Bagged Tea vs. Loose-leaf Tea - Part 1
Is loose leaf tea definitely better than bagged and what is the difference?
Introduction - The Battle Begins
- Chocolate vs. Vanilla
- Mac vs. PC
- Playstation vs. Xbox
- Betamax vs. VHS
Throughout history, many epic battles have been waged. In the tea community, arguably the most distinguished battle is the one between bagged tea and loose-leaf. King Bagged Tea has his army of tea drinkers that boast how easy and quick it is to use tea bags, while Emperor Loose-Leaf's army boasts that the superior quality of loose-leaf tea cannot be mistaken!
We here at Yezi are champions of Emperor Loose-Leaf. With superior quality, complexity, and variety, we believe that loose-leaf tea is the best way to enjoy the splendor that is the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.
One may ask: “If bagged tea and loose-leaf come from the same plant, why is bagged tea inferior?” To answer that, we must first talk about the history of the tea bag.
History - It Favors the Bold
Many would be surprised to hear that tea bags were a complete accident! Invented in 1904 by tea importer Thomas Sullivan, tea bags were first made from silk and were sold as samples. Sullivan wanted an easy way to package his available product and get it to his clients to try. The tea within each pouch was supposed to be removed and brewed normally: loose-leaf style. However, the clients saw it easier to brew the tea still enclosed by the porous pouch, and placed the entire pouch in the water to brew. Thus, the tea bag was created.
Although Sullivan received praise for his 'innovation' and subsequently went about trying to perfect his silk sachets for the perfect brew, it was Joseph Krieger in 1920 that introduced the world to the first commercial tea bag. Supplying tea bags to caterers in 1920, Krieger was influential in causing their popularity to rise. After the second World War, tea bags were commonplace in homes across America. In 1950s America, luxurious convenience was a die-hard trend that ensured that tea bags, now made out of paper fiber, remained fashionable throughout the states. The 1950s also saw tea bags commercially produced for the United Kingdom market by the Tetley tea company. In terms of tea bag innovation, Tetley's domination was immense. Introducing the round tea bag and then the drawstring bag, which allowed users to squeeze their tea bags with ease, Tetley helped secure the tea bag’s status across nations.
To ensure a quick brew, bagged teas are primarily comprised of very small tea particles: fannings and dust. Generally, fannings are small pieces of tea leaves that are the leftover leaves from the higher grade teas that are sold as loose-leaf. Fannings with very small particles are called tea dust. Aside from gathering the leftovers of higher quality tea, fannings are also created using the processing method Cut-Tear-Curl (or CTC), which was introduced in the 1930s and gained vast recognition in the 1950s. As the name suggests, in this method, teas are cut, torn, and curled with the aid of very sharp rotating blades. The end result is very even and very small particles of tea. Together, fannings and dust are considered to be the lowest grade of tea. Although, they allow for a strong, quick brew, the tea that is brewed is not complex and lacks any subtlety. It is because of this that CTC is never used on high quality Chinese tea.
With that said, let's delve into quality a bit more.
Quality - The Princes Versus the Paupers
Comparing the quality between bagged tea and loose-leaf is similar to comparing apples and apple dust. (Apple dust, well, that doesn't sound pleasant.) Fannings and dust are considered the lowest grade of tea because of how limited the flavor profile is when the tea is brewed. Whether having been cut and separated from full leaves or having been crushed into small particles, you will find that the tea within tea bags lacks much of the essential oils that make tea so wonderfully palatable. Conversely, loose-leaf teas that are considered the highest quality are deemed so because of their higher amount of essential oils and tannins.
One cannot speak of the quality of a tea bag without mentioning the bag itself. Part of what makes tea bags so popular is the small package the tea is encapsulated in. The bag itself is compact enough to allow easy transport and the ability to infuse in any sized Western tea cup or pot. This handy size, however, has a large drawback in terms of how tea is brewed. When hot water is added into a cup of tea, its job is to encircle the leaves and allow them to expand. This helping hand that water gives, helps the many flavors of the tea leaf - flavors that come from its essential oils and tannins- to be drawn out. Within a tea bag, the fannings are so confined that when water encircles them, they cannot fully expand. This results in a brew that is single noted and less flavorful. Additionally, because of how small fannings and dust are, more surface area of the leaves are exposed to water and as such, over-steeping can be very easy. If a tea bag is exposed to water that is too hot and/or the tea bag is left in water for longer than its recommended steep time, it will release more and more tannins to the point of creating a very bitter brew, very quickly.
Conversely, loose-leaf tea, if prepared correctly, is allowed to expand in water, letting the leaves slowly release most of their tannins and essential oils. This produces a wonderfully complex tea with a beautiful rhythm. When a tea is said to have rhythm, it means that as the tea goes through multiple infusions, different, complex flavors emerge With that said, it is a lot harder to control the resulting brew of a loose-leaf tea than it is a bagged tea. Due to the large leaves, it is nearly impossible to experience the exact same cup of tea from a loose-leaf tea twice. Each leaf is different and it is hard to predict how much water will encircle how many leaves within the correct steeping time. What this means is that while loose-leaf tea is allowed to release most of its natural flavors when brewed, the amount in each cup of tea will vary a bit. For many, this attribute is what makes loose-leaf tea exciting.
Bagged tea, on the other hand, is produced to be distinctly predictable. Each machine packed tea bag is packed with the same quantity and quality of tea fannings and dust. The smallness of the fannings and their confinement within the tea bag, give the brewing process very little room for variety. For some companies, that lack of variety is what keeps their consumers coming back again and again. These companies take very special care to insure that the tea bags they produce have the same flavor, aroma, and quality that their fans are used to. Controlling tea to this level (with the smallness of fannings and confinement of the bag) homogenizes the tea. Simply put, the procedure that produces bagged teas creates a tea that has an unmistakable, generic "tea taste." Generally speaking, with tea bags, there is very little variety. You will always be getting the lowest quality teas confined in a bag that does not allow any complex flavors to be released.
"So, if bagged tea is of such low quality, why is it on the market at all?” One might ask.
The simple answer? Convenience.
Eager to know more? Well, tune in next week for Part II, same tea-time, same tea-channel!