Once you’ve been drinking tea for a while, you’ll probably want to start branching out and trying loose leaf teas. Some tea snobs may even look down at tea bags.
But in the battle of loose leaf vs tea bags, what’s really the difference? While loose leaf tea and tea bags contain the same basic ingredient, tea leaves, that’s where the similarities end.
Loose leaf tea is usually higher quality than tea bags. Loose tea is made from whole tea leaves that have been minimally processed, thus providing superior flavor, aroma and essential oils as they are brewed. The tea in most tea bags is actually bits, pieces, and dust of the higher quality whole leaves.
The differences between tea bags and loose leaf tea are numerous. Read on to find out what makes most loose leaf teas better quality than tea bags, and what you need if you’re ready to switch from tea bags to loose leaf tea.
Tea Bags & Loose Tea: Same Start – Different End
The leaves inside your tea bag and those in loose tea start exactly the same way, from a plant called Camellia Sinensis.
Where Do Tea Leaves Come From?
Black, white, green, and oolong teas all come from the same plant. The difference has to do with the way the plants are harvested, processed and then packaged.
Tea is grown in countries around the world.
Harvesting & Processing of Tea Leaves
Whether they’re destined for a tea bag or loose leaf, tea leaves are not usable straight off the plant. They must be harvested and processed before they are drinkable.
The tea leaves are harvested and treated in specific ways to create the unique flavors of the different kinds of tea: black, green, white, oolong.
Up until this part of the process, tea destined for tea bags or loose leaf is processed in the same way.
What is Loose Leaf Tea?
Loose leaf tea is simply tea leaves that have been harvested and processed for use, but aren’t put inside a tea bag before being sold.
When you steep loose leaf tea, you put it directly in a teapot with hot water to steep, or use an infuser to keep the leaves together.
The basic brewing process is the same as with bagged tea. Tea and hot water together extract the flavors, aromas and all the other good stuff tea lovers adore.
What is Bagged Tea?
Bagged tea is harvested and processed for use, but it is put into a tea bag for convenient quick use. Most bagged tea is mass produced and readily available.
Differences Between Tea Bags and Loose Tea
So if tea leaves and bagged tea essentially comes from the same place, what are the biggest differences?
While the highest quality tea is almost never packed in tea bags, just because a tea is in a tea bag doesn’t necessarily mean it is of a lower quality, but some things usually hold true.
Tea Leaf Quality
Usually, loose leaf tea is of a higher quality. This is because tea bags often contain the little bits, tea dust (also called fannings), and smaller broken tea leaves that are left over from the production of loose tea.
Whole, unbroken leaves always win the flavor battle over tea dust.
Tea Brewing Quality
Loose tea usually wins in this category too. When brewing, you’ll get the best aroma and flavor if you give the tea leaves room to unfurl and release their goodness.
Traditional tea bags keep the tea bunched up so there is less room for water to circulate among the leaves.
Some high end bagged tea companies are starting to use pyramid shaped bags and quality unbroken leaf tea, so it’s not impossible to get a great cup with a tea bag.
Tea Flavor and Strength
If you like your tea on the strong or weak side, it’s much easier to adjust the strength to your personal taste with loose leaf tea.
Just add a bit more or a bit less tea leaves to your teapot until it’s perfect for your taste.
With tea, the smaller the leaf bit, the faster it will degrade, and taste can be what goes first. Since bagged tea is made up of smaller parts and dust, it will lose freshness faster than whole tea leaves.
Are Tea Leaves More Expensive Than Tea Bags?
Loose-leaf tea is more expensive than most bagged tea. With good reason, though. Loose-leaf teas are typically much better quality than bagged teas. Loose-leaf tea has a much more rich flavor and aroma.
Some tea drinkers may not notice a difference, but for the many avid tea drinkers out there, loose-leaf tea is the best.
Loose leaves come in a wide range of prices but are usually around 25 cents to $2.00 per cup when brewed at home. This can be inexpensive depending on how much tea you drink, and much less than if you usually buy tea from a shop.
Keep in mind loose-leaf tea needs to be stored properly; otherwise, it can lose its freshness and become stale. So only buy what you can store and drink in a reasonable amount of time.
Most loose teas can be re-steeped so you can enjoy a brew a second time, whereas tea bags are made to be used once.
This may bring the cost of loose leaf tea down when you figure out your average price per cup.
Are Tea Leaves Better for the Environment?
Because there’s no tea bag, string, or tag with loose leaf teas, you will have less waste. If you buy your loose tea in biodegradable packaging, it’s even better for the environment.
Is Loose Leaf Tea Healthier?
If you’re drinking tea for the health benefits, stick with loose leaf tea. Loose tea releases more antioxidants, minerals and nutrients than the more processed tea bag.
Drawbacks of Teabags
Quality and Flavor
The quality of tea brewed from tea bags is usually lower than that from loose leaf tea.
You have to look harder for a tea bag that will rival the quality of loose tea.
While you can compost tea bags made of natural fibers, some bags are made of non compostable plastics with tags that don’t decompose.
Less of an Experience
If you love the aesthetics and ritual of brewing a good cup of tea, tea bags may not be your first choice.
Drawbacks of Loose Leaf Tea
Loose leaf tea may win the flavor battle with tea bags, but there are a couple of things to think about if you want to switch your brew.
Brewing Loose Leaf Tea Takes Longer
If you’re running out the door and need a cuppa, tea bags are definitely quicker and portable.
Loose Leaf Tea Requires Some Equipment
Unlike bagged teas, where you only need a mug and some hot water, brewing loose leaf tea takes a few key pieces of equipment.
At the simplest, you’ll need something to brew your tea in, and an infuser and strainer. For suggestions, see my product recommendation page for all my favorite tea products.
How To Choose a Good Tea Bag
There are sometimes when you’re running out the door and don’t have time to brew up a cup from loose leaf tea. Rest assured, there are very good bagged teas.
For the highest quality tea bags, look for pyramid-shaped silk tea bags. The special shape of the bag allows for better circulation of water during brewing.
Also when you can see the individual leaves through the bag, you know you’ll have a better quality cup.
The Takeaway: Tea Bags vs. Loose Leaf Tea
Generally speaking, loose leaf tea makes a better quality cup than tea bags. Loose leaf tea can also be better for the environment and healthier.
But there will always be a place for a good quality tea bag. Especially when you are rushed for time and just need a hot cup of tea.