While tea aficionados swear by the superior quality and taste of tea made from loose tea leaves, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of tea-drinkers in the West simply use tea bags for their cups of tea. So does it really matter that much? To get a better understanding of the differences between the two methods we’ll go over the pros and cons of both.
The first tea bags
Firstly, we should acknowledge that making tea with a tea bag is a relatively recent practice and has only been employed for just over a hundred years. The most prevalent story is that tea merchant Thomas Sullivan from New York accidently invented tea bags in 1908 after sending samples of his tea in small silk bags rather than expensive metal tins. It was an immediate success because of its convenience and other companies proceeded to develop the idea in the following decades, becoming popular in the UK around the 1950s.
Although there are a multitude of characteristics that tea is grouped by, tea leaf grading can generally be divided into 4 main categories: Whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust. The highest quality is that of a whole leaf, which requires the longest steeping time, but makes for the strongest flavor profile and allows for multiple infusions. Whole leaves are followed by broken leaves, an advent of European merchants who could ship more tea in broken form, and this in turn made tea more affordable for larger sections of the public. Broken leaf tea creates a bold yet bitter taste, making it more appropriate for brewing a single cup rather than a full pot, which is part of why with broken leaf tea additives like milk or sugar are more prevalently used. Fannings and dust are bits and pieces of tea that are generally left over from the higher quality grades, and are used in all kinds of tea bags. This is also known as the crush, torn and curled (CTC) method.
Traditionally, most tea bags were made of tea fannings or dust, which is why tea from tea bags have been considered of a lower quality. Even more so, one of the dangers in tea bags, particularly before the industry was regulated, is that tea bags could contain all kinds of additives and materials that you are unaware of, ranging from poisonous dyes to sweeteners or even dirt back in the day. However, in more recent years, tea sellers have started to sell tea bags containing whole-leaf tea. Furthermore, the notion that whole leaf tea is inherently of higher quality than broken tea is false. Ultimately it depends on the quality of the tea leaves themselves; a tea bag containing broken pieces of a high quality tea harvest will still produce a high quality cup of tea.
So yes, there appear to be some benefits in loose leaf tea when it comes to flavor and aroma, but the more important question might be whether this difference is big enough, or matters enough to the tea drinker. The advantages of tea bags are evident, it is easier to find, cheaper, quick to brew, and easy to clean, but all at the expense of quality. Like with most things, it all depends on the experience you are looking for. Some just want a quick cup in the afternoon to recharge them for the rest of the day, in which case a simple tea bag will do fine. Others might find a meditative quality in brewing “the perfect” cup of tea and therefore are willing to commit more time and money in doing so. Whichever you end up choosing there are no wrong answers.