After water, tea is the second most consumed beverage on the planet. Legend has it that the very first cup was enjoyed by a Chinese emperor in 2737BC. He was sitting next to a tea tree when some of the leaves blew into his boiled drinking water. Enchanted by the flavor, he drank down every last sip!
Nearly five millennia later, we are still enjoying this remarkable drink, both for its many health benefits and refreshing taste.
Market research shows that nowadays the vast majority of tea drinkers will use tea bags rather than loose leaf tea when they treat themselves to a cup. However, many tea enthusiasts say that tea made with a bag is a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’. People often compare it to drinking instant coffee rather than one made with freshly ground beans.
Let’s consider some of the pros and cons of each before you brew your next pot.
The idea of serving tea in a bag actually came about by accident. In the early 1900s an American tea importer named Thomas Sullivan was looking for a cheaper way to send tea samples to his customers.
The practice at the time was to send these samples out in miniature tins. Sullivan hit upon the idea of saving some money by sowing his tea leaves into handmade silk bags which he then distributed. Sullivan assumed that his customers would cut the bags open and then enjoy their tea in the traditional way.
Instead, they simply dropped the little bag into the boiling water and brewed their tea through the bag itself. It was quick, clean and convenient. Not to mention, it tasted wonderful! This is because Sullivan had use the same quality leaves that the customer has always enjoyed, just in a slightly more innovative way.
Before long, everyone started clamoring for tea in these convenient bags. Hand sewn silk soon became machine stitched paper and the modern bag was born.
How do they work?
The bags themselves are simply a delivery mechanism. As long as they are large enough to let the water in and have adequate space to allow the leaves to expand, they do not affect the quality of the final cup.
They make brewing tea easy and the cleaning up afterwards a great deal quicker so, theoretically, they should be the obvious choice.
However, the bagged method is open to abuse.
Before its invention, tea drinkers would be handling, brewing and filtering the actual tea leaves that they used in their cup. After the arrival of the bag, people no longer could see and feel the leaves that they were using. This lead to some unscrupulous producers using inferior tea leaves in their bags.
Even today, bags often contain broken leaves and fannings. Fannings are the small dusty particles left over after processing loose leaf tea.
Another problem is that a great many bags are very small which subsequently constricts the brewing process. When the tea is restricted it cannot fully infuse its flavor into the cup.
That said; many prefer the ease of tea from a bag. Tea in bags will brew faster than loose leaf, it usually has a stronger taste and is a great deal more convenient when you’re in a rush.
Loose leaf tea
Loose leaf tea is generally considered to be the tea-connoisseur’s choice. The leaves are steeped in boiling water which allows them the room to expand into the liquid as they infuse.
As a result of this process, the full flavors and aromas of the leaf are absorbed into the cup. In addition, the valuable minerals and vitamins contained within the tea leaf are released.
Another benefit of using loose leaf tea is that you are in complete control of the strength of your cup. You are able to play the tea mixologist! Everyone has their own preference when it comes to the perfect brew. Loose leaf tea allows you to blend, adapt and change the variety and amount of leaves used. That way you can create your very own recipe.
Not to mention, there is a great deal to be said for the magical ritual of making tea in the old-fashioned way. Knowing that you are replicating a process that has been employed by cultures all over the world for millennia adds a little something extra to your cuppa!
So – how will you take it?
It must be said that, nowadays, a number of tea producers are developing bags that allow a little extra space for infusion and that contain great quality leaves.
If you are lucky enough to find bags such as these then you will be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Great quality, healthy tea with a wonderful aroma and a delicate taste – plus very little mess!
However, these bags are still quite a specialist product and unlikely to be found at your average grocery store.
Therefore, I think that a general rule of thumb should still remain:
If you are looking to grab a robust cuppa on the go – with strong flavor and no mess - then the bag method is the one for you.
However, if you want to enjoy the full tea experience, complete with the health benefits, great flavors (and that little bit of magic that can only be found when steeping leaves by hand!), then it has to be loose leaf.