One of the most common questions people ask is how does one make a Proper Cup of English Tea? As I mentioned in this earlier post, the answer starts with the tea of course. But loose tea or a tea bag? Which is better?
The majority of people around the world actually use tea bags. But it wasn’t always so. Tea bag drinkers were actually in the minority.
However today’s tea bag is better in size and quality, as is the tea inside it. Before this evolution of “better”, the preferred method and to some the insisted “proper” method was and still is loose tea.
Tea bags in the States are smaller than tea bags in the United Kingdom. In fact the U.S. has the smallest tea bags of any country. Of course we do. Corporations try to skimp anywhere they can to make a penny. Sadly that may also affect the brew. Smaller bags mean less room for the tea to move and “float” within the water.
One of the reasons many people still prefer loose tea is because it has more room to seep into the water of your pot. And as a reminder from the a fore mentioned article of proper preparation, even if you’re fixing one cup of tea, all tea should be brewed in a pot before it reaches the cup. Even tea bags should be placed in the pot and brewed there. Not in the individual cup.
It’s this idea about giving the leaves room to brew and infuse more thoroughly in the water that seems to be at the heart of the debate. But with better and larger tea bags, that idea has evolved and tea bags aren’t condemned as much as they used to be.
The other consideration for many is the size of the tea itself. Tea is more finely ground when placed in a tea bag, than it is in loose tea. The larger the tea leaves, the more tea can be pulled from the leaves and infused into the water. Thus creating a better flavored drink. Some tea bag makers actually try to make up for this by adding a little more tea to the bag.
The convenience of the tea bag might also have something to do with the shift in popularity. Not only is it easier and less cumbersome than loose tea poured into a cup with a strainer, but it also brews faster. That’s right. Because the leaves are ground finer, it doesn’t take as long for the flavor to be pulled from the leaves. But as mentioned, it doesn’t pull all or as much flavor out of the leaves as loose tea.
Now on the other hand, the smaller leaves also release more tannin, which can make the tea taste more bitter than the brew with loose tea. If you’d like to learn more about tannin, check out What is Tea?
If you’re having tea by yourself, you pick your flavor and go with it. But if you’re Hosting a Tea Party, you may want to offer your guests a variety of flavors. This is much easier to do with a tea bag. But it also means you are allowing the tea to be brewed in the cup, and not in a pot.
However, I did attend an elegant tea party once, where each person at the table had their own tea for one set to brew their own tea in the pot. It was very special and everyone loved the tea set they were provided. Not to mention everyone choose their favorite flavor of tea from the many varieties of individually packaged tea bags provided.
Both versions of tea have an expiration date. It doesn’t matter how it’s packaged or used. Tea will lose flavor within 6 months and will generally become stale after 1 year if it’s not stored properly.
Today most of the people who say loose tea is the best and only way to go are typically the people who own one of those premiere tea stores that only sell loose tea. But if you find a well respected and educated tea dealer who offers both bags and loose tea, you may get a more well balanced observation. Both have their benefits, both have their detractions. Of course there are tea drinkers who have nothing to do with the sale of tea that still cling to loose tea over the tea bag. And that’s ok too of course.
Take some time to experiment with both methods. And don’t limit your experiment to simply bag vs loose. Try different types of bags, different tea from different countries and different types of brewing methods.
If you are testing the tea bag vs loose tea, try one cup in the bag and in another cup, cut the bag open and brew it as loose. And if you insist on brewing your tea by bag in a cup instead of a pot, you might want to try brewing the same flavor of tea bag in a pot to see if it makes a difference to you. Keep in mind of course that tea for one pots come in varying sizes. Some will brew a single cup, while others may brew two.
You’re the one drinking the tea. How it tastes best to you can be the most important thing. So try different versions, different brewing methods and see what works best for you.