Teabags have been around since the early 1900s. They were initially invented to offer a convenient way to brew a single cup of tea. Using teabags would allow tea drinkers to avoid the perceived mess of loose leaf teas. Bags were a convenient way to completely remove tea leaves from the water all at once. This prevented tea leaves from being steeped too long and made it easier to clean the teapot in which the brewing occurred.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that teabags gained significant popularity as this was the decade in which convenience products were in demand. With increased demand, companies began looking for the most economical way to mass-produce teabag teas. Nowadays, they are machine produced in large quantities, packaged, and stored in warehouses for longer periods of time.
Size of Tea Leaf Pieces
Many traditional teabags contain leftovers of dust and “fannings” of picked tea leaves. Fannings are small pieces that remain after whole and larger pieces of broken tea leaves are sorted. Fannings are used almost exclusively in teabags.
When brewed, broken pieces of tea leaves, relative to whole ones, have already lost at least some of their aroma and essential oils. Fannings have larger surface areas, causing the essential oils to evaporate more quickly than full-size tea leaves. This results in dull or stale tea leaves that are used in traditional teabags. However, fannings and dust in traditional teabags have the convenience of infusing more rapidly. This is beneficial for those tea drinkers with limited time.
When brewed, these smaller pieces tend to be more bitter than full leaf teas as more of the tannins are brought out. Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that are found in underripe fruits and plants. When balanced with other flavors, it can sometimes contribute to a pleasant taste.
There are also broken leaf teas that are of higher grades than fannings. The pieces are larger than fannings and are typically not included in traditional teabags. It is also important to note fannings and dust of more expensive teas can be more flavorful than the whole leaf versions of cheaper teas.
Differences in Caffeine Levels
The larger surface area of the broken tea leaves found in traditional bagged tea results in higher levels of caffeine extraction during steeping. This extraction occurs more quickly than in full-leaf or higher grade teas.
However, there are many factors affecting caffeine levels in tea besides tea grade. These include the variety, whether tips (buds) or stems are used from the plant, and the brewing method.
Some teas varieties, such as green and black teas contain natural caffeine. Others, including white and rooibos teas, are naturally decaffeinated. Teas made with tips/buds (newer leaves) tend to have higher caffeine levels than those made with older leaves or the stem. In addition, tea leaves that have been brewed with hotter water for a longer period of time will produce a more caffeinated cup of tea than those that are steeped with cooler water for a shorter period of time.
Considering all the factors affecting caffeine content in teas it would be inaccurate to make the generalization that traditional teabags produce more caffeine relative to loose leaf teas.
Any given teabag purchased from a grocery store will likely have the same flavor profile year to year as they are mass-produced and standardized. Companies producing these bagged teas prioritize cost and flavor replication. On the other hand, loose leaf teas are processed based on region and the yearly or seasonal differences, due to changes in climate and growing conditions, are embraced. These differences may be reflected in the taste and aroma. As a result, loose leaf teas offer a wider range of flavor profiles compared to the packaged standardized flavors of traditional teabag teas found in grocery stores.
Differences in taste between loose leaf and bagged teas are particularly noticeable with green and white teas. Bagged green and white teas tend to be stale and bitter compared to loose leaf versions. Bagged black tea is thought to produce a decent cup. However, it does not offer the flavor varieties present with loose leaf versions.
It is also worthwhile to note that bagged tea loses its flavor after one steeping while loose leaf teas can be steeped several times to brew flavorful tea.
The health benefits of tea vary across types. Green, white, and black teas are found to be high in antioxidants, while green and white teas also include catechins and theanine. These compounds provide an array of health benefits. It is thought that bagged tea, with its fannings and dust, provide a much lower level of health benefits. This is due to the essential oils already being lost when the tea leaves were broken into small pieces. In addition, with the mass production of traditional teabags, it is likely they contain highly processed and older tea. Over time, tea loses the potency of health benefits. It is also believed the bag itself filters out some of the vitamins during the steeping process.
The teabag itself contributes to the quality and taste of the brewed tea. Because full leaves will offer more flavor and antioxidants, the size and material of the teabag matter. Traditional teabags are made with paper material that constricts the flow of water. It also prevents tea leaves from expanding to maximize flavor. Often this paper is bleached and can add unwanted chemicals and flavors to brewed tea.
Open weave sachets address some of the issues with water flow, allowing fuller flavor extraction from the tea leaves. These higher-quality, larger teabags come in pouches, “socks”, and pyramid shapes that can hold full leaf tea or larger broken tea leaves.
Despite the improvements in teabag types, there is no match to the flavor and aroma produced when steeping loose leaf tea. This can be done directly in the water or using an infuser. Without the restriction of a bag, the extraction of flavors, vitamins, minerals, and aromas from the leaves is maximized. Steeping tea this way gives the larger tea leaf pieces the opportunity to fully expand in the hot water, more so than when any type of teabag is used.
Teabags can be more economical and can offer more convenient brewing and cleanup. However, nothing beats the flavors, aroma, and health benefits enjoyed from steeping loose leaf teas directly in the water. Take the time to try a loose leaf tea that matches your flavor preferences. It is likely you won’t be disappointed. Read about the premium selection of freshly sourced tea leaves we offer. If you need help, contact us and we can help you make your final selection.
Once your premium tea has been delivered, be sure to visit our site to learn how to steep the perfect cup of tea.