The Great Tea Bag vs. Loose Tea Controversy

Unless I’m forgetting something, I think it’s fairly safe to say that there aren’t that many terribly contentious issues having to do with tea. There’s that business about whether to put the milk in first and some minor disagreement about how to evaluate the caffeine content and there may be something else that’s slipped my mind right now.

Then there’s the whole issue of tea bags vs. loose tea. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is a major issue and I’ve probably overstated things by calling it a “great” controversy, but it may be the closest thing we’ve got.

There are those who say that nothing good can ever come from a tea bag while there are those (the majority of tea drinkers, actually) who are perfectly happy with them. Nowadays this equation has been complicated somewhat with the advent of a better quality of tea bag that often contains a better quality of tea.

In the course of discussing this article, my Esteemed Editor revealed that she always cuts open tea bags and dumps the loose tea into the pot prior to steeping (case in point: her tryout of green tea from PG Tips shown in the photo here). I have to admit that I do the same thing whenever I run across a tea that looks like it’s worth a taste but which has been constrained by a tea bag. Yes, even when it’s one of those fancy shmancy gourmet tea bags that are designed to give the tea leaves a little more room to “breathe.”

Trying green tea from PG Tips involved first removing it from the confines of the teabag. (photo by A.C. Cargill, used with permission)
Trying green tea from PG Tips involved first removing it from the confines of the teabag. (photo by A.C. Cargill, used with permission)

Which is one of the main drawbacks to tea bags – or so say those of us who shun them – this notion that they limit the ability of the water to circulate among the tea leaves and extract the maximum amount of flavor. The other drawback, albeit one that’s less of a concern with premium tea bags, is the quality of the tea itself. Tea bags have long had the reputation of being the repository for the scrapings from the bottom of the tea barrel and it’s a reputation that well-deserved in many cases.

But as much as us loose tea fans sings its praises and as much as the specialty tea industry raises awareness of its benefits, it’s not likely that we’ll ever be much more than a vocal minority. To support my argument I’ll take the case of the United Kingdom as an example.

According to an article I read recently about tea bags in the United Kingdom, these little innovations weren’t so quick to catch on among the avid tea swillers there. By the mid-Sixties only about ten percent of all British tea drinkers were using them. But over the course of the next few decades this changed dramatically and now loose tea drinkers are a very small minority. The Brits are said to go through about 55 billion tea bags in the course of a year and only about four percent of tea drinkers use the loose stuff.

It would be nice to think that us loose tea lovers can somehow sway the majority of tea drinkers. But it’s unlikely that the hands of time will suddenly start to run backward and it’s also quite likely that tea bag fans are always going to be in the majority.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Tea Bag vs. Loose Tea Controversy

  1. Pingback: Tea Themes on Our Blog | Tea Blog

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