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What are the practical differences between using bagged vs. loose leaf tea?

Are there differences in quality, caffeine content, etc.? Why?

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You're welcome to answer your own question here but please do not do so inside the question. –  Aaronut Feb 20 '11 at 16:55
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7 Answers

The differences in quality between teas is usually down to the manufacturer and the product line. As far as I can tell, there is no discernible difference between Twining's English Breakfast tea (for instance) in bags or loose leaf. They are the same leaves, presented differently.

However, and this is the important part, there is a difference in how they infuse. Because of the limitations of the tea bag, and the flow of the water through the leaves, a loose-leaf tea is usually infused more quickly, and possibly better. That is, you get more essence of tea from the leaves into the water. There are different bag designs (pyramid bags for example) which try to bridge some of this gap.

The advantage of the tea bags is that they are easier to work with, as you don't need to strain the leaves out of the water, you can just pick the bag up with your spoon.

There is a lovely essay by George Orwell about making "proper" tea. Some of it is a matter of taste, but his point about the infusion is spot on, in my opinion.

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in my experience with other brands, the tea they sell loose is often less finely cut/ground than that used in bags. The content of many bags is almost powder, loose are often larger chunks. –  jwenting Apr 21 '11 at 13:14
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If you use a brewing basket, you don't need to filter out the loose tea. E.g., amazon.com/Finum-Brewing-Large-Basket-Black/dp/B000J3JFJU –  derobert Jun 2 '11 at 18:16
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With green tea, I find that the green tea in bags tends to develop a very bitter note (which I don't like) much more quickly than loose leaf tea does, and I speculate that this is because the bags contain much smaller pieces of leaf - even down to powder. This leads to a higher surface area to volume ratio, and thus much faster infusing in the bag. Because of this, I find myself unable to infuse bags of green tea properly, and if I really want to enjoy it I should use leaf tea where I can get the flavour without the overwhelming bitterness.

Tea bags are a useful convenience, but if you want really really good tea, use good leaf tea and do it properly.

(Of course some good tea is supposed to be a powder - Japanese matcha springs to mind - but that's not the normal way of things).

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Steeping your green tea at a slightly lower temperature may help (e.g., try 160°F). –  derobert Feb 24 '11 at 7:06
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If you look at the higher quality Chinese and Japanese teas you will not (rarely) find them in bags.

For those teas it's important to have nice full leaves that have space to infuse properly, if the leaves are too packed the tasting experience will not be the same.

So yes, higher quality leaves will more probably be sold as loose leaves, but that doesn't mean that all loose leaves are of higher quality.

If you are talking about Lipton, Twinnings and other big brands, well then it's probably the same leaves in a different packaging. If you are talking about for example Longjing then it's loose leaves you want. For Puerh teas you would go for a tea cake

On wikipedia tea page there is a good section about tea bags which I quote:

The use of tea bags is easy and convenient, making tea bags popular for many people today. However, the tea used in tea bags has an industry name—it is called fannings or "dust" and is the waste product produced from the sorting of higher quality loose leaf tea, although this certainly is not true for all brands of tea, especially in the case of many specialty, high quality teas now available in bag form.[citation needed]

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Tea bags often contains a tea that is the result of the Crush, Tear, Crush manufacturing process. As the name implies, the leaves are not handled very delicately. –  Manur May 31 '11 at 16:23
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When I visited the Boh tea plantations in Malaysia, we were shown the various processes. There, they told us that during separation just before packaging, the full leafs are sorted to be sold as 'loose leaf' tea. Those that get broken during the process get made into so called 'lower' quality tea like bags and powders.

Not sure if it was a marketing ploy or if it's really true, but they claimed that loose leaf was of better quality than bags.

And most really good quality tea you get is loose leaf as well.. So I am inclined to say that..

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my experience with bags vs. loose tea from other brands hints in the same direction. Baggies tend to have smaller particles than does loose tea. –  jwenting Apr 21 '11 at 13:15
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I drink a lot of coffee and tea, and while I can drink just about any kind of coffee, I can only truly enjoy full-leaf tea. My wife can't tell the difference, so it is possible that I am imagining the better quality of it (or that I have better taste buds!), but just from my experience it is better, hands-down.

However, it is definately better in that the full leaves do not leave as much "residue" in your tea at the bottom of the cup. Crumbled tea leaves can sometimes sometimes leave noticeable specs that settle in the bottom while brewing (especially lower-quality teas). While this does not affect the taste, it is certainly a disadvantage.

I hope this is helpful!

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Tea bags are just for convenience. I am an Indian and we normally add tea leaves in boiling water and sugar. My wife relishes green tea and she purchases Twinings and the tea in tea bags is powdered or in fact dust. I would avoid tea bags as much as I can, reason until and unless I brew the tea properly in boiling water I do not find the taste and aroma to the mark.

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For low or medium grade tea, do as you like.

For high quality tea, bags are borderline criminal. Since you're paying extra for a fine tea, let the loose leaves diffuse the maximum of their aromatic compounds into the water ! (Thus, tea ball infusers are a shame too.)

But really, try it : brew the same tea in a cellulose bag and at the same time free in a cup, and compare. Since you're making experiments, compare waters (tap, mineral and spring) and temperature. These are the three most important parameters.

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