Like any kid who grew up in the south, sweet iced tea is a standard drink in our house. In fact, when I was younger, we had a huge multi-gallon spouted container in the fridge so we didn’t have to make it every day! We had sun tea and brewed tea and my mom drank hot tea. As true tea lovers, tea was a regular beverage in our house year round. I continued the tradition of brewing tea at my own house. Like the generations before me, I used traditional tea bags. While I knew friends who enjoyed using loose-leaf tea, I never really considered anything else. Then I heard a podcast by Michelle Visser on the Simple Doesn’t Mean Easy podcast, all about things you should know about tea. This was the beginning of my journey: loose leaf tea VS tea bags.
History of Tea
Tea in its earliest form was first brewed in China by accident. According to the legend, in 2737 BC Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting with his servant under a Camellia sinensis tree when leaves from the tree fell into their boiling water. The Emperor decided to try the brew and whole leaf tea was born.
Tea bags are more of a modern invention. First patented in 1901 by Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The goal of their convenient tea infuser was simply to enjoy drinking their tea without loose tea leaves floating in it.
Grades of Tea
While tea has a very complex grading system, there are four main grades of black tea: whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings, and dust.
- Whole leaf tea is whole leaves of tea left in their natural form. The advantage of unbroken leaves is the leaves don’t dry out by having cut sides exposed to air. This allows the tea leaves to maintain the highest flavor profile and aroma.
- Broken leaf tea is exactly what it sounds like. Tea leaves are broken into pieces during tea production, usually by machines. Broken leaf teas have more surface area and produce a more intense flavor and darker tea. They also brew more quickly than whole leaf teas. Broken leaf tea is often used in tea bags.
- Fannings are the pieces of broken tea that is left over after whole leaf tea and broken tea are sorted. Fannings are generally used in tea bags. Since fanning have multiple exposed sides they will degrade most quickly, as the essential oils easily evaporate.
- Dust is the finest grade of tea and essentially is the waste after all other tea grades are used in the production process. Its only use is in tea bags in mass production. Tea dust is generally of lower quality but still can provide a flavorful tea, however, not as rich as other forms of teas.
Types of Tea
As I dive deeper into the different types of teas, did you know that all teas come from the very same plant? They do! Black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong tea all come from the camellia sinensis plant. The main difference between the different types of tea is how they are processed and level of oxidization.
- Black tea is fully oxidized. Oxidization happens when the cell walls in the leaves of the plant are broken and exposed to oxygen. The leaf will brown and oxidization will continue until it is cooked. Black tea has a rich flavor and contains the highest caffeine levels of all types of tea.
- Green tea is made by brewing green leaves. These leaves are lightly oxidized. Green tea is typically sundried. Green tea has a grassy flavor.
- White Tea is made with the youngest tea leaves and buds. It is lightly oxidized and minimally processed. It is dried using a process called withering, which is a sun-drying technique. White tea has a delicate flavor.
- Oolong tea is partially oxidized. The oxidation level of oolong teas varies and results in varied flavors. Oolong tea is traditionally rolled or twisted. The tea master influences the flavors through the drying and rolling process. The science nerd in me, finds oolong tea a fascinating process!
Differences Between Loose Leaf Tea VS Tea Bags
Now that you know a little bit about tea in general, what’s the main difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags? If you are like me, you have been using tea bags for years (or decades) and had no idea that it mattered at all.
Most dedicated tea drinkers would tell you that it comes down to quality. Mostly because tea bags are typically filled with fannings and dust, the most processed forms of tea leaves that are left after the whole leaf tea and broken leaf teas are processed.
Another factor is that regular tea bags are limited in their ability to expand. For tea to properly steep, the tea leaves will rehydrate and expand to their full size. Once they do that, the flavors and nutrients found in the tea leaves will be diffused into the cup of water. Tea bags don’t allow the tea leaves room to expand. Many higher quality teas are not even sold in tea bags, because the bags would limit the quality of the tea.
Some specialty stores sell tea in pyramid bags, also known as tea sachets. These are better options for premium teas to produce the full flavor of the tea. The pyramid bags are larger to allow the tea space to expand and have a finer mesh.
Regardless, you can still enjoy a delicious cup of tea even from standard tea bags. Especially for people on the go, tea bags are the easiest way to produce a quick cup of tea anywhere.
Loose Leaf Tea
Loose leaf tea is generally considered a higher-quality tea. Many loose leaf teas are whole leaf teas while some will be a combination of whole leaf and broken tea leaves. Many quality tea suppliers will provide you with the grade of the tea you are purchasing.
Loose leaf tea is less processed than tea bags. The better-quality leaves will provide a stronger flavor when properly brewed. However, the downside is you will need the proper equipment to brew your tea. One of the easiest ways to brew your tea is in a tea infuser. It’s a metal cage or basket that you put the tea in to add to your cup of water. You could also use a French press to make tea. It’s a mini pot that allows the full leaf tea to float loose in the water. There the tea leaves have plenty of room to fully expand to release their full flavor and aroma. When the tea is done steeping, you use the plungers to push the tea leaves to the bottom and pour off the tea.
With loose leaf tea, you control the strength of your tea. You choose how much, or how little tea you add to your tea ball to produce the best flavor. You can choose to reuse your whole leaf tea for more than one steeping, though I choose to use it just once.
While herbal teas can be sold in tea bags, the highest quality herbal teas are sold as loose leaf teas. Dried flowers, herbs, and spices can all be added to an herbal blend to create the highest quality tea that has unique flavors and health benefits
Why Did I Switch?
After I listened to the podcast that Michelle Visser from Souly Rested did with Marlana Snyder from the Positively Tea Company I learned so much about tea bags. One of the biggest things I learned was that tea bags are bleached. While I use bleach, I don’t like the idea of it in my iced tea. Worse, some tea bags are made from plastic and leach plastic chemicals into the tea.
I was drawn to the more economic side of buying tea in bulk. I buy my tea in one-pound packages that allow me the best price. Plus I always shop on sale, so I typically get the absolute best price possible.
Using loose leaf tea also produces less waste. I compost my tea leaves and while I can compost the tea bags, I felt the need to remove the bag itself. It was a messy process. The biggest difference in the environmental impact of using bulk tea is seen in the packaging. Teabags come in a box, typically that is wrapped in plastic. Plus many tea bags come in individually wrapped bags inside of the box. When buying tea in bulk, I have a single package for an entire pound of tea.
What I Buy?
I make iced tea with loose leaf tea. I make a blend of Assam tea, Nilgiri Tea and Stevia. The Positivity Tea Company tells me exactly what I am buying.
- TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): A FOP tea that has a larger proportion of golden tips than GFOP.
- GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): This refers to FOP tea where the tips have a golden color due to being picked earlier in the tea growing season.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe): Flowery Orange Pekoe tea is made from the end bud and first leaf of each shoot. Flowery Orange Pekoe tea contains fine, tender young leaves with buds also referred to as tips.
The Nilgiri black tea I purchase is technically Nilgiri FBOP. Again, the English Tea Company helps me decipher this term. The “B” in FBOP tells me that this is a broken tea. It’s still an FOP as described above, but it’s not a whole leaf tea, it’s a broken tea.
Finally, I add Stevia Herbal Sweetener to my iced tea blend. Stevia is a natural sweetener. It’s said to be 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. While I don’t care for my sweet iced tea to be 100% sweetened with Stevia, it allows me to use less sugar, half as much in fact. I love saving calories from sugar, especially in a beverage!
Make It At Home
This makes a loose leaf iced tea blend in a bulk jar. When you need to make tea scoop out the needed amount.
- THIS MAKES A QUART OF LOOSE LEAF TEA BLEND, USE AS NEEDED
- 1 1/2 cups Assam TBFOP Loose Leaf Tea
- 1 1/2 cups Nilgiri FBOP Loose Leaf Tea
- 3/4 cup Stevia Herbal Sweetener
- ICED TEA BLEND MIXED IN BULK
- I make my Iced Tea Blend in batches and store in a amber canning jar. This makes enough to fill a Quart jar. Use as needed to make ice tea.
- Add 1 1/2 cups Assam loose leaf tea
- Add 1 1/2 cups Nilgiri loose leaf tea
- Add 3/4 cup Stevia Herbal Sweetener
- I layer this in the bowl to make mixing easier. Mix well to ensure the tea is completely blended.
- Store iced tea blend in an amber jar in a dark cabinet.
- MAKE ICED TEA CONCENTRATE
- Heat a pot of water to just under boiling.
- Measure your desired amount of iced tea blend into a tea ball. I use 4 tablespoons of my custom iced tea loose leaf blend.
- Once water is hot, turn off heat and add tea ball to water.
- Cover and let cool completely.
- Once cool, remove tea ball.
- Strain iced tea concentrate to remove any loose tea leaves.
- Pour into a gallon pitcher.
- Add your desired amount of sugar. I use a heaping 1/2 a cup for an entire gallon. Remember this includes Stevia, a natural sweetener, you can use less sugar than normal.
- Mix well and add enough water to fill the gallon pitcher.
- Chill and enjoy!
If you don't want to make a loose leaf iced tea blend in bulk, you can mix this one gallon at a time.
1 1/2 tablespoon of Assam
1 1/2 tablespoon Nilgiri
1/2 tablespoon Stevia
To make a Half Gallon of Iced Tea Blend
Can We Grow Tea?
We actually can! Philip has talked about this on several occasions. The homestead at Kowalski Mountain is not in the best garden zone, but it could be greenhouse raised. Since we hope to build a geothermal greenhouse, it might be a real possibility for us! The tea plant, like most fruit trees, takes a long time to mature to get a decent harvest. It’s certainly a possibility we could explore.
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Positively Tea Company (not an affiliate)
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.