Last Updated on 01/16/2022 by Desmond
Tea is primarily be consumed by people in two styles: Loose Leaf Tea and Tea Bags.
Compared with the argument about hand drip coffee and instant coffee, the competition of Loose Leaf Teas vs. Tea Bags is much fiercer. You can always get conclusions like “tea bag’s quality is much less than loose leaf” or “loose leaf has a better flavor experience“; both seem to have their own pros and cons.
So on earth which one is better? Keep reading, and you may find your own answer.
History and Processing
Tea culture was originated in China and has thousands of years of history. At the most beginning, people were just air-drying the tea leaves simply and brewing for drinking. Later, people steamed the leaves for a more extended expiration date and compressed them into tea cakes(block tea.) The tea cake needs to be ground into powder for brewing, like the Japanese Matcha nowadays.
Later on, the frying fixation method became the trend and lasted until now. After years of development, tea masters learned how to create various flavors by controlling the leaves’ fermentation degree and formed the current 6 primary tea types. Due to the leaves retaining their complete shape from being processed to be sold, so we call them whole-leaf tea, aka the loose leaf we said.
The tea bag came much more later. It is regarded as invented by USA tea merchant Thomas Sullivan in the early 20th century. It was said that he used a tiny silk pouch to pack the leaves sample for his customers but not even thought they would brew it directly. However, customers thought it made brewing much easier.
This tea-brewing way became a trend soon. Like Lipton, many tea brands started focusing on tea bags’ R&D. They caught this chance and grabbed the market share, which initially belonged to the loose leaf-selling old brands.
There is not much difference in the primary processing between loose leaf and tea bag. Influenced by the factors like cost management, volume, flavor, experience, etc., leave for making tea bags need to be cut into tiny pieces what we call dust and fannings. And this is the most reason that makes people think that tea bag’s quality is far from the loose leaf; they even think it is a waste.
Fortunately, some tea brands now publish tea bags made with the whole leaf(in a silken pyramid-shaped pouches design). But they are absolutely more expensive than the fannings tea bags, even the same type of loose leaf.
Differences In Preparing
Tea bag attracts so many fans is because it is effortless to prepare. You just need to put it in a cup, add some hot water, steep for a few minutes, then you can enjoy it. And after the finish, you only need to throw the tea bag away and rinse the cup simply. Besides, every tea bag is standardized produced; they can always make up a cup of tea with the same flavor and concentration.
Preparing loose leaf will be much more complicated, especially you are going to brew it in Gongfu Tea way. You need so many extra teawares like a tea tray, fair cup, tea tools, etc. At least you’d better have a teapot even for the simple brewing. And after you finish drinking, you also need to clean and maintain these teawares carefully to protect them from damage and breeding tea stains.
Very trouble, isn’t it? Then why do so many people still insist on brewing loose leaf tea with a whole tea set?
Let’s put aside the issue of flavor impact. Before the tea bag was invented, people had brewed loose leaf tea with a teapot for a long, long time. And this makes tea drinking becomes a culture, ceremony, and custom from the behavior of addressing physiological needs.
In the east, no matter the Chinese Gongfu Tea Ceremony or the Japanese Sado have already sublimated a philosophical thought of life. And they also took it as a highest-class ceremony for showing guests recept. Suppose to turn the loose leaf into tea bags; in that case, it will not only lack style but also seems disrespectful to the tradition and guests.
Tea had spread to the west several hundred years. Loose leaf brewing also forms related cultures, which are different from the east ones. One similar sample is tasseography. If Harry uses a tea bag in the class, then Professor Trelawney can not threaten him with the leaves in the cup.
Besides, many tea lovers like appreciating the leaves slowly expanding in the water. It also brings a great mental relaxation effect.
Of course, the tea bag is not all bad except for its convenience. At least, when we are making milk tea with a tea bag, then it would not make the cup being full of leaf chips in and get a lousy mouthfeel. You can regard the silk stockings in the famous Hong Kong silk stockings milk tea as a giant tea bag.
Flavor Comparison About Loose Leaf Tea Vs. Tea Bags
Almost all the tea lovers thought that the tea bag’s quality positively has a long distance to the loose leaf; this can be understood. Most tea bags, especially the low-grade ones, are always made from cut dust and fannings. Some of them even use the waste, broken chips removed from the loose leaf’s processing.
Tea bags are always packed to merchandise for sale. Restricted by the pouches and the packages, leaves have no alternative but to be cut into fannings. And the flavor of these fanning will release faster in hot water, also the bitter components like tannin and caffeine. Thus, no matter what type of tea bag, it always tastes more astringency than its loose leaf style.
Related Reading: Worry About The Caffeine In Tea? 4 Tips For You!
The oxidation rate will speed up after leaves have been cut. It has little influence on black tea and dark tea, but to the non-fermented and slight-fermented teas‘ flavor, that will be a disaster. That is why most tea bag merchandises are black tea. So some tea brands designed sealed packages like aluminum pouches and K-cup. It has a certain help to reduce the oxidation rate and assurances the flavor.
However, even those tea bags made from loose leaf, their flavor is still under a certain influence. That’s because leaves release taste after steeping and expanding in hot water, and they may hard to unfold enough in the limited pouch’s room. And to the white tea like Baihao Yinzhen, its flavor is primary comes from the tiny fuzz on leaves; they are hard to go through the pouch, which will have a bad influence on the experience. Besides, somebody may have a delicate sense of gustation, they can obviously feel the tea bag’s material(like paper and plastic) affects the tea flavor.
When a tea master brewing loose leaf tea, he can let the leaves’ flavor release fully through various different ways. Like pre-heat the dried leaves, let them preliminarily unfold by rinsing, and control the water’s distance from the kettle spout to the teapot. And all these brewing skills seem not to work on steeping a tea bag, even leading to adverse effects.
Besides, the loose leaf can typically make more brews than the tea bag. Most tea bags will lose all the flavor after 2 or 3 cups. But to the loose leaf, especially Oolong, they can make no less than 5 pots, and you will get different experiences from each brew.
So, is the loose leaf defeat the tea bag on flavor thoroughly?
The answer seems not to be such ensure.
First, no matter the tea bags and loose leaves, their final products similarly have various qualities. Think about it, according to the international black tea grading standard, an FTGBOP(Fine Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe) tea bag seems not to taste worse than the ordinary OP(Orange Pekoe) loose leaf. Thus, you can not generalize about this question.
Each big brand like Twinings hires senior tea masters to do the flavor-blending research for every tea bag line. Except for choosing all the leaves carefully, they also blend with other ingredients or different types of raw leaves to improve the tea bag flavor(like the famous Earl Grey.) Besides, each tea bag’s weight and ingredients proportion standard is based on a long-term study. That will be a great help to beginners to get a better taste.
One point is often ignored in the flavor comparison of loose leaf and tea bags: not all tea bags are made from the true tea leaves.
Amount various tea bag merchandise, those fashionable flavored teas, such as Peach Oolong, Berries Black Tea, and Lemon Green Tea, are undoubtedly the most popular; and they are very fit to make cold-brew tea. Although you can also use the loose leaf to make these drinks, the taste may not be as awesome as, and that will be more complicated.
Moreover, if you are interested in some healthful herbal tea recipes(such as those advertised as helpful on losing weight, sleep, and mind-calming), then the tea bags which have already blended up maybe your best choice. Some herbals’ names in the recipe you even don’t know how to pronounce, and it’s hard for you to buy them and blend them in the proper proportion; all these jobs the tea bag manufacturers have already done for you.
Loose Leaf and Tea Bag, Which One Cost More?
In our impression, loose leaf teas are always at a high price. A famous case is a special Da Hong Pao tea ever sold at a high price of $1400 per Gram. And I never heard one tea bag sold over even $100(if so, please let me know.)
But is it the same in our daily life?
To most loose leaf teas, their high price is influenced by age, harvest time and batch, rare species, and complicated processing. But not all loose leaf is in this condition.
The primary tea plantations are concentrated in China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, etc. Tea merchants purchase raw leaves from them, then decide which are for processing into the loose leaf and which are for the tea bag.
Due to the raw leaves’ quantity being large, and for the uniform quality of the final products, tea merchants will take the standardized processing to them. That means all the leaves will be processed together once they have a similar quality. You can interpret it as both loose leaf and tea bag have the same raw leaves cost.
But do not forget that the leaves for making tea bags need extra cuts, which certainly increases the cost. Furthermore, the plastic or paper pouch for packing fannings is also a non-negligible cost.
So we can see that in the English Breakfast item on Twinings British official site, tea bag(£3.49 – price at the time I write this article) adds another 1 pound than the loose leaf(£2.49,) and their net weight is the same at 125g(3.53oz.)
Of course, another more significant influence factor on the tea price is the distribution channel. Tea bags are typically sold on the market shelves; brands may pay the space fee for it. And in the tea shops, most loose leaf teas are the owners directly purchase from the farmers. If you know how to buy loose leaf teas from the Chinese and Indian farmers on the internet, you may have more chances to get a much favorable price.
One thing is worth noting that drinking tea bags, except for the higher cost, and you may pay for the health and environment. A 2019 study showed that steeping a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature (95 °C) releases approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nano plastics into a single cup of beverage. It won’t have a perceptible effect on your health, but you should take care of it. And the more important is, we know that plastic is hard to be recycled and the damage it does to the environment is serious.
Well, I think you may understand the differences between tea bags and loose leaf. They have their own unique advantages:
- Choose the tea bag, you will get the more standard and richer flavor, and pay fewer efforts on preparing;
- Choose the loose leaf, you can deeper feel the tea’s charming, even have a chance to become a tea master;
Personally, I do not have a fixed choice. When I am at work, I get used to steeping a tea bag simply because it is really convenient and wouldn’t distract me. And while in my leisure time, sitting around the table with my parents and friends, brewing loose leaf and chatting always brings more fun and relaxation.
And what about you?