It might just be a preference, it might be more, but there’s certainly a lot to be said about both bagged and loose leaf tea.
Which side of the fence are you on? The convenience of pre-packaged tea leaves, or feeling like an ancient wise one when steeping from scratch?
Let’s look at the difference between the two, and the potential benefits of loose leaf tea.
What is loose leaf tea?
When we talk about loose leaf tea, we’re talking about infusing tea using the leaves directly. This is as opposed to bagged tea, where the leaves are contained in a cloth or paper sack.
But that’s not the only difference – there is more to these two ways of brewing and drinking tea.
To make tea leaves ready for drinking, the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant are picked and then rolled, cut dried, or even fried. This is common to all types of tea in some way. Different teas, whether black, white, green or oolong, are processed in some way.
However, after this point, we see the difference between loose leaf tea and teabags. Bagged tea is made up of the dust and broken pieces which come from this processing. They’re not the larger, pure pieces of the leaf.
As they are smaller and more cut up, more oxidation and drying will have occurred in the leaves, causing them to lose some of their flavor. This means that they will be less potent when infused with water.
A teabag might be convenient and quick, but there is a loss of quality and flavor. What’s more, they could have been sitting in a box on a shelf for up to 18 months.
Tip: don’t keep loose leaf tea stored for longer than six months, as it will be oxidized and dry out.
As bagged teas are already more dried and oxidized, they can stand to sit for longer. However, there’s always a loss of potency in the cup.
The purest form of tea
Loose leaf tea is tea in its more pure form. There will always be some drying, oxidation and processing, which is necessary to prepare the leaves for infusion. However, what is important is that these larger, fresher, more complete pieces of the leaf allow for a richer brew.
Therefore, it’s the surface area and oxidation which makes the difference between bagged tea and loose leaf tea. Teabags will steep more quickly because the water has more access to the leaves, because much of the aroma and goodness has already been lost so maximum access to infusing is required.
Another thing to consider with purity is that to make and preserve bagged tea, other flavors and aromas might have been added. Again, loose leaf tea is more pure, straight from that special Camellia sinensis plant.
What are the benefits of loose leaf tea?
Given how loose leaf tea works, why is it important to retain as much of the leaf as possible? Why is it better to drink tea in this purer form? Here, it’s all about the processing and oxidation, and what happens to tea during this process.
Tea leaves contain substances called polyphenols, of which catechins are particularly important. These have antioxidant properties, which are essential for health by fighting cell damage and aging.
Antioxidants, and those found in tea catechins, have been found to help protect against diseases such as cancer, and conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, inflammation and low metabolism. Antioxidants are also found in fruit, vegetables and whole foods.
Other substances in tea are theanines, which have been shown to help reduce anxiety.
While it can’t be said that drinking tea alone can combat these issues, pure, quality tea can be part of a healthy lifestyle by helping us to get as much of these special polyphenols and catechins as possible.
The other benefits of loose leaf tea are similar to all types of tea and hot drinks: hydration, a calming ritual and of course, enjoyment! It’s just that with loose leaf tea you get all these benefits with added extras of goodness.
Outside the bags, used loose leaf tea can also be used to fight odors around the home, in the garden as compost and for cleaning. Tea’s talents never end!
Organic loose leaf tea
The benefits of loose leaf tea are linked to its purity and freshness. Organic loose leaf tea will be even purer still, as nothing has been added to it.
While it’s not essential to go for organic, as the benefits of loose leaf tea apply whatever, you might like to keep it completely pure and natural.
From a farming point of view, you’ll be supporting traditional practices and reducing the environmental impact of pesticides and preservatives. Do remember that other teas are not unsafe though.
If you’re looking for organic loose leaf tea, check that the package states this and that no sweeteners or additives have been included for flavor. For maximum benefit, try not to add any yourself either.
For where to buy loose leaf tea, whether organic or not, choose a quality supplier who is knowledgeable about the different types and can advise you on flavors and brewing times.
Brewing loose leaf tea
After learning all about it, you’re sold on the benefits of loose leaf tea, right? It retains more of tea’s aroma, flavor and goodness. Let’s look at how to drink loose leaf tea.
We’ve got tons of resources about how to brew loose leaf tea, but here are some quick tips.
Step 1: heating the water
Brewing loose leaf tea starts with the water. You don’t want to scorch the leaves or increase oxidation more than necessary.
Different teas have different optimum temperatures for steeping. While it doesn’t matter so much with bagged tea as much of this oxidation process has already occurred, you could lose some of the benefits and flavor of loose leaf tea by using the wrong type or temperature of the water.
You might like to use a water filter, especially if you live in a hard water area. Hard water can leave a residue on your tea.
There is a lot of debate out there about the best water for tea, and a lot of it is personal preference. Water from a faucet or bottle is safe and works fine, and if you like to filter that’s great too. The important thing is the temperature.
Check out our handy temperature and steeping time guide below.
The way to get the correct temperature to preserve taste is to use a temperature-controlled kettle or a thermometer. You can monitor as you heat the water before it boils, or check the temperature as it cools.
If you’re using a teapot remember to swirl some hot water around the teapot first to keep it warm. This will stop the temperature being thrown off when your hot water is added to the tea from the cold teapot.
Step 2: Infusion
The next stage in brewing loose leaf tea is in the infusion and steeping. Once you’ve added the amount of tea for your tea type, cup or teapot size (which is due in large part down to your preference) you’re ready to add water and infuse the tea.
The major difference with how to drink loose leaf tea as opposed to bagged is that you’ll need to contain the leaves in the water. This isn’t like a teabag, as it’s fresh loose leaf tea going in, but it stops the leaves floating free, which can make for a bitter taste and an unpleasant cup as they’ll steep too long.
There are so many options for infusers and strainers, and it mainly depends on how you like to make and drink your tea. Many teapots include an infuser basket, while you can also use a tea ball infuser, which sits in your cup and can be removed.
Or you can use a strainer which sits on top, catching the leaves, which are infused as the water is poured.
If you love your bags and want the best of both worlds, you can even make your own with empty paper or material tea bags to fill yourself!
Step 3: Steeping
Now you’ve added the water to your loose leaf tea in its infuser or strainer, what next? As we’ve said, steeping time is all-important when brewing. Oxidizing the tea by leaving it in water for too long can ruin all that flavor and goodness you’ve preserved by using loose leaf tea in the first place.
Here’s our guide on steeping times for brewing loose leaf tea of different types:
- Oolong Tea – 185°F – 205°F (82°C – 96°C) – 3–4 minutes
- Black Tea – 194°F – 210°F (90°C – 99°C) – 3–5 minutes
- White Tea – 185°F – 205°F (82°C – 96°C) – 1–3 minutes
- Green Tea – 175°F – 185°F (80°C – 85°C) – 1–3 minutes
- Herbal Tea – 205°F (96°C) – 5–10 minutes
- Pu-erh Tea – 212°F (100°C) – 30 seconds – 5 minutes
- Rooibos Tea – 205°F (96°C) – 5–6 minutes
Read our other resources and information on how to brew loose leaf tea.
So, Is Loose Leaf Tea Better For You?
There is a lot of research into the benefits of tea in general, and how much difference drinking tea can make to battling common health conditions. It’s important to remember here that nothing is a substitute for medical advice. Supplements should not be taken without a qualified practitioner’s advice.
However, due to the way that bagged and loose leaf tea is picked, processed and preserved, it’s true that in brewing loose leaf tea you will access more of tea’s flavor, aroma and potentially beneficial substances.
Discover the wonderful world of loose leaf tea!
Which do you prefer, bagged or loose leaf tea?
Share with us in the comments below!