Tea Bags vs. Loose Leaf

The topic today is bagged tea. Many tea snobs condemn them, but why? Do they truly have a reasonable justification for their distaste? Is it wholly unwarranted? Personally, I value loose leaf more than bagged tea. I find it makes a higher quality drink, but why is that? I wanted to delve beyond the superficial lair and find out. 

First some history. The story goes that in the early 1900s, a New York tea vendor named Thomas Sullivan wanted to make some product samples for his customers. He got together a bunch of silk bags, to put a quantity of tea into them for an easy distribution. It was apparently a common misunderstanding, upon receiving this, that the silk bag was meant to replace the tea pot as a means of steeping. Many people did this and became enamoured with the new convenience. Being the go-getting American businessman Sullivan was, he modified the design of the bag, and subsequently went into mass production in the 1920s. Thus, the tea bag was born.

This brings up an interesting question. If Sullivan’s customers (conceivably) found little difference in quality between the two means of steeping, why do modern day tea connoisseurs do so vehemently?

The first thing to consider is leaf size. Does this have an affect on the outcome of the beverage? Tea bags generally use tea dust or tea fannings, which is why the leaves in tea bags generally look small. In production of tea leaves, they sieve the leaves down until the smallest particles remain, and estates sometimes sell these otherwise useless particles to companies wishing to produce tea bags.

But does size of the leaf truly have that much of a difference? Say if you had a genuine piece of Kobe beef. You cooked it up, and you had the option to either:

A) Eat the slice whole.

or

B) Cut the slice up before eating.

Even though some may have preferences, why would have a difference in quality? It’s still the same piece of meat, just prepared differently. Hypothetically there should be no difference in taste.

I wanted to test this in regards to tea bags. I measured out two identical samples of tea. Both second flush Darjeeling I got from Capital Tea. I thought this would be a good candidate, because it’s a resilient steeper, but still requires some attention in order for it to taste good.

I crushed the first sample up into particles the same size of tea fannings.

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And I left the second sample whole. I used identical water temperature, an identical brewing method (the French press), identical tea, identical water quality. The only thing I left nonidentical is the steeping time and the size of the leaves. Smaller particles of tea require less of a steeping time. Think about them like sponges. If you had a sopping wet, tiny sponge and squeezed water out of it, it would take a shorter time to drain than a larger sponge. Larger tea leaves require more time to steep because it takes a longer time to extract the flavour, colour, and aroma from them, based on a similar principle. I steeped the whole leaves for two minutes, and I steeped the smaller leaves for a minute and forty seconds.

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The tea fannings produced the steep on the left, and the whole leaves produced the steep on the right. As you will note, there is little difference in liquor colour. This was actually pretty remarkable to me, as tea bags can often produce a murky-looking liquor. This meant the leaves themselves were not necessarily to blame for that fact – a quality which many people cite for the reason they dislike bagged tea.

The aroma of the wet leaves shocked me, too. The liquor colour was a good first sign, but there was almost no depth of aroma in the tea fannings. It was flat, and one of the only notes was a very sharp muscatel one. If you brew a cup of bagged black tea right now and smell it, you’ll get a similar smell to what I’m talking about. The whole leaves had a rich, depth of complex aromas to them. It almost didn’t seem like it came from the same dry leaves.

When I went onto tasting, it also came as a surprise. I feel confident that I steeped the leaves in an equivalent manor, but the tastes were not at all the same. The fannings were noticeably of a lesser quality. It tasted like a tea I would take with milk and sugar – flat and too astringent. The whole leaves were unsurprising. I have had almost 100g of this tea since February, and I know what it tastes like; it was a much better steep.

What this seems to indicate is that there is actually a correlation between leaf size and taste. It may be a matter of devising a way to accommodate for the smaller particles, however. The size of coffee grind matters when brewing a cup, so it isn’t a stretch to think the same could be said for tea. The leaf size can come from the same leaf, but this tasting seems to indicate the particle size does not translate to loose-leaf brewing techniques.

I want to bring up a final note to the leaf they use for bagged tea. Generally, large tea producers have many expert tea tasters on staff. Their goal is not to find the best tea and use it, but to actually find a pretty average tea, with no unique qualities. This is for consistency’s sake. If they kept getting better each year, eventually they would plateau, and their product quality would go down. It’s better to keep it at a manageable, average quality.

Next we have the actual bag. The material matters greatly, as it can have unintended changes to the taste of your tea. Paper, plastic, cloth, and metallic materials are all used in tea, and all can add flavours to your cup. Nylon, maybe less so, but there’s always the argument that heating up plastic to that temperature can introduce carcinogens to your tea. From my experience, the paper and cloth affect the taste the most. Nylon or other synthetic materials aren’t bad taste-wise, but they are something to be aware of, if you are worried about carcinogens.

The way they attach the string can matter, too. Sometimes, they glue it on. Glue, as you might suspect, can melt in boiling water. So when you sit down to enjoy a nice cup of tea, you are also possibly drinking glue. Otherwise, common methods are staples. I can’t say I know about the type of metal they use, so I can’t speak on it. What I will say, though, is that in tea steeping we aim for total, pure immersion from the dry leaves into the water. Anything that gets in the way with it will affect the taste. That’s partly why a French press works so well as a steeping method. Total, pure immersion.

Some people will say that the size of the tea bag prevents the leaves from expanding fully, similarly to how a tea ball can. In my experience, I have seldom found that to be an issue, as the particles are so tiny, they hardly expand. Sometimes I notice the tea bag is bulging in every which corner, but modern tea producers are quite conscious of this.

Lastly, I want to address the economic values of tea bags. For a box of 100 Lipton green tea bags, you can buy it for $14.28 without shipping. This translates to about $.014 per tea bag. If you contrast this to loose leaf tea, it’s not necessarily an indicator of economic viability. If you shop right, loose leaf can be even cheaper. For a higher quality green tea from Adagio you can purchase 16oz of tea for $24.00 plus shipping. This translates to not only about 180 cups of tea, but also, according to them, is only $0.12 per cup. It isn’t always the case, but you can certainly get better quality loose leaf tea for cheaper than bagged tea. A lot of money in bagged tea actually goes towards the packaging.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not fully against tea bags. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, it’s just that they tend to be a worse idea for all of those reasons. There is the convenience issue for people, which I understand. Sometimes you’re too tired. If you invest in a tea infuser or French press (Like, $3-$20, respectively) I personally think it’s quite convenient in its own right. You only have to open the tin, scoop some leaves in, and add hot water. With a tea bag, you open the package, put the bag in the cup, and add hot water. It’s really only measuring out which troublesome, and I don’t think that’s a big issue.

I have a solution for those of you who want the best of both works.

These guys! Just take like twenty minutes measuring the right amount, and you’ll have high quality, loose leaf tea bags. They are biodegradable, tasteless, and work like a charm. They’re also great if you’re travelling.

And that’s my comparison between tea bags and loose leaf.