When it comes to getting that kick of caffeine, between coffee and tea, I have always chosen the latter. As a second year graduate student in the midst of completing my major research project while working evenings as a dance instructor, travelling between Guelph and Ottawa on a weekly basis, and binge watching episodes of Scandal on Shomi, you can imagine that I drink a heck of a lot of tea. Naturally, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the stuff. Up until recently, though, something I had never really pondered was brought to my attention: the difference between bagged and loose-leaf teas. Before Lisa and Tealee got me hooked on loose-leaf, I always thought that tea was tea and it didn't really matter how you drank it or where it came from. I have learned, though, that like wine and beer (my other favourite beverages), not all teas are made equally.
Taste, quality, and longevity along with convenience and cost are some of the reasons that factor into one's choice between loose-leaf or bagged tea. Loose-leaf tea often consists of combinations of whole tea leaves, large pieces of leaves or hand-picked buds which are carefully selected to retain their distinct characteristics and provide a full yet subtle flavour when steeped. Alternatively, bagged tea is usually made from smaller pieces of tea leaves or tea fannings, commonly known as dusts, which allow for a quicker brew. Because the smaller leaves have more interaction with the water, bags create a stronger tasting cup, faster. After one steep, however, the flavour has been fully extracted from the bag. Loose leaves, on the other hand, can usually be steeped multiple times and provide for several cups of tea. From a health perspective, the size and quality of the leaves chosen for loose-leaf tea contain more catechins, the disease fighting flavonoid that makes drinking tea so beneficial to your health.
If you prefer the ease and convenience of bagged tea, be sure to check which material the bags are made from. A New York tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan, distributed the first bagged teas around 1908 when he began shipping samples of his loose-leaf tea in hand-woven silk bags. His customers assumed that the bags were meant to act the same way as metal infusers and put them directly into their pots. Though Sullivan may have accidentally invented the tea bag, today's bags are not usually hand-made of silk as his were. Bags are often machine produced, made of cotton or paper and are sealed with plastic or glue. Some companies offer biodegradable bags that may leach fewer nutrients out of the tea, and therefore interfere less with the infusion than others. If you want the convenience of a bag, but prefer the quality and taste of the loose-leaf, try a compostable paper filter instead of a metal infuser. These filters are portable and disposable, just like bagged tea, but are also customizable, as they allow you to choose exactly which leaves you are steeping. Keep in mind that tea bags restrict the leaves from fully expanding which prevent the release of their full flavour, aroma and health properties. I recommend that whenever possible, use a teapot with an infuser or a tea press to steep your loose-leaf tea, this allows full leaf expansion.
While bags remain the most popular form of tea consumed, demand for loose-leaf has grown increasingly over the last decade as tea lovers are opting for a more flavourful, aromatic, beneficial pot of tea. Whichever your preference, be sure to store your tea in a dry, relatively cool place in order to protect the leaves and keep them at their freshest. While like wine many teas get better with age, most teas have reached their expiration date after about a year in your cupboard. Storing tea in tins with an air-tight seal will help keep your tea fresher, longer.
Now that we know a little bit more about the difference between loose-leaf and bagged teas, you (and I) can make an informed decision whether to “bag or not to bag,” for “that is the question!”