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Why Should I Bother with Loose Leaf Tea?
At first glance, it seems like the convenience of bagged tea can’t be beat. After all, it’s the same stuff as loose leaf teas, all wrapped up in a mess-free package, isn’t it? Well, not quite. As it turns out, loose leaf teas and teabags aren’t as similar as you might think.
The unsavory history of tea bags
Before tea bags rose to popularity, tea was packaged as loose leaves in containers, and it can still be found today. People would spoon this tea directly into their teapots, pour in the hot water, and then strain the leaves out as the brewed tea was poured into mugs. It’s a system that worked pretty well, and many people still do it this way.
In 1908, an enterprising young gentleman named Thomas Sullivan decided to ship his loose leaf tea in small fabric bags, fully intending for customers to remove the tea from the bag, and brew it in the usual way. His customers however, had a different idea. They soon discovered that the sample sized bags he sold contained just the right amount of tea for a single cup, and steeped it right in the fabric sachets.
This new method of brewing gave Sullivan an idea. He must have thought that the cloth pouch customers had begun using could hide a multitude of sins, because instead of filling them with the usual whole leaf teas, his company began to add tea dust, fannings, and other broken bits that were previously considered rejects, unworthy of inclusion in the final product. It was advertised as a way to get a better steep, but in hindsight it was clearly just a ploy to make money off the dregs produced by lower grades of tea. Surprisingly, it worked incredibly well, and increasingly more lower and middle class families started buying their tea in bags.
What’s the difference, really?
Today, we know that tea bags are made with byproducts of the tea manufacturing process that would otherwise not be fit to sell, but what does that really mean to the average consumer? What are the real, noticeable differences between bagged tea and loose leaf tea?
The main advantages of tea bags are their convenience, shorter brewing times, and often, a lower price. But you get what you pay for. In exchange for those momentary perks, customers sacrifice freshness, re-steeping potential, full bodied flavors, and a great deal of variety. Tea bags produce only a one-note flavor in tea that can easily go bitter. The leaf fragments used in tea bags are too small to hold in most of their natural essential oils and aromas, giving them a weaker taste and smell.
Loose leaf teas take a bit longer to infuse because the water needs time to permeate every little piece of the buds and leaves to produce a nuanced, full-bodied flavor with multiple notes and a strong aroma. Because less of the tea’s surface area is exposed to the air, and it usually comes in airtight containers, the tea stays fresh longer, giving you cup after delicious cup of high-quality tea. An added bonus of loose leaf tea is that it can be re-steeped multiple times for several cups of tea, each with its own uniquely developed flavor.
The best of both worlds
Many upscale tea manufacturers are beginning to offer quality loose leaf teas in pyramid-shaped sachets. These sachets use the same grades of full leaf tea as traditional loose leaf, but are packaged in a convenient pouch that you can use anytime, anywhere, without making a mess. Unlike traditional tea bags, these pyramid-shaped sachets allow the tea room to expand in the water and release its full flavor, giving you the full-bodied flavors of loose leaf tea coupled with the ease of teabags.
If your favorite tea doesn’t come in pyramid bags, don’t worry! You can also brew loose leaf teas in fillable filter bags that allow for the same taste and almost as much convenience.
In short, tea bags are fine to use on occasion, or when you’re in a hurry. Only the most haughty of tea snobs would look down their noses at you for “polluting” your teapot with the devil’s gauze, but it is true it can affect the flavor and it does add extra pollution in the manufacturing (and disposal) process.
Be sure to treat yourself to a nice cup of loose leaf every now and then to remind yourself what tea can really taste like. It only takes a few minutes more, and the results are well worth the extra effort.