Tea Bags vs. Loose-Leaf: The Great Tea-bate

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If you’ve spent any time around tea drinkers, you’ve probably heard us babbling about loose-leaf tea. The flavors! The aromas! The depth!

For most Americans, though, tea bags are all they know. More than 65 percent of tea in America is brewed with tea bags. In fact, the tea bag is an American invention.

For beginners who may not know, “loose-leaf” means exactly what it says: the leaves are loose. It’s useful to think of tea bags and loose-leaf as briefs and boxers. Tea bags are the briefs, tightly packing everything in. Loose-leaf is the tea world’s boxers, allowing for more airflow and letting it all hang loose.

Recently, tea bags and loose-leaf met up in my kitchen for a thrilling throw-down to decide which one is ultimately better.

Tea Bags

Pros: The tea bag’s biggest strengths in this match-up are its speed and ease of use. The tea bag’s convenient packaging results in a quick, easy cup of tea—all you have to do is add the bag to hot water. Tea bags are also easy to obtain; they can be found in any grocery store, and the selection continues to grow.

Cons: The tea bag’s weak point is flavor. Generally, tea bags are less flavorful than loose-leaf because they are made of “tea dust,” which is the leftovers of the tea plant. Tea dust is like the last crumbs in a bag of potato chips—still tasty but not as good as the first chips. Loose-leaf tea has actual leaves, while a tea bag has small fragments.

See the difference between these fierce competitors for yourself.

tea bags vs. loose leaf; Chai Tea Chick

The bowl on the left contains a loose black tea called Buckingham Palace Garden Party Tea (drinking it makes you feel like Kate Middleton by the way). On the right is Bigelow’s English Breakfast Tea from a bag. As you can see, the loose-leaf tea is vibrant with large leaves, while the bagged tea is more granular.

Although the tea bag is a speedy competitor that can throw a quick jab, it’s lack of flavor is a significant weakness.

Loose-Leaf Tea

Pros: Loose-leaf has a lot more variety and flavor, making it a dynamic player. While tea bags have limited variety, there seems to be an endless array of loose-leaf tea blends. Nearly everything exists, from Mayan Chocolate Truffle to Winter White Chai. In addition, loose-leaf’s fresh leaves and ingredients create a much tastier brew.

Loose-leaf also contains more healthy minerals and vitamins because more nutrients can be extracted from whole leaves rather than tea dust.

Cons: Though it packs a flavor punch, the major problem with loose-leaf is that it can be hard to find in America. Because tea is not as popular here as coffee, there is not a large market for loose-leaf. For tea drinkers, nothing is quite as depressing as running out of a favorite loose-leaf tea. You scrape at the bottom of your canister, desperately trying to cobble enough leaves together to make one last cup.

To find good loose-leaf, you have to do a little more hunting than just visiting your local grocery store. With shops like Teavana and The Spice & Tea Exchange becoming popular, though, we may just be entering the golden age of loose-leaf.

The Winner?

After a rather eventful showdown, in which tea bags threw quick jabs and loose-leaf swung back with taste and variety, a winner has been selected.

Drum roll. 

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Loose-leaf is our champion! Its flavor, diversity, and health advantages make it the ultimate winner. Tea really is all about flavor. To find the boldest and most interesting teas, you have to go with loose-leaf. I’ve noticed most serious tea drinkers eventually transition to loose-leaf and rarely look back.

With that said, I do think tea bags and loose-leaf can peacefully co-exist. I, for example, prefer loose-leaf tea but keep bags around because they are convenient. The most important point is that you’re drinking tea, and that is a wonderful thing. So, what do you prefer: tea bags or loose-leaf?

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