Loose Leaf Tea vs Bags - Which Is Best?
At Zest, we offer our high-caffeine energy teas as either convenient tea bags or loose leaf tea. But is there really a difference? Is the whole leaf tea different when bagged compared to loose tea? This article will explore it all.
Whether you're a tea lover or just beginning to get into drinking energy tea, knowing the main differences between loose leaf teas and bagged tea is important. Discover what they entail and the pros/cons of each below.
Types and Formats of Tea
Loose leaf tea and tea bags are the most common formats of tea. If you're looking to explore the many different types of tea, then try our article Types of Tea - A to Zest Guide. Black tea and green tea are the most well-known and there is an endless list of herbal teas to explore too. Different teas also require different brewing techniques, timings and temperatures. Explore all our guides on the Zest Tea Blog to learn more.
If you are looking to taste the rarest and most unusual varieties of tea, look for loose leaf formats. If you want a reliable and simple (yet still delicious) cup of black tea or green tea, then opt for tea bags instead.
Tea bags are just that - porous bags full of tea. The tea bag was invented in 1903 and successfully marketed by 1908 by an American tea and coffee importer. The original tea bags were made of silk, but most tea bags today are made of paper, plastic, or biodegradable alternatives (like corn starch).
Types of Tea Bags
Besides the material, tea bags also vary in shape. At Zest, we prefer large pyramid shaped tea bags, as they allow the full leaf tea to expand freely. This gives the tea space to infuse, so the flavor is more akin to brewing loose leaf tea (but more convenient).
Other tea bags are flat, either circular or square. These are more likely to be paper tea bags and full of lower quality leaf that doesn't need space to infuse.
Tea bags are often full of broken tea leaves and even tea dust, rather than full leaf teas. This enables regular tea bags to infuse much quicker than loose leaf teas. It also provides a bolder flavor, without the complexities and depth of loose leaf tea. This is because having many small pieces of tea leaf increases the overall surface area that's exposed to the water, enabling it to brew fast and bold.
Compared to loose tea leaves, bagged tea is typically low quality. In some very cheap brands, tea dust and fannings (the tiny flecks of tea left behind after harvesting a high-quality loose leaf tea) are used.
The tea bags that the leaf is packaged into shouldn't impact the flavor profile of the tea at all. Let's use a Zest Tea flavor as an example.
Our Blue Lady blend is available in pyramid bags and loose leaf. We use exactly the same ingredients and leaf quality, in exactly the same ratio, for our tea bags and loose leaf tea. So, Blue Lady tea bags taste identical to Blue Lady loose leaf tea.
That's not always the case with other tea brands, however. A whole leaf oolong tea is most likely going to taste better than oolong tea dust in a tea bag.
Tea bags are cheap! The main lure to this type of tea format is the convenience and the price. Due to the lower quality tea, drinking tea bags is by the far the cheapest way to consume tea at home.
You can only use each tea bag once, so the price is easy to calculate before you purchase the tea.
- Very affordable,
- Brews really quickly,
- Stronger flavor,
- Pre-portioned tea is very convenient.
- Lower quality tea in general,
- Tea dust/fannings loses flavor complexity,
- More packaging waste and a higher environmental cost,
- Can't micro-adjust the amount of tea you brew,
- Limited tea types available - if you want specialty teas like pu-erh or rare oolongs, you'll find these more readily available as loose leaf teas.
Compared to bagged teas, loose leaf tea is both simpler and more complex! It's simpler in the sense that there's no extra packaging. Buying a bag of loose leaf tea results in just that - a bag of loose tea leaves. It's more complex in the sense that loose leaf tea requires more effort to produce a cup.
Types of Loose Leaf Tea
Loose leaf tea tends to be higher quality than bagged teas. You can find loose leaf tea made from broken tea leaves and completely unbroken leaves. It's rare to find fannings and dust sold as whole leaf.
Loose leaf tea is actually easy to find. You can often find it in most grocery stores and in marketplaces online. You'll only need to head to specialty stores and tea merchants if you're looking for rare and unusual tea types.
While the majority of tea bags contain low quality tea, loose leaf tea tends to be higher quality. Premium teas are graded based on the size of the leaves. Grades for whole leaf tea range from OP (Orange Pekoe) through to SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe). Adding a 'B' to these grades indicates that the leaf is broken.
The highest quality tea is not mass produced, but lower grades from OP to FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) are readily available.
Tea lovers often claim that loose leaf tea tastes better in comparison to tea bags. But it's hard to scientifically measure such a subjective statement. There's no reason why a hot cup of tea made from tea bags won't taste amazing!
Many people enjoy drinking tea made from loose leaf tea because it gives you more flexibility. Add a teaspoon more of tea leaf, or fish through the bag to pull out different ingredients. You could even add your own herbal ingredients to a loose leaf black tea for added health benefits, for example.
The smaller combined surface area of the tea leaf in loose leaf tea means that often a longer steep is required. This allows more complexity to develop in the flavor profile too.
Calculating the cost of loose leaf tea isn't as simple as tea bags. Unlike tea bags, loose leaf tea can sometimes be rebrewed multiple times. A tea bag is spent after you've made a single cup, but some high quality loose leaf teas can be used to make several cups before the leaves are spent.
This is not always the case, however. At Zest Tea, we calculate the caffeine levels (up to 150mg per serving) based on the first steep of our tea leaves. Re-steeping them won't necessarily give you that energy boost the second time around!
- Higher quality loose leaf tea available,
- More complex flavor profile,
- A wider variety of tea types and rare finds,
- Potential to reduce cost per cup by re-steeping leaves,
- More flexibility with how you brew and water to leaf ratios.
- Can seem daunting if you've not prepared it before,
- Higher initial cost due to higher quality grades,
- Requires a tea infuser, like our Paris Tea Cup Infuser.
Zest Tea Bags vs Loose Leaf Teas
At Zest, all our blends are available as both pyramid shaped tea bags or loose leaf tea. During tea production, we use the exact same tea leaf grade and ingredients (whole pieces and natural flavors) in both bagged and loose versions.
So, you don't need to wonder is loose leaf tea healthier or whether you'll get the same health benefits from tea brewed from bags. With Zest, you can choose whichever format you're most comfortable with and still get the great high-caffeine energy boost you are looking for.
Another Option: Ready-to-Drink Tea
To take convenient tea brewing to the next level, we also have a range of ready-to-drink teas. Unlike most energy drinks, these are sugar-free (or contain very low amounts of sugar) and rely on natural tea extract to give your day a boost.
Discover 6 unique iced tea flavors, ready to go with no brewing necessary.
How to Brew Tea
Whether you have the highest quality tea available or just some broken leaves in a grocery store teabag, you can brew a flavorful cup in minutes. Don't be put off by loose leaves and interesting tea types!
Read our article How to Make Tea Like a Pro, which will help you master the art of brewing tea even if you've never brewed a cup before. It includes easy to follow instructions for tea bags and loose leaf, to help you make a perfect cup of hot or iced tea.
Is loose leaf tea better than bagged?
In terms of quality and cost, loose leaf tea is often better than bagged tea. There's also a much wider range of tea types and varieties available as loose leaf. However, if you want convenience and a quick cup of tea that tastes great, traditional tea bags are the way to go.
Are tea bags as healthy as loose tea?
The tea in teabags is just as healthy as the tea leaves in a bag of loose leaf, if you compare exactly the same tea type from the same cultivar. The teabag itself doesn't add any nutrition, but if it is made of plastic, it could be considered unhealthy.
If you are interested in getting the most nutrition from your tea as possible, using very hot water and a long brew time will draw out as much as possible from the tea leaves... at the cost of the flavor!
Why does loose leaf tea taste better than tea bags?
There could be several reasons for this. The first may simply be that the loose leaf is a higher quality than the tea bags. There's also the anticipation - portioning out loose leaf and brewing it at the right water temperature with an infuser is a slower process than just dropping a tea bag in a mug. And finally, the timing. With tea bags, it's easy to just "wing it" but with loose leaf, you purposefully measure out the tea leaves and time how long they brew for - this precision results in a well-made cup of tea.
Are tea leaves more expensive than tea bags?
High quality teas are more expensive than low quality teas. As many tea bags are full of dust and fannings, they'll be cheaper than whole leaf, high-quality loose alternatives. However, if you compare the cost per cup, loose leaf is often cheaper as the tea leaves can be re-steeped multiple times before the leaves are spent.
What is loose leaf tea?
Loose leaf tea refers to dried tea leaves that are unpackaged. Unlike a standard tea bag, loose teas are not individually portioned and you need to use a tea infuser to brew them. There's no real difference between the tea leaves used for loose leaf and tea bags, besides quality.
Are tea leaves better for the environment?
Tea leaves, whether they are loose or bagged, are natural and will biodegrade. You can even compost the spent leaves at home. Many tea bags are also biodegradable, like paper or cornstarch, while others are plastic and therefore bad for the environment. If you want to minimize your impact on the environment, choose non-GMO or organic loose tea leaves that are grown sustainably and have minimal packaging.