. Your taste buds will thank you!
U.S Patent & Trademark Office