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Loose Leaf Vs. Tea Bag


Loose Leaf Tea and Tea Bags

Many people feel that it's easier to pop a bagged tea into a cup rather than fuss with loose leaf. So why bother with loose leaf? Here're some arguments on taste, quality and convenience that will help you decide if pre-packaged tea bags or loose leaf tea is best choice for you.

Taste - The Good, the Bad and the Yum

Tea Bags

The smaller the tea leaf is cut, the stronger the flavour as well as the more tannin and/or bitterness of the tea when brewed. Because tea bags contain the finest cut tea - dust or fannings - you get a bolder flavour. Green teas become bitter more quickly and black teas release more tannin. 

Brew time has a lot to do with the flavour of tea generally. With tea bags, brew time should be shorter, to try to avoid over-brewing the tea, resulting in bitterness. 

Flavour is so subjective, you may decide you like the flavour of tea bags more than loose leaf. Certainly, I drink some orange pekoe blends just for the nostalgia of childhood.

Loose Leaf

Most experienced tea drinkers agree that loose leaf tea produces a better flavour. That's why tea tasters on plantations grade leaf tea higher than the dust or fannings that are used to pack tea bags. Without the confines of a bag, loose leaf tea can expand and infuse fuller flavour and character. But, how tea is grown, picked and processed are the key factors to great tasting tea. 

Tea experts like tasters or brokers prefer and pay more money for full leaf, higher-graded teas. The quality of the leaf depends on where it's grown, in what time of soil and altitude, how much water it received during a season, what time of year it grew to maturity, how it was picked, and then processed, among many other factors. 

Like wine, the terroir of a region plays a critical role in the taste of tea.

Of course, all of the above is true for tea grown to be packed in tea bags too. And with the lowest grade of tea being used for tea bags, it's hard to argue that bags could taste better than their less-adulterated, higher-graded cousins, leaf tea.

WATCH VIDEO Tea Bag Vs Loose Leaf - The Taste Test by British tea experts Mei Leaf.

Quality (and Price $)

Tea Bags

Tea bags contain the lowest grade (lower grade = lower quality) of leaf. Only the smallest, most uniformly cut tea called dust or fannings can be blended consistently to create what in North America is referred to as "Orange Pekoe". Dust or fannings are also used for other types of tea, even herbals, to better fit uniformly in to tea bags.

The tea in tea bags is machine picked, which according to many tea experts, produces a lesser quality of tea than handpicked. This is chiefly because that when the leaf is machine picked, it often becomes bruised and nicked, making the leaf start to oxidize before it should.

You may not be happy to know that you're also more likely to get bugs, twigs, and even sweepings from the floor of the tea factory in your tea bag (ew!).

Because they are cheaper to produce due to their low quality, tea bags are cheap and plentiful. If you're buying tea for price alone tea bags still win. But if quality is a factor, tea bags are a much harder sell.

Loose Leaf

Loose leaf tea is most often hand-picked by trained tea workers. They know how to pick for the best leaves, and treat the tea more carefully than machines can, therefore delivering better quality leaves.

Leaf tea has many different grades. Full leaf tea is usually among the highest grades (higher grade = higher quality), while lower grade teas are broken or cut. "Orange pekoe" is actually a high grade of tea. What is labeled as "orange pekoe" in North America is just a blend of low grade black tea - i.e.  instead of referring to quality, "orange pekoe" in this context is used as a name, rather than a grade.

Why do we have so much low-quality "orange pekoe" black tea here? Likely because so-called "orange pekoe" blended teas are all we could get on the mass market in North America until quite recently. Not anymore - loose leaf teas are becoming more popular and therefore more available in tea shops and online tea retailers. With more loose leaf on the market, it has become much more affordable, making tea bags even less attractive.

The Almighty Convenience Factor

Tea Bags

Tea bags are undoubtedly more convenient than loose leaf. Bags packaged in single-serving wrappers can be popped in to bags and purses to take to work, school or vacation. Simply heat water and dunk your bag. An easy, simple solution that is not surprisingly popular in our convenience-obsessed culture. 

Loose Leaf

With tea culture on the rise in North America, it's not surprising that convenience-oriented loose leaf brewing gadgets are now ubiquitous. You'll find everything from disposable paper tea bags and reusable cotton tea bags you can scoop your loose leaf in to for a similar but better-tasting experience to pre-packaged tea bags, to built-in infusers for travel mugs and tea pots on the market. 

While pre-packaged tea bags are clearly just that much quicker to use, loose leaf infusion teaware is making it more and more convenient to drink better-quality, better-tasting tea. And more and more tea drinkers are realizing that it's worth a little more effort to drink far better tasting tea. 


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