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The only common way I can think of tea being sold is in teabags. However, there are several ways coffee is sold:

  • Instant
  • Ground
  • Beans

I'd say instant is the most common, at least in the UK. Why would I struggle to find tea grains not in a bag, similarly to finding coffee in a bag?

It just seems odd that we wouldn't make them in the same way. Any reason why?

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In the last few years, you can also buy coffee pads, this would be the equivalent of a coffee in a tea bag. But they only work with the machine they were made with, e.g. Senseo. –  rumtscho Apr 15 '12 at 8:46
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Tea is sold loose-leaf in every supermarket in the UK... groceries.asda.com/asda-estore/search/… sainsburys.co.uk/groceries/frameset/… tesco.com/groceries/product/search/… –  ElendilTheTall Apr 15 '12 at 15:13
    
It's quite hard to answer the question "Why would I struggle to find X?" without knowing where you live. It's not entirely clear from your question: are you in the UK? –  Peter Taylor Apr 16 '12 at 11:48
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I've bought coffee in paper infusion bags from time to time. As with tea it's not at good as a proper brew. –  dmckee Apr 16 '12 at 18:27
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I'm not sure what the question is: do you want to know why coffee doesn't come in bags like tea, or do you want to know why tea doesn't come in loose bags like coffee? (Of course, the answer to both questions is "but it does come that way"...) –  Marti May 17 '12 at 19:53
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7 Answers

The equivalent of coffee beans would be loose leaf teas.

This is the traditional way to enjoy tea, and is generally preferred by tea connoisseurs. Just like whole-bean coffee, loose leaf tea keep fresh longer than bagged tea, and generally has a richer flavor. Tea bags are generally prepared by the cut-tear-curl (CTC) process, which breaks up the leaves more than orthodox tea rolling, meaning they steep faster and more consistently. As a rule, bagged teas are generally made from lower-grade leaves, and CTC processing helps hide defects. They may even be made from fannings; these are basically the dust and broken pieces that settle to the bottom of a pile of tea leaves. Both of these mean that bagged teas can be prepared more quickly, but the flavor suffers.

The tea leaves are prepared by measuring them out into a ball or basket, which is immersed in hot water to steep. Once the tea is steeped, the basket is removed to prevent the tea from developing a bitter, over-steeped flavor. There are also a variety of other ways to prepare loose teas.

Despite the generally better flavor, loose leaf tea is not as popular as bagged tea in some parts of the world, because you have to measure out the tea and use a utensil to prepare it. Tea bags represent a greater convenience, which explains their success.

Below are three examples of loose leaf tea. The differences in color and shape of the leaves are the result of different processes used in preparing the teas after harvest.

Loose Sencha (a Japanese green tea)

Loose Sencha

Loose Keemun (a classic Chinese black tea)

Loose keemun black tea

Silver Needle (one of the finest Chinese white teas)

Silver Needle


Powdered Tea

Powdered tea is also available, although it is not as well known as bagged or loose tea. One of the best-known is matcha (shown below), a Japanese powdered green tea prepared by grinding up the whole tea leaf. It is generally prepared by whisking leaves and hot water together in a bowl until foamy, using a traditional bamboo whisk known as a chasen (pictured). The result is a powerfully flavored, heavier drink with a higher level of caffeine and antioxidants.

Matcha and whisk

Powdered black teas are also popular with Indians, and are used in preparing masala chai. Spices are boiled in milk, and then powdered black tea is prepared in water separately. There are a lot of variations on this procedure, but it seems to be the most popular approach for Indian customers.

Note: Since I now work for a tea company, I could write quite a bit on any of these parts but am trying to keep the answer brief. If you feel like more detail would be helpful, post a comment and I'll expand on the subject a bit more.

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Great answer! I think your wording may make it sounds like all CTC teas are of lower quality - and since you work for a tea company (which sounds like an amazing job, which one if you don't mind sharing?) you of course know that there are fine CTC (loose leaf) teas out there, e.g. some teas of Assam. –  Jeremy May 11 '12 at 18:27
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Thanks! I am aware that there are better grade CTC teas, and of course that some higher-end tea suppliers will use better leaves in their bags. Most though... don't. (Pprominent tea manufacturer known for use in iced-teas in the American southeast, I am glaring at you). In any case, I'll try to clarify the wording. –  BobMcGee May 16 '12 at 14:02
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In U.S. markets most tea is sold in bags, but you can find loose tea easily enough. There are a variety of 'tea balls' available to allow you to steep loose tea.

Norpro Stainless Steel Tea Ball

My understanding is that loose tea is still the most common way to get tea in the UK, though I admit that information may well be out dated, the bags may well have overtaken loose teas.

As for coffee, a company name Keurig introduced a system that uses a specialized coffee maker which requires a "pod" called a "K-Cup" to serve single servings of coffee. There are many varieties of machines, all of which (as far as I know) the Keurig company manufactures [edit: I have since learned that Keurig is now licensing 'their system' to companies like Mr. Coffee and Cuisinart who are branding these devises as powered by Keurig] , though they have licensed the manufacture of the "K-Cups" to a variety of companies to sell there own coffee. The "K-Cup" machine has become quite popular in the U.S. behind the strength of the various coffee makers who can now sell what was probable 2 cents worth of coffee in a "convenient" 25 cent container. Tea and hot chocolate are now both available in K-Cups. These K-Cups are vacuum sealed, this keeps the ground beans fresher/longer.

enter image description here

While similar techniques have been tried for both tea and coffee, ultimately the quality of the finished product has driven the comparative popularity (and therefore availability) of each delivery technique.

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As a side note, there are better alternatives to a tea ball - a brewing basket such as this one by Finum (goo.gl/diUjn) allows for better contact between the tea leaves and the water, and allows the leaves room to expand/unfurl as they steep. –  Jeremy May 11 '12 at 18:30
    
Keurig is certainly not the only company that makes pod-based coffee machines, and I'm not sure that they were actually the first to come up with the concept. Tassimo machines use wider, shallower pods with bar codes, and there's a third company whose name is escaping me at the moment. –  Marti May 17 '12 at 19:49
    
@Marti, I don't believe I claimed that Keurig was alone, or even first, in this market. I do believe at present they could be called the 'most successful' based on distribution of both their machines and adoption by other manufacturers for both the K-cups and K-cup compatible machines. The important point to discussing Keurig is that they exist and not their place in the market. –  Cos Callis May 17 '12 at 21:29
    
In that case, you might want to clarify your statement that "...Keurig introduced a system...", because I don't see any way to interpret it other than that they were the first. (That's what "introduced" means.) –  Marti May 17 '12 at 21:56
    
This year GM introduced 3 new car models. –  Cos Callis May 17 '12 at 22:27
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Loose tea is readily available in the UK but tea bags are far more common.

The problem with creating a 'coffee bag' is that the flavour of ground coffee deteriorates so quickly after the beans are ground - that's why it's best to keep ground coffee in the freezer as it keeps its flavour for longer.

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Keeping coffee beans in the freezer could expose them to codensation, and beans absorb moisture easily. Keeping ground coffee in any way does not make sense. The taste deteriorates so fast after grinding. –  homaxto Apr 15 '12 at 13:26
    
@homaxto: most people would buy and keep ground coffee. Not everyone has a grinder at home. –  nico Apr 15 '12 at 15:38
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Thanks to Starbucks, you can also now buy coffee in individual serving bags. However, it's taken until the 21st century and quite a bit of technology to create ground coffee in a small, porous bag which didn't taste rancid. Starbucks has a patent on the process.

So I guess your basic answer is taste: that is, dried black tea leaves in a convenient small mesh bag make a single convenient portion of tea and taste fairly good, since the early 20th century. On the other hand, ground coffee in a small mesh bag tasted terrible, so Satori Kato invented a different way to make single-serving quick-prepared coffee, namely brewing and then dehydrating it.

Instant tea never caught on (it does exist) because it's inferior to tea bags while adding nothing in convenience or economy.

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+1 for the precise answer, although thanking Starbucks makes me shiver :P –  nico Apr 15 '12 at 6:56
    
Please explain what's so different to selling ground coffee loose in a packet to selling it in bags? Why does the latter taste "rancid"? –  dplanet Apr 15 '12 at 15:25
    
@dplanet: Go ahead and try leaving some coffee grounds out for 6 weeks and then brew it. Let us know how it tastes. –  Aaronut Apr 15 '12 at 19:27
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@dplanet The flavor from coffee beans are in oils which can spoil with exposure to the open air (rather like other fats). The coffee berry protects the beans in nature. Once processed the bean or the grounds are stored (most commonly) in vacuum sealed bags or cans. Once opened they begin to loose there potency immediately, though they may still be "good" for a while (or good enough, depending on your personal standards for coffee). Resealing the container and keeping it in a freezer can prolong shelf life but it is 'best' to expose as little of the beans/grounds as you need at a time. –  Cos Callis Apr 15 '12 at 23:42
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Loose tea is also quite commonly sold here in France. Aside from the infusors Cos Callis showed you can also buy empty bags that you can fill with your tea of choice.

I have seen freeze dried tea before, but probably it's not so common.

Note that the teabags you buy often contain the "rests" of tea that they don't sell loose (broken leaves, fine powder etc) which makes it much less flavourful than loose tea.

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If teabags are the most sold form, I don't think the production of loose tea creates nearly enough to supply the market. I would say it is a hoax. –  homaxto Apr 15 '12 at 13:33
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@homaxto: I do not understand your comment, how would it be a hoax? You do realize that bagged tea is made with tea leaves, right? –  nico Apr 15 '12 at 14:25
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There is "Matcha" which is a type of powdered green tea from Japan. Chai tea mixes also tend to come as powder much of the time. You can also buy a tea brick and grind it up in a food processor or similar.

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Loose tea leaves are quite common, in Asia and among the connoisseurs, but there is no tea equivalent to the unground bean, really.

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There is also Pu-erh tea which is like a fermented brick of tea leaves. –  Jacob G Apr 15 '12 at 2:52
    
Well, there is no coffee in leaves either, the comparison does not make much sense... you use leaves from tea plants and beans from the coffee plant, that's all. So loose leaves are the equivalent (so to say) of coffee beans. –  nico Apr 15 '12 at 6:55
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