Loose Leaf Tea vs. The Tea Bag

Ah, the great tea debate: why brew using loose leaf tea when you have the convenience of a tea bag? First, it’s important to remember that not all tea bags are created equal. Ever since their invention around the turn of the 20th century, the materials used in tea bag production, and the quality of the leaf therein have varied a good deal. Let’s weigh the pros and cons, and then we’ll share our favorite tea prep methods.

Team Tea Bag

The lure of the tea bag is plain: it’s an all-in-one steeping device, which you use and discard. Less to clean. Individually packaged to keep a single serving of tea fresh. Easily slipped into a tea wallet or travel bag.

Harney & Sons Japanese Sencha in a tea bag at Fudo in Chamblee, GA

For most of their history, tea bags were filled with “fannings and dust” (the broken pieces and tiny specs of tea left behind when whole leaves are processed), rather than the full leaf. This is actually by design, to allow tea to infuse more easily and create a strong brew. Tea bags are perfect for the British “builder’s tea”: a bracing cup of black tea with milk and sugar, so named because it’s meant to fortify manual laborers during a workday tea break. It’s commonly said that the spoon should stand up in a proper cup of builder’s. The practicality of pre-packaged single servings cannot be overlooked, especially when folks are helping themselves to a quick cuppa.

Make Mine A Builders advertisement
Image Credit: Make Mine A Builders

Don’t Break Me Down

Loose leaf tea vs. fanning and dust
Image Credit: Full Leaf Tea Co.

The downside of using broken tea leaves is twofold. One, they more readily release tannins into the brew, making it astringent (though not a problem if you plan to doctor your tea with plenty of milk and sugar). Two, they deliver less flavor, aroma and health benefits. Here’s the scientific explanation:

Fannings and dust are more influenced by oxidation processes, which degrade the catechins during storage, than are whole tea leaves. This is because of the larger surface area of smaller pieces, compared to whole leaves, that are exposed to oxygen and light. Aromatic essential oils contributing to the olfactory experience of tea drinking are particularly vulnerable to evaporation in fannings and dust.”

– Selena Ahmed, Tufts University Department of Biology postdoctoral fellow

But wait! Today, many tea companies are using whole, high grade teas in their tea sachets or pyramids. But wait again! Of what are these newfangled tea bags made?

I’ll Have Tea, But Please, Hold the Plastic

Today’s tea bags are made of paper (bleached and unbleached), cotton muslin, or “silken” food-grade plastic.

“There is really no need to package tea in plastic, which at the end of the day becomes single-use plastic, which is contributing to you not just ingesting plastic but to the environmental burden of plastic.”

– Laura Hernandez, McGill University Researcher, “Plastic Teabags Release Billions of Microparticles and Nanoparticles into Tea
Tea Forte tea bag pyramid
Photo Credit: Tea Forte (delicious teas, also available in loose leaf canisters)

Room to Steep

Part of the motivation behind these airier tea bag designs is to try and give tea leaves room to fully unfurl. The ability of the water to fully saturate and reconstitute every tea leaf is directly related to the depth of flavor and nutrients released into your cup of tea. Check out the before and after pictures below to see how much a tightly rolled oolong expands during steeping.

Zi Chun Teas GABA Oolong
Zi Chun Teas GABA Oolong steeping

Actually, before the invention of tea infusers, loose leaf tea was traditionally steeped directly in the teapot, and then poured out without filter. The dregs of tea leaves that would fall to the bottom of one’s cup led to the fun and mystical practice of tea leaf reading, aka tasseomancy aka tasseography. [Side note: check out our Victorian Halloween Tea Party Guide with tea leaf reading resources and more for the perfectly spooky October tea party.]

Of course, there is a downside to brewing loose leaf directly in the pot, a method still employed at many hotel teas today. If the teapot is very large, and all the tea is not poured out once the leaves have finished steeping, as the tea sits, waiting for the next pour, the brew becomes oversteeped and bitter. [Note, this is not the case with herbal tisanes, which only become more flavorful over time]. But for true teas, which need only steep for 2 to 5 minutes, one needs a way to remove the tea leaves when it’s time. We’ll share easy ways to do this below.

Team Loose Leaf

Our recommendation: choose loose leaf teas whenever possible, and if you go with tea bags, choose ones made from unbleached paper. Especially for your afternoon tea parties or when serving tea at home, your guests and you will appreciate the best. Here’s why we prefer loose leaf brewing:

  1. More Flavor
  2. More Aroma
  3. More Phytonutrients
  4. More Health Benefits
  5. Less Waste
  6. No Ingested Microplastics
6 types of tea dry and brewed
Photo credit: 9 Dragons Tea

Easy Loose Leaf Brewing Methods

Remember, your goal is to give the tea leaves plenty of room to expand. To brew a personal cup, I love this reusable Forlife Stainless Steel Tea Infuser with Folding Handles for easy storage that also has a carrying case if you want to bring it to work. It can rest on its lid in between steeps and cleanup is a quick rinse. And for big pots of tea, my favorite method is to throw tea right into heated water in a large pot on the stove, let steep, then pour through a filter into the teapot to serve (demonstrated in the video below). Remember to set aside your tea leaves for a second and even third steeping!

Let us know – what’s your favorite way to prepare your tea?

Tea Voyageuse, discovering the world of afternoon tea, based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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