Are You Tasting the Tea or the Teabag?

Tea bags are widely popular in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere. One day, I was taking out some tea bags to steep a potful and gave the bags a sniff. They smelled kinda like dried hay, with the usual black tea fragrance following weakly. At that moment, I wondered if the flavor of that stuff in my teacup could be partially the bag, not the tea. A tea taste test was definitely in order here.

But first, some basics about tea bags. Most of them contain tea leaves that have been rolled in a machine to crush them and then sifted so that all that remains are pieces so small they’re called “dust.” Some companies such as Harney & Sons are changing that trend by using sachets and filling them with larger pieces.

Basic tea bag shapes:

Common tea bag materials:

  • Hemp (from the Abacá plant)
  • Paper (usually oxygen bleached)
  • Polyester (often mistaken for the hemp or paper)
  • Nylon (food-grade and silky feeling)
  • Starch (an innovation at least 5 years old, replacing nylon)
  • Silk (a natural fiber but not good for tiny pieces)
  • Muslin (a loosely-woven cotton cloth)

Some have strings that are attached with a tiny staple at one end to the bag and a tag attached to the other end.

Reasons to use tea bags:

  • Convenience
  • Uh… well… there’s… um, I can’t think of anything else!

Some concerns about typical tea bags:

  • Composting — Nylon and polyester break down too slowly to be composted. Hemp and starch are better. Remove staples holding the string onto the bag.
  • Lower grade tea — Bags are usually filled by machine, which is easier with dust-sized pieces. Some tea dealers get rid of their not-so-hot tea leaves this way. A good reason to buy from companies like Devonshire Tea, Barry’s, PG Tips, and Typhoo that have a bit more control over the source of their teas and assure higher quality.
  • Health — Some paper teabags contain a minute trace of epichlorohydrin which forms the cancer-causing chemical 3-MCPD when put in water. The amount is so minor, though, that you would have to steep up about 50 or so bags at a time and drink all the tea at once. The call has gone out anyway for companies to change the type of paper they use.

As for taste, the best options, if you really have to use a tea bag, are nylon, polyester, and silk. The paper and hemp add their flavor to the tea (according to several sites I found), and the starch bags are usually filled with full leaf teas, so why bother with a bag? Steep loose and get the best taste. The tricky thing here is that tea vendors usually don’t say what their bags are made of.

Now for the taste test:

We used Barry’s Gold Blend Tea and steeped two 16-ounce potfuls. For pot #1, we cut the bags open, and dumped their contents into the pot. The contents consisted of black tea dust. For pot #2, we used the bags as is.

From there, the steeping was pretty normal. We just had to remember for pot #1 to pour the tea through a strainer, keeping the tea dust in the pot and out of our teacups. We had to use the strainer with the finest mesh to catch those tiny pieces. Then came the taste test. To make sure it was objective, I turned away as hubby switched the cups around so I wouldn’t know which was which. All I heard was “slide-slide-slide-slide-slide” (not sure how many times, actually). Don’t worry. We marked the bottom of the cups with “#1” and “#2.”

First, a sip from one cup. Definitely paper taste, or was there? Hm…

Then, a sip from the other cup. Ahhh…much cleaner taste and definitely no paper taste.

To be sure, I sipped both back and forth. Then, hubby revealed which was which. There was most definitely a paper taste to pot #2 where we had left the tea dust in the bags. Even adding our usual amount of milk and sweetener did not take the taste away.

So, what to do? Barry’s is a good tea but is only available in bags, as is Devonshire Tea and lots of others. My suggestion: just buy it in bags and do what we did for our taste test — cut open the bags and steep the dust loose. Just be sure to use a fine mesh strainer. And beware of those tea dregs!

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16 thoughts on “Are You Tasting the Tea or the Teabag?

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    1. A.C. Cargill

      We certainly appreciate that you liked the article but would like you to remove the images, which are under our copyright. Thanks very much. 🙂

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  9. Thai Tea is Tastey

    Buying loose leaves isn’t always an option. It was a hassle to look for star anise to make Thai Tea, and then they’re only on an out-of-the-way asian grocery store. Most of the time, I have to settle with Thai Tea bags, so cutting the bags open and steeping them that way is better.

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  13. Not silly at all, when the teas in those bags are as tasty as these are. As for landfills, many of these bags are compostable, in fact, some companies make a big deal out of that. Life is full of personal choices. You have yours. I have mine. Enjoy!

  14. Stu

    to quote: “My suggestion: just buy it in bags and do what we did for our taste test — cut open the bags and steep the dust loose.”

    Really? Why not just buy a different brand of quality tea that is available loose leaf? Opening the bags sounds like extra work, extra trash for the landfill, and well… kinda silly.

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