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Tea is the second most popular drink in the world and when someone uses the word tea, most people immediately think of a tea bag. This is because tea bags make up around 90% of all tea sales in the Western world. However, this is not the way tea should be enjoyed. High-quality tea is best enjoyed in its loose form and with the leaves fully intact. In this article, you have a full overview of the differences between tea bags and loose leaf tea.
The main difference between tea bags and loose leaf tea is the quality. In most cases, tea for tea bags is of lower quality containing fannings, very small and crushed leaves and even tea dust that would otherwise be thrown away. The size of the leaves is different as well because there is limited space in tea bags. Big and fully intact tea leaves won’t fit in smaller tea bags, which is why they are broken. The smaller size of tea bags also limits the space for tea leaves to unfurl and expand.
What is a tea bag?
In order to have a meaningful discussion about the difference between loose leaf tea and teabags, it’s important to know what a tea bag actually is. Most people already know this, but it’s important that we’re on the same page. According to Wikipedia:
A tea bag is a small, porous, sealed bag or packet, typically containing tea leaves, which is immersed in water to steep and make an infusion. Originally used only for tea (Camellia sinensis), they are now made with other tisanes as well.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_bag
Teabags are small pouches that contain tea. They exist in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most popular shapes are squares and rectangles, but there are also circular tea bags and tea bags in the shape of a pyramid.
Some teabags are made of fully compostable materials, while others contain some plastics as well. In 2019, there was a study that shows that with every cup of tea brewed using a plastic tea bag, 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.6 billion nano plastics enter the human body.
History of the tea bag
To understand why the tea bag is as popular as it is today, it’s useful to know where it came from and why it was originally created. For centuries, tea has been enjoyed in its loose form and the tea bag is a fairly modern invention. There are several stories that explain its origins, which you can read below.
The tea bag was created to make transportation costs easier but quickly peaked in popularity because of its ease of use. It was Thomas Sullivan who popularised the tea bag in the early 20th century. He was a tea and coffee merchant from New York who wanted to send some tea to several customers. Usually, they would use expensive tins to transport tea and he found a better alternative to the more expensive tin containers. These containers were quite heavy and would make shipping more expensive, especially when the amount of tea was really low. He would just pay for the weight of the containers.
Thomas Sullivan, the accidental inventor of the tea bag.
He started using silk bags in which he put the tea leaves. The customers were supposed to take out the leaves and put them in a metal strainer to brew a nice cup of tea. Instead, they tossed the silk tea bags in their pots and cups and poured water over them. The rest is history…
However, there is another story about the creation of the tea bag as we know it today. In 1903, Roberta C Lawson and Mary Mclaren got a patent on a tea leaf holder. This tea leaf holder is in essence a modern tea bag. The big difference with Thomas Sullivan’s tea bag is that these two women designed it for water to go through the bag. This early version of the tea bag was supposed to be immersed in water, while Thomas Sullivan’s tea leaves were to be taken out of the bag.
Difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags
There are a couple of main differences between loose leaf tea and teabags. You have a detailed overview below.
Whole leaves vs tea leaves in tea bags
One of the major differences between loose leaf tea and tea bags is the size of the tea leaves. Loose leaf tea is mostly made up of whole and unbroken leaves. Tea bags on the other hand consist of smaller pieces, crushed leaves and even tea dust that would otherwise be thrown away.
Here you can see the size of infused and mostly unbroken tea leaves.
In general, whole tea leaves are far better in quality than broken and crushed leaves. There are some exceptions to this rule like Japanese sencha. The leaves of high-quality sencha can be very small! However, this doesn’t mean that the tea is of low quality and tastes bad.
With most other teas, crushed leaves interact more with water because of the larger surface area. This results in the essential oils being extracted much quicker, creating stale and unbalanced tea. Because of this, you have less control over the brewing process and is not ideal if you’re trying to brew the perfect cup of tea.
Expanding of loose tea leaves and tea in tea bags
To extract all flavours, tea leaves need room to expand. Loose-leaf tea can be quite big but if you’re brewing tea in the Chinese way, they have all the space they need in a teapot or gaiwan. This allows for full extraction of flavours, essential oils, aromas, … Making sure that tea leaves have space to fully open results in the best possible brew.
This is where you might see a problem when using tea bags. The tea is usually a lot smaller, but there is still not enough room for the (crushed) leaves to fully expand. To make things even worse, paper tea bags even collapse and stick to the leaves, limiting their expansion even more. Nowadays, there are companies that use larger tea bags to prevent this issue, but there are other issues that prevent brewing the perfect cup of tea (listed above and below).
Different flavours in loose leaf tea and tea bags
Flavours of loose leaf tea and tea bags are really different. Using loose leaf tea allows for optimal extraction of flavours and more control over the brewing process. In this way, you can brew the perfect cup of tea exactly how you like it. You can change brewing time, amount of tea, … This results in tea that is full-bodied, flavourful and with a lot of details and nuances.
Tea bags allow for less control in the brewing process. The only parameter you can change is the length of the steep. Because of the lower quality (usually) of the tea in tea bags, you will get dull and stale tea without many nuances.
Why choose tea bags?
After reading all of this, why would you ever want to use tea bags again? Well, there are a couple of reasons…
A very important factor to use tea bags is the ease of use. If you only have a couple of minutes to spare, you just put on the kettle, toss in a tea bag, let it steep and you’re done! Just throw the tea bag in the trash (or compost bin if it’s compostable) and you’re good to go.
If you’re using loose leaves, you might want to weigh the amount of tea you’re using, put it in a strainer and clean the strainer afterwards. You also need to carry loose leaves with you if you want a cup of tea. A tea bag is far more convenient, especially at the office, when you don’t have much time or even when you’re travelling.
Loose-leaf tea can get quite expensive if you’re going for the good stuff. Not only tea itself is expensive, but you’ll need some tools to brew it properly as well. A strainer, teapot (those can get very expensive) and maybe even a scale to weigh the leaves.
Tea bags on the other hand are usually quite cheap. You only buy tea bags, toss them in a mug and that’s it. You don’t need anything else than just a tea bag.
I hope you know the difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags by now. Brewing loose leaf tea offers many benefits to using tea bags, but the tea bags aren’t all bad. Loose leaf tea results in a far better brew, but costs more and requires more attention and time. Tea bags are cheaper and are very easy to brew.
The choice between loose leaf tea and tea bags depends on what you’re looking for. If you want the full experience with full-bodied and complex flavours, loose leaf tea is the best option. Do you want a quick and cheap cup of tea? Using a tea bag is your best bet. Tea is a wonderful product of nature and there is something for everyone’s needs.