Ah, the beautiful world of tea! With its myriad flavors, aromas, and traditions, tea uniquely captures our hearts and comforts our souls. Whether you're a seasoned tea enthusiast or just starting your tea journey, you'll find a captivating universe of tastes and traditions awaiting you. But first, let's get to the crux of a fundamental debate that has brewed for years: loose-leaf tea versus tea bags. Why do some swear by the loose-leaf experience while others find solace in the convenience of a tea bag? Let’s steep ourselves in the topic and explore why many consider loose-leaf tea to be the superior choice.
The Origin of Tea Bags: A Convenient Mistake
The history of tea and tea drinking dates back to 2737 BC. Tea bags are a much more recent invention. They are attributed to Thomas Sullivan, a tea trader from New York. In 1908, he decided to put tea leaf samples into small silk bags to give to his clients. He expected that his clients would remove the tea leaves from the bags to brew, Instead, they just put the bags in the hot water. They loved the convenience, and tea bags took off in popularity. Today’s tea bags have evolved from those silk pouches. The most significant change came in the 1950s when Joseph Tetley & Co. began mass-producing tea bags. Bags have continued to change with consumer demand regarding the material and the shape.
Orthodox vs. CTC Processing: A Flavorful Dance
Before diving into why loose-leaf may offer a better tea experience, it's essential to understand two principal methods of tea processing: Orthodox and Crush-Tear-Curl (CTC).
True to its name, Orthodox processing is the traditional method and is often considered the more artisanal approach. It usually involves hand-picking the top two leaves and a bud of the tea plant. These leaves are then allowed to wither, rolled, oxidized, and dried. The key takeaway here is that Orthodox processing keeps the leaf mostly intact, allowing for a multitude of flavors and aromas to be extracted during the brewing process. This method is said to “treat the tea leaf with respect." Traditionally, the processing was done by hand, but machines may be involved in today’s world. Whichever method is chosen, very highly skilled tea producers carefully monitor the entire process.
Tea that is destined for the humble tea bag undergoes non-orthodox processing. This was developed to reduce labor costs and the time involved and save money. This non-orthodox method is called the CTC method – Crush, Tear, Curl. It is a much more mechanized process designed for mass production. Here, leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with sharp teeth that crush, tear, and curl the leaves into tiny granules.
Appearance & Flavor: Loose-Leaf vs. Tea Bag
The processing methods contribute significantly to the appearance and flavor profiles of loose-leaf and tea bag teas.
Leaf Appearance: In the dry form, CTC teas resemble ground coffee. Orthodox teas are beautiful in full-leaf form, whether long and wiry or rolled into pretty balls.
Liquor Appearance: Orthodox teas brew to a beautiful golden or reddish color. Dull and dark brown tea is what you get when brewing CTC teas.
Complexity & Nuance: Loose-leaf teas offer a range of delicate and complex flavors, including floral notes, hints of fruit, and even spice undertones. Each sip is a journey in itself. If we compare this to a musical experience, loose-leaf tea would be a live orchestra's rendition of your favorite symphony, while tea bag tea might feel like a smartphone's ringtone version of the same piece. Both give you the melody, but one offers a richer, more complex performance.
- Strength & Boldness: CTC teas, often found in tea bags, are designed to give a strong brew quickly. While they offer robust flavors, the nuances are often lost, leading to a more one-dimensional cup.
- The Agony of the Leaves: According to tea expert Kevin Gascoyne, “the ‘agony of the leaf’ refers to when a tea leaf unfurls in hot water and releases its components into the liquor. The leaf is ‘agonizing’ over giving up the precious cargo of aroma and flavor that it had held with dedication from the time it was created. Observing this agony is very important to the Chinese tea lover. By observing the leaves’ agony, the experienced tea drinker is able to tell that the leaf was properly and caringly folded, flattened, rolled or twisted, another way to read the tea leaves.” As there are only miniscule pieces of tea in CTC tea, there is no “agony” of the leaves.
The Personal Connection: Meet Your Match
With their rich and varied flavor profiles, loose-leaf teas allow you to customize your tea experience. You control the steeping time, the tea-to-water ratio, and the water temperature. It's an invitation to be a part of the tea-making process, embracing the art and science behind each brew. On the other hand, tea bags, while convenient, restrict this customization due to their pre-measured portions and often lower-quality leaves.
The Inconvenience of Loose-Leaf Tea: Just an Illusion
People who opt for tea bags usually say they like the convenience. They do not realize that properly brewing loose-leaf tea is not difficult but does take some knowledge. See this Blog Post for an in-depth discussion of brewing different types of tea.
All that is required to brew loose-leaf tea is a vessel in which you put the tea leaves and the water. This can be done directly in your pot and that is the most traditional way of brewing. It also allows the maximal “agony” of the tea leaves. There are a couple of downsides. First, you must strain the tea leaves out of the liquid. Second, if you are brewing more than one cup, the tea leaves will remain in the water and continue to brew. This leads to over-brewing and a bitter cup.
For those reasons, we offer several different infusers. It is as simple as placing the tea leaves in the infuser, placing the infuser into a cup or pot, pouring over the water and then removing the infuser at the end of the brewing time. Many infusers also come with a lid that can be placed on the top as the tea is infusing and then used as a coaster when the infuser is removed. You can purchase just the infuser, which can be used in different sizes of cups and pots. We also offer many styles of pots and mugs that come with their own infusers as well as French presses.
Finally, we offer different styles of empty tea bags. You put the appropriate amount of tea leaves in the bag, brew and toss – just as simple as that supermarket tea bag but much more flavorful and enjoyable.
We would love to show you how to elevate your tea drinking by purchasing quality loose-leaf tea and a brewing device that fits your lifestyle. Please stop in and ask us to show you what we have.
The Community of Tea: An Invitation to Explore
At its core, tea is not just about flavors and aromas; it's about community, culture, and connection. Loose-leaf tea opens up a universe of possibilities. By choosing loose-leaf, you're not just opting for better flavor; you're joining a global community of enthusiasts who share a deep love and respect for this beautiful beverage. You're aligning yourself with traditions that span continents and centuries. Each cup of loose-leaf tea invites you to explore a new world—a chance to experiment and discover something uniquely suited to your taste preferences.
So, why is loose-leaf tea considered superior by many? It offers a more nuanced flavor profile, the chance for personalization, and a deeper connection to the community and culture of tea. It's not just about sipping tea; it's about immersing yourself in a world that beckons with the promise of discovery and joy, one cup at a time.
We invite you to journey through the rich tapestry of loose-leaf teas. Whether you’re a seasoned connoisseur looking to delve into rare, single-estate varieties or a newcomer eager to explore, there’s a perfect cup waiting just for you. Cheers to your tea journey!