Loose tea refers to tea leaves that are sold in bulk, in contrast to tea bags (or teabags), which are ready-to-steep containers of tea, usually packaged in paper or cloth and sold in boxes. These terms are used both to refer to true tea (from the Camellia sinensis plant) as well as herbal teas from other plants.
Advantages of Tea Bags:
There is only one advantage of tea bags: convenience. People often prefer tea bags when traveling or when in an office environment where the process of using a tea strainer or tea infuser is too complex or involved. Most people use tea bags because they have little or no experience brewing loose tea, or because they do not have the right equipment to brew it. Also, tea bags tend to be more widely available in supermarkets and restaurants, whereas loose tea can be harder to find and in some areas must be purchased online or through mail-order.
Advantages of Loose Leaf Tea:
- Affordability / cost – When you buy tea bags, a greater portion of your money goes towards the packaging process. Buying loose tea of similar quality can be considerably less expensive.
- Quality – Many of the best teas are only available in loose leaf form. Also, when compared to tea bags, loose tea of a similar price tends to be much higher in quality, because in the case of bagged teas you are paying for the packaging process rather than paying for the elements of the production process (growing, processing of leaves) that lead to superior flavor.
- Sustainability – the process of packaging tea into bags uses unnecessary energy and materials. Buying loose tea is a better decision in terms of environmental impact.
- Human rights and economic justice – packaging usually happens farther from the growers (often in a different country) and, in most cases, none of the additional money spent on the packing process actually reaches the growers.
- Greater control over brewing strength – With tea bags, the amount of leaf is essentially fixed: you can choose to use one, two, or more bags, and you can vary the amount of water to some degree. However, loose tea gives greater control because you can measure out any quantity of leaf, depending on the exact level of strength you want.
- Easier to compost – loose tea is easy to compost; the used leaf can be applied directly to your compost as mulch. Biodegradable tea bags, on the other hand, take longer to decompose, and many brands use materials such as nylon or plastics for heat-sealing that are not biodegradable.
Making the Transition to Loose Tea:
Except with large-leaf, whole-leaf teas that can be easily taken out of a cup, brewing loose leaf tea usually requires some sort of strainer, infuser, or filter. One of the best options is to brew loose-leaf tea in a teapot and pour through a strainer before serving–specific strainers are sold for this purpose, that can sit easily inside a cup or mug. Some teapots have built-in filters, either as part of the pot, or that sit inside the pot to hold the leaves, and can be removed to prevent oversteeping.
Another convenient option is a permanent stainless steel basket infuser that sits inside a mug or teapot. Tea balls are another common option, although care must be taken to see that they are large enough to give the loose leaf enough room to expand. Disposable paper tea filters can also be used. Because they are not reusable, they are a less responsible environmental choice, although their impact can be minimized by composting the paper filters after use.
These and other accessories are available from most online retailers that sell tea.