Tea has been made for thousands of years, but one aspect of it that's changed considerably in just the past decade in the U.S. is the choice of selecting loose leaf tea or teabags.
Teabags are packaged for either individual or multiple servings of tea. For the purposes of this discussion, they also include sachets, mesh bags, and other small pouches into which tea has been packaged and is ready to brew. Not long ago teabags were almost always made from finely cut leaves. This has been changing as a small but growing number of teabag selections now hold whole leaf tea.
Loose Leaf Tea is purchased in "bulk" form; that is, it's not packaged for a particular sized serving. It's almost ready to pop into a cup or teapot and infuse. You just need to provide the tea accessories to brew it. Sometimes it's sold in pre-packaged containers, but more often you will purchase it by the ounce or gram. Loose leaf tea has also changed in the past decade in the sheer variety of teas that are available. We now have access to many fine, classic teas from Asia that were not previously exported to the West.
Each form has its pros and cons. If you're a new tea drinker, you might opt for teabags simply because they require no additional equipment. Eventually you'll find your way to loose leaf tea if only because the selection is much greater in presenting the wonderful teas of the world. While my preference is to buy loose leaf tea, there are plenty of times I still use teabags. Here are a few reasons in favor of each.
Convenience is probably the major reason people buy teabags. Plus it's obvious how to use them.
Teabags are also exceptionally easy to find. Most grocery stores carry a greater selection of teabags than the do loose leaf tea. Most teabags have been produced using a process called CTC (cut-tear-curl or crush-tear-curl). You can recognize CTC teas by examining the contents of a teabag; they'll be small, regularly sized, cut up bits of tea leaves (see Whole Leaf Tea or CTC Tea).
If you add milk and/or sugar to your tea, CTC tea is probably ideal for you palate. The CTC process produces teas noted for its astringency and briskness, and they can stand up to these additions without being overwhelmed. And dairy and sweetener mellow out the sharpness of the tea.
Consistency is another advantage of teabags. CTC tea is known for its consistency since multiple batches of tea are mixed together to minimize variation. So when you buy most teabags, you know what you're going to get.
However, there are an increasing number of whole leaf teas sold on the market packaged in teabags and sometimes exquisite sachets. You'll need to read the packaging to distinguish it from CTC. If not called whole leaf tea on the label, it might also be referred to as pure leaf tea, full leaf tea, or long leaf tea. Unlike CTC teabags, you should be able to get at least two infusions from each of these teabags.
More often than not, whole leaf teabags come with added flavors, fruit pieces, or spices. If you're new to tea drinking, these can be a nice introduction to better teas. They're also nice teas to keep as a special treat. Admittedly, the flavor combinations are enticing, and more often than I should, I succumb to their temptations. But I usually find the additions to the tea to be overwhelming, so they tend to sit in my cabinet in favor of "plain" teas. However, they're rarely wasted. (See Iced Tea to learn how I make use of tea mistakes.)
If you're beginning to explore tea, my advice is to take note of the base teas used in those selections you like, then try the teas plain to see if they're still your "cup of tea." This can be a good way to help define what you like best and lead you to other tasty choices.
If you're interested in exploring the wide range of teas the world has to offer, loose leaf tea is your best bet. Unlike whole leaf teabags, very few of these have added ingredients for extra zip. Instead, you'll be tasting and inhaling the bouquets that are the result of variations in processing and generations of expertise in tea-making.
You'll still get both fruity and floral notes in addition to herbaceous, nutty, spicy, smoky, and earthy flavors. But they'll be subtle and an intrinsic part of the tea's essence. Without realizing it, you'll begin to discern the differences between Chinese and Japanese green teas, or a fruity versus a floral oolong, or the subtle freshness of a pure white tea.
Loose leaf tea is also less expensive than tea packaged in teabags. In addition to the extra cost incurred for teabags themselves, the fact that you can get multiple infusions from a spoonful of whole tea leaves lowers the cost considerably.
Because loose leaf tea is generally whole leaf, it's much easier to control the robustness of the finished cup. The size of CTC leaves in teabags shortens the steep-time considerably since all surfaces of the leaf bits are immediately exposed to hot water in the brewing process, so the tea-drinker has limited control over the strength of the final tea. Not so with whole leaves that take multiple infusions to unfurl and release the full range of their flavors, with each infusion different from the last.
But beware…very occasionally you might find a loose tea that was processed using the CTC method. If you love the taste, fantastic! But just be warned: it's likely you'll only be able to steep it once to your satisfaction.
You have another option if you prefer the choices of loose leaf tea but want the convenience of teabags. You can purchase empty pouches and make your own teabags. This is a particularly good option for traveling when it's not feasible to bring an infuser along.
The biggest determining factor in whether I decide to purchase a tea is if its aroma appeals to me. So before purchasing loose leaf tea I smell it first. (I've been refused this request exactly once in the past two decades.) Some shops wisely have a small container of each tea specifically for sniffing. It only takes a quick sniff, and you don't have to be an expert to make the all-important determination. If it smells like old hay, there's a good chance it's not fresh. (As a point of reference, think about how spices smell after they've been hanging around your kitchen too long.) We give more specific pointers on the pages for each individual type of tea as to the aromas the dry tea leaves should evoke.
Occasionally the smell of tea leaves is distinctive but just doesn't appeal to you. Take heed of this as well. There are plenty of teas that, for whatever reason, didn't capture my interest in the past. Almost without fail, that very tea is destined to become one of my favorites a couple years later. I like it that our tastes evolve.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. People who work in tea shops will probably be excited to share their insights and opinions with another tea drinker. The U.S. is still such a coffee-centric place that it's an incredibly welcome treat to find someone who enjoys the subtleties of tea.
One other thing about buying loose leaf tea in North America…if you're uncomfortable with gauging ounces or grams, don't worry about that either. More often than not I tell a tea seller approximately how much of a bag I want filled either in inches or fractions, although my sister tells me I might not have this luxury when buying tea in Europe.
There's plenty of room in our lives for both loose leaf tea and teabags. The important thing is to make sure both contain quality tea that you enjoy.