Loose or Bagged Tea: Does It Make a Difference?

Loose or Bagged Tea: Does It Make a Difference?

Dunking a bag filled with your favorite tea into a cup of hot water is one of the easiest ways to relax and enjoy a soothing break in your daily routine. But there are strings attached to teatime, and we’re not talking about the strings attached to your tea bags.

Whether you’re the average tea drinker who likes a flavorful cup of tea or a foodie who likes to get involved in the nuances of flavor notes, aromatic hints, and smooth complex tastes, we all deserve to derive the best a tea has to offer from its brief infusion. That’s why you might hear rave reviews about the sophisticated flavor profiles and aromas of higher grades of tea that come in the form of loose leaf teas … teas that are not encumbered by small bags but instead allow hot water its maximum flow throughout the leaf surfaces to create magic in your teacup.


Standardization and Convenience

Here’s the lowdown on bagged and bagless tea. Tea in teabags is prepared for standardization, a uniform look, and dependable taste. Commercially, it’s nice to bag up tea, add a string with a company logo on the end, and line them up in a box, either individually sealed or placed in one box. Truth be told, the teabag industry adapted tea to the teabag (more on how that happened later).

But here’s what they don’t tell you about bagged tea. Teabags are most often made from low-grade teas that are broken or crushed. Even the “dust” and “fannings” might be a part of the mixture. To use a wine metaphor, bagged tea is like scraping for the sediment left in the bottom of the wine barrel. Some say drinking bagged tea is settling for tea that’s just not up to par.

To be fair, not all tea bags are low-quality tea. In recent years tea merchants have offered teas in larger and different shaped bags such as tea pouches, tea socks, and pyramid tea bags designed to expand the size of teabags, creating a better, more flavorful brew. But the comparison with bagged and whole teas is still noticeably different.

Tea merchants didn’t always deal in bagged tea. Call it legend or truth, the story circulating about teabags talks of how a tea importer in the early 1900s shipped out samples of his product in silk pouches, not intending his customers to put them directly in the hot water that way. But it caught on anyway, probably due to its convenience and ease of cleanup.

If you’re a person who appreciates wholesome, quality foods – and you probably are if you’re a fan of this website and Sola Bars – you want to be sipping the best that tea growers have to offer, where flavor and quality are valued, not sacrificed for convenience.


What to Expect from Loose and Whole Leaf Teas

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty about why loose whole teas are primo. When loose tea leaves become broken or crushed the essential oils in the leaf, which give the flavor to tea, are destroyed. When water flows over whole leaves, the infusion captures those essential oils and the most flavor from the tea leaves. The more the water is allowed to flow through the whole leaves, the more its surfaces can extract that sophisticated and delicate the flavor.

The tea industry calls whole leaf teas specialty teas. They are special in two respects. They are often single-sourced teas, grown and processed to derive a smooth, creamy cup of tea that comes from a single tea grower from a specific estate. The geographic area in which a tea is grown, the climate, elevation, and soil in which it is grown, and how the tea is cultivated and processed all affect the final taste.

All come to play to deliver a taste that can vary, depending on the temperature of the water and the length of brewing time. Some tea growers boast they come from generations of family tea growers, adhering to high growing standards and purity.

Many single-sourced teas are also organically grown with little or no pesticides. You could compare single-sourced whole leaf teas and standardized broken-leaf teas to purchasing milk directly from a dairy farm where milk is bottled from the utters of a milked cow versus the grocery store where milk from factory-raised cows are put in big vats, pasteurized, homogenized, and bottled or packaged in a commercial plant.

Note that teabags are usually filled with teas blended from different geographic areas … which is not to say that whole leaf teas are always single-sourced. Many whole leaf teas are also blends, but usually, these blends are to take advantage of specific flavor complexities, not so much for making an economy tea.


How to Brew Whole Tea Leaves

Some people pack their whole tea in a tea ball with a chain attached and dunk away, similar to how they would with a teabag. This method, according to tea connoisseurs, is better than using bagged tea, but still doesn’t allow the tea leaves the maximum room they need to flow through and extract all the flavors to give you all that the tea leaves have to offer.

The suggested brewing methods for whole leaf tea can be classified into Eastern or “Gong Fu” method and the Western method. In Gong Fu, tea is brewed with a larger amount of tea to its ratio of water so that the tea drinker can reinfuse the tea leaves several times. Gong Fu style usually uses shorter brewing times and lower temperatures; if re-brewing, longer times are used with each successive brew. The Western method uses a smaller amount of tea with longer infusions. Teapots or single teacups can be used with either method.

Quantities of tea leaves and brewing times also change depending on the type of tea you’re brewing: white, green, oolong, black, pu-erh, or herbal. Which is better? The consensus among tea enthusiasts is that that if you have more time to spend to savor your tea, go with Gong Fu where the flavor of the tea unfolds gradually, with more intense flavors than Western-style brewing.

New to whole leaf tea? Good general brewing instructions for different types of teas can be found at: https://www.thespruceeats.com/tea-brewing-times-and-temperatures-1328730

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