Loose leaf or tea bags, which is better? This has been hotly debated since the accidental popularisation of tea bags by New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan in 1908, who used small silk bags to send samples to his customers, rather than sending an entire tea caddy. The big idea was that the recipient would remove the dose of loose tea and then brew in the conventional way. However, most recipients didn’t bother removing the contents from the porous bag and simply put the bag in their tea pot and brewed up.
At Farrer’s we just love tea, period. Each tea format has its own strengths and weaknesses whether it’s served in a tea bag or brewed loose leaf.
Snubbed by the English to a cupboard staple
The first commercial tea bags came into being in the 1920’s in the USA and were primarily designed to be a convenient and cleaner delivery system. They didn’t take off in the UK until the 1950’s, as we as a nation of tea drinkers, held the view that the American tea bag would ruin our daily cuppa. This opinion was fuelled by horror stories from British visitors to the USA, who observed that many American establishments simply served tepid cups of water with a tea bag to the side – truly horrifying for any self-respecting British tea drinker.
By 1953 this began to change as Tetley championed the introduction of the tea bag, especially in light of the drive for convenience in the home and the introduction of a whole host of labour-saving devices.
Now tea bags account for 95% of all tea sold in the UK, but does this mean tea bags are better than loose leaf teas?
Every tea journey starts with a single tea bag
Almost every fledgling tea drinker begins their tea journey using tea bags, predominantly because they are available almost everywhere and they are hugely convenient. Tea bags don’t require any special kit and for that matter there’s little or no mess brewing up using them.
Inevitably the more adventurous will want to try different teas and that’s where for many their loose-leaf tea journey begins. This is because many specialist teas just aren’t available in bag form or can’t be brewed correctly in that format.
Speaking of tea bags, one of our personal favourites is English Breakfast Tea, specially blended black tea which produces a full-bodied robust brew. The perfect accompaniment for any hearty breakfast.
Highly aromatic teas can’t be bagged
Unfortunately tea bags can’t take you a complete tea journey if you’re looking to expand your tea palate. Not all teas are available in bag form and there’s good reason for that.
Highly aromatic teas can’t infuse properly in a tea bag. The tea leaves need room to aerate and expand, which isn’t something that can occur bagged. They need to be loose and have the space to create their flavour and experience.
A good example of a tea we wouldn’t want to bag is Arctic Fire. It’s a deliciously refreshing scented black China tea with flavours of mango, papaya and peppermint.
The strength is in your hands with loose leaf, you can also control the strength of your cuppa using loose leaf tea and it’s simple to do by adding or removing the quantity of tea in your infuser.
By contrast tea bags use a set quantity of tea which delivers consistent brew strength. In some respects consistency is actually one of the best perks with tea bags. It’s difficult to get wrong.
Tea bags are generally better value… or are they?
When it comes to value for money you can’t argue with everyday tea bags… or can you?
Tea bags are single use and should only be brewed once. Whereas you can brew your loose leaf tea to different strength and flavour profiles. Because you are in effect reusing the same tea several times you actually save money, especially as some teas can yield up to 12 cups per brew. You can’t argue with that.
Tea Quality depends more on the tea and not the format
Teas in bag form can be really high quality or of exceptionally poor quality but the same is true of loose-leaf teas.
Everyday tea bags usually contain what are known as fannings (which is the smallest part of the tea leaf in the tea production process) and tea dust. In the case of very low quality tea bags they can have a bitter and astringent taste to them as more tannins are released into the drink.
However that being said it’s possible to bag larger leaves within tea bags. A great example of this is our Darjeeling black tea grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, which is available both as a loose leaf or tea bag (and we think tastes great either way!).
Whilst loose leaf tea is generally higher in quality the biggest factor in how it tastes is down to sourcing process, production, harvest and storage. All of which, we take extremely seriously as a specialist tea merchant.
Pros and cons of tea bags vs loose leaf
- Easy to brew, no specialist kit needed.
- Consistent strength.
- Low cost.
- No mess.
- Perfect for black tea served with milk and sugar.
- Limited tea varieties.
- Less flavour and aroma (than loose leaf).
- Lower quality than loose leaf.
- More bitterness and astringency.
- Creates more waste (used tea bags).
- Higher quality tea experience.
- Full selection of teas.
- Full bodied flavour and aroma.
- Specialist kit required (infuser tea pot and strainer).
- Longer brew time required.
- More clean up.
- Generally more expensive.
Is loose leaf better than bagged tea?
In short, we don’t think so.
There are strengths and weaknesses to both tea formats. Most of tea enjoyment comes down to the preference of the individual and both tea bags and loose leaf have their place. We hold the view that true tea lovers just love tea and focus more on sourcing higher quality teas. Something we’re an expert in.
While certain teas can only be appreciated in loose leaf format there’s nothing heretical about brewing up with a tea bag.
Discover tea with Farrer’s
At Farrer’s we have a complete range of tea on our website from specialty blends to everyday favourites. Explore our full range of teas on our webshop, whether you’re a loose leaf fan or a prefer the ease of tea bags.