Are you a tea lover? Learn more about loose leaf tea vs. tea bags, including the pros and cons of both types of tea.
By Nicole McKinney of Tea on the Trail
Do you want to know the difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags? Are you staring at two tea options, unsure of which to pick?
Is the bag the only difference?
Are some bagged teas high-quality?
If the choice between loose leaf tea and tea bags seems intimidating, I’m here to help!
Loose Leaf Tea vs Tea Bags: The Leaves Are Different
What are the main differences between loose leaf tea and tea bags?
Well, yes, there’s the bag. But that’s not all.
It all starts with the leaf.
Think of it this way.
One evening, dinner was already on the table when I remembered there was baby arugula in the fridge.
As my husband came to the table, I put a small mound of greens on the side of my plate. Shockingly, he asked for some too!
Mr. taco-salad-but-hold-the-salad asked for salad?
When I asked him why he had such a change of heart, he said, “It just looks like a tasty little leaf.”
And there you have it.
People ask me what the difference is between loose leaf and tea bag teas, and my answer is, "Loose leaf tea is a tasty little leaf."
Loose leaf tea still looks (and tastes!) like leaves, whereas bagged tea often doesn’t.
Loose Leaf Tea Leaves
Brewing from leaves?
It might seem complicated. Messy. Even unnecessary.
But go back to the beginning, to the little leaf.
Pretend you’re growing tea in your garden.
If you were growing a tasty little leaf, grown lovingly, plucked carefully, harvested by the calendar, processed for days and nights with wisdom passed down through generations of your family, you would likely not bring it to market broken to bits and stuffed into a teabag.
Depending on how you choose to process your tea, it might look like any of the leaves in the photo below.
Tea Bag Leaves (CTC Leaves)
On the other hand, perhaps you intended for your garden tea to become bagged tea.
Across the globe, maybe the generations of your family have produced tea specifically for tea bags. Or you may prefer to call them sachets.
If so, then your product looks like the leaves in the photo below.
Both of these are luxury chai blends, but the one in the teaspoon looks more like granules than leaves. Why did they turn out so differently?
These tea leaves have been Crushed-Torn-&-Curled, so they are called CTC.
Just like whole-leaf tea, there is a range: from delicious high quality CTC down to low quality bargain leaf. Some CTC is even available to brew loose, as in the picture.
Highest quality CTC brews strong & malty. Lower quality is bitter and tannic. But generally, the flavor family is pretty consistent.
Pros + Cons of Tea Bags
Many of us only experience tea from a bag.
Tea bags are convenient.
Bagged tea is (in general) easy to brew consistently. Even so, we notice that small changes in brewing can make big differences in flavor.
And quality definitely matters.
But convenience often means trading off for a few negatives.
In the case of teabags containing plastic, research shows that significant amounts of microplastics are getting into our cup.
That’s true whether the teabag or sachet appears to be silken (usually an all-plastic bag or mostly plastic bag) or paper. Some paper tea bags use plastic to seal the bag, making the plastic less obvious.
Also, without question, the teabag tends to muffle flavors. So it's hard to resist adding sugar or other sweeteners.
Pros + Cons of Loose Leaf Tea
The tasty little leaf, on the other hand, is an entirely different experience than the tea bag.
Like the different greens in a mesclun mix, loose leaf tea can suggest a spectrum of flavors: vegetal, fruity, floral, mineral, even earthy and spicy.
My favorites are from small farms, and each one is like a discovery.
What about brewing?
It’s much less complicated than you’d imagine. In my opinion, it’s easier than a fresh grind for your morning coffee.
However, as with disposing of coffee grounds, used loose leaf tea isn’t sealed up in a tidy little bag. So it can be just a tiny bit messier than a tea bag.
Also, you’ll want to stay mindful for those 3 to 4 minutes of steeping, because over-steeping can ruin the flavor of the tea.
If you forget a teabag steeping in a cup for half an hour, it’s not such a tragedy as an overcooked cup of really fine tea.
If you live in a rural area like me, you're not likely to find great loose leaf tea in a store.
Costwise, expect to pay a little more than you would for teabags. That cost may even out, however.
Only the most frugal person can be satisfied with a second brew from a teabag, whereas quality loose leaf is actually intended for two (or many more!) steeps.
Sound like a bit of a learning curve?
You’re right. But no worries, it’s worth it!
I’ll work through it with you in my special guide, "How to Brew Loose Leaf Tea."
About Nicole McKinney
Nicole McKinney is a photographer, rare tea enthusiast, and nature lover. She lives with her husband in Eastern Kentucky. Follow Nicole at Tea on the Trail.