Sunday, August 4, 2013

Yet Another Tea Bag Vs Loose Leaf Article

You've seen them. They’re everywhere. I am talking about the articles touting the superiority of loose leaf tea over the lowly tea bag. The fight never ends and just like the picture here of Linus and Lucy, you know it won't end well for one of them. I've decided it’s about time I voice an opinion on the subject.

Is there a difference between loose leaf and teabags? Absolutely. It’s settled. Stop fighting. The end.

Why are you still reading?

OK, being serious, I review and enjoy a lot of bagged teas. One of the reasons this blog exists is to present the everyday tea drinker with reviews of teas they can easily find at their local grocery store. I also must admit once I discovered higher quality loose leaf tea I was blown away by what I had been missing, so I review a lot of loose leaf here as well. I have heard it said life is too short to drink bad tea. I agree, but the choice between bags and loose is not always so simple.

Perfectly Good Reasons To Drink Bagged Tea:

  • Convenience – this is the main reason most tea in America comes from a bag. 
  • Accessibility – Every corner grocer carries tea bags.
  • Variety – There is a wide range of flavored and unflavored teas easily available even locally.
  • Economics – A $2.50 box of 20 tea bags translates to about $0.13/cup. That’s pretty cheap.
  • Portability – Stick a tea bag in your pocket/purse/lunchbox and if you have access to hot water, you have access to tea.
  • Shelf Life – A box of tea bags will keep on your shelf a long time if the bags are individually wrapped in mylar envelops.

Tea as a beverage has been around for thousands of years. Until the early 1900’s it was always brewed loose. As bagged tea caught on with a world in a hurry, what went in the cup changed with it. The tiny specks of tea known as fannings, or dust, used in most bags today, partially came about because the early bags did not expand enough to allow large leaf pieces to interact with the water. Preferences changed with the bag as well. People learned to like that fannings released all their energy quickly. You could brew one good, stout, fast cup, and move on. In my opinion, this is why pyramid sachets weren't invented earlier in history.

Taste, what about taste? You didn't mention taste and dust is just the scraps from the factory floor. It tastes inferior to loose leaf.

Taste is subjective and fannings are bought as larger pieces and intentionally crushed to make dust. They are not leftover floor scrapings. How could they be? There is far more tea sold in bags than loose leaf.

Now if you want to talk complexity, I will absolutely agree, loose leaf wins hands down. Bagged tea is generally blended so every bag taste exactly the same, every time. Loose leaf, on the other hand, gives up its flavor slowly and it changes from cup to cup and season to season.

Perfectly Good Reasons To Drink Loose Leaf:

  • Complexity – A decent quality loose leaf will have depth far beyond anything from an ordinary bag. 
  • Steepability – A good leaf can often be used to steep a number of times. Each cup will reveal something new. 
  • Variety – With the Internet, even those in the tea barren wasteland have access to a near infinite number of excellent teas.
  • Economics – If you enjoy steeping more than once, doing the math reveals loose leaf is not a lot more expensive than bagged. Sometimes it is even cheaper. Regardless, It is almost always cheaper than restaurant or coffee shop tea. 
  • Meditation – This is a little subjective. I find a cup of bagged tea may charge me up or relax me, but loose leaf often takes me to another level of meditative introspection. I sip and world around me disappears. 
  • The Snooty Factor – This one is a little tongue in cheek. People look at you a little odd when you have a room full of loose leaf tea. You get to feel superior. It is like you know something they don't and even if you told them they might not get it. 

The one reason that is NOT acceptable to drink loose leaf, is so that you can criticize or belittle others for enjoying tea bags. You may dislike, even hate, a particular tea or method of preparing tea. That is OK, but it does not give you authority to put down someone else for enjoying it. Sorry to be so harsh.

Not everyone is interested in the complexity of the cup. Not everyone has the desire to steep more than once. Some people just enjoy a simple fast no fuss cup. Some like it straight, some with milk. Some will use sugar, sometimes lots of sugar, or sweeteners (I have a personal Splenda monkey on my back). It's all good. There is no one-size-fits-all right way.

In the world of tea, there is no reason for the Us Vs Them mentality. All true tea is made from the leaf of the camellia sinensis plant. It is time we unite and accept one another in our differences. While there is much variation in quality, and numerous ways to prepare it, we tea people all enjoy our cuppa. We should not think of it as Loose Leaf Vs Tea Bags anymore but rather Loose Leaf AND Tea Bags. There is room for both. Life is too short to drink tea with a bad attitude.


  1. Regular tea bags work marvelously, as does loose leaf. However, you might need to steep the loose leaf tea several hours more to achieve a stronger flavor. It ultimately depends on your taste.

    1. Several hours longer? You Brits sure like it strong. :)