Beyond the bag: why whole leaf is better

You are almost certainly familiar with bagged tea, the familiar product that appears on grocery store shelves and in hotels and restaurants worldwide. While convenient and cheap – for shipping, storing, and preparing – the famous teabag steeps a tea that, while drinkable, pales in comparison to a well-steeped cup of whole leaf tea. So why are teabags so bad? Read on…

A photo of the inside of a tea bag, loose leaf tea, and full leaf tea

Three black teas: tea bag, loose leaf, and whole leaf

To understand what’s wrong with a teabag, it’s useful to know what’s inside. When tea is processed, the dried leaves are sorted according to their size using a tea leaf sorting machine.

A leaf sorting machine from a tea plantation

Each level has leaves (or parts of leaves) and branches of differing sizes.

The sorting machine has has a rack of vibrating shelves with holes of different size ranging from large on the top rack down to very small on the bottom rack. Tea leaves are picked and dried (and possibly go through stages of fermentation, depending on the type of tea being produced), and they are dumped into the top of the machine.

The biggest and fullest leaves are found near the top. The leaf is almost, if not completely, intact. This is the “whole leaf tea” that this blog is all about. A little further down and you start to find leaf fragments that typically end up selling as “loose leaf tea”, especially in blended teas.

So what comes out of the bottom of this monster? Little scraps of tea leaves and branches, called the “fannings” or “dustings”. This is the stuff of bagged tea.

So what’s the problem? It’s still tea, right? Perhaps an analogy would be best here. Pretend a friend has told you about a great bakery down the road that she frequents regularly. You’ve heard great reviews so you decide to check it out. But when you get there, instead of trying a fresh loaf of their acclaimed whole wheat, you opt instead for a bag of breadcrumbs they swept up off the floor. It’s not quite the same experience.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s a time and a place for breadcrumbs. But you’re fooling yourself if you think it’s the same as the bread.

A close up view of the inside of a typical tea bag

What’s inside of a typical tea bag

The dustings inside of a teabag have a large surface area for their size. This means that the tea will steep quickly, but also that the bitterness and tannins will come out very quickly as well. There is a relatively accepted method of brewing black tea in teabags to minimize the bitterness (see this post for more information), but you’re never going to be able to get the full flavors out of most teas if you’re steeping the dustings.

Ironically, while “whole leaf” tea seems like an advanced concept, the lower surface area and longer steeping times actually makes them easier to brew for the amateur. If you’re just getting into tea, I strongly recommend jumping right into the whole leaf varieties from the start.

And that’s why this blog exists: to help everyone from the amateur to the tea enthusiast to learn more about loose leaf and whole leaf teas and, ultimately, how to steep a better cup.

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