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Loose Leaf vs. Bagged Tea

loose or bagged - lesson 104


So...loose leaf tea or bagged tea - what's the difference? Simply put, it's the experience you get from the tea. The condition of the tea leaves and the different packaging methods influence the flavors and health benefits that can be enjoyed from each cup. It's good to know what you're buying and where to invest to get exactly what you're looking for your tea adventures. Here's the lowdown:  


After leaves are harvested, they're sorted into full or whole leaf, broken leaf, and fannings. Next they're graded, processed, and packaged as loose leaf, or into sachets or tea bags. The purpose of sorting and grading is to make sure the leaf size is uniform, and to prevent smaller tea pieces from meddling with the flavor of full leaf tea.  Generally speaking, the fuller the leaf, the pricier the tea - but this doesn't always mean that smaller, broken leaf teas are of poorer quality. It's just important to note that a tea’s taste, body, and steeping time will vary depending upon the leaf's grade. Read more about leaf grades here.


As we mentioned in other blog posts - the climate, location, season of harvest, and processing methods used each contribute to a tea’s quality and final characteristics. Grade and quality are also defined differently across culture and for different types of tea - there isn't a universal grading system to determine quality or desirability. To give a couple examples, breakfast teas like English Breakfast are usually made with smaller broken leaves to create a full-bodied, seize-the-day type of cuppa. On the other side of the world, high mountain Taiwanese oolongs more often have tightly-rolled full leaves that release smooth, fragrant flavors as the leaves unfurl slowly in water. Pretty cool, huh?


While whole leaf tea provides a wider range of complex and nuanced flavor profiles, as well as usually more nutritional value, it doesn't mean it's the superior leaf type. The tea enthusiasts out there may tell you all about how the first flush, or first harvest whole leaf teas offer the highest nutritional content and the best flavor, but we're just here to lay out the facts.

Although loose leaf tea tends to be more expensive, there are some advantages in addition to flavor - like less waste (heck yea!) and multiple steeps. Some tea types like rolled oolongs or jasmine pearls (that expand a little more with each infusion) can even be steeped seven or eight times. That way, you can enjoy the same serving of tea leaves throughout the day, or through multiple batches when sharing with friends.

For loose leaf tea, full or whole leaf tea is a special treat - especially when you take a moment to experience and be mindful of the breadth of flavors you're getting from your brew. It can be relaxing witnessing the technique used to roll the leaf, the unfurling of the leaf throughout the entire process, and ultimately the journey the leaves bring to you. Check out some cool examples of steeped whole leaf teas are herehere, and here.

loose tea vs bagged tea

What broken leaf teas lack in breadth of flavor (relative to the whole leaf), they more than make up for in depth of flavor, producing a darker, bolder cup. These teas also infuse faster compared to whole leaf. Broken leaf teas are perfect for blending with other herbs, spices, and/or fruits to keep all ingredients a similar size and weight (so your concoction doesn't separate). Broken leaf teas also do well in silken pyramid sachets, which give them more room for expansion as the leaves steep. Check out an example here.


Leaf particles too small to be classified as broken leaf fall into two categories - fanning and dust (many grades exist for each). Fannings are finely broken pieces of leaf with a coarse texture (see an example here), and dust is even finer than fannings, made from tea particles left over once the higher grades have been sorted. These are the most common grades used for standard tea bags because of the short steeping time and bold flavor. Tea bags with fannings and/or dust are convenient, quick, and cheap, but the trade-offs include a more astringent cup with less natural flavor. Also, the way they get their flavor is typically through herbal inclusions or additives, not from the tea itself. The health properties present in fannings and dust is far less present (if at all) with than with whole leaf, broken leaf, or leaf pieces. Fannings infuse quickly and can be great for a strong, and quick cup of tea that's easily flavored with herbal or other inclusions.

However, fannings and dust catch a lot of flack because of the uncertainty of what's in the tea bag (e.g. was something unknown mixed in with the tea?). Until recent years, the majority of the tea circulating throughout the U.S. was fannings and dust in tea bags. Now, the U.S. is starting to welcome greater varieties of tea, and opening itself up to experiencing the leaf. While whole leaf and broken leaf teas are exciting, the affordability, convenience, and flavors that fannings can bring to the table are useful and valuable in their own way.


Recently we've been noticing a new tea product gain popularity - premium instant tea crystals. While we are used to steeping either loose leaf tea or tea sachets/bags in hot water and then removing the tea, tea crystals eliminate the step of waiting for the tea to brew, since the crystals have already been steeped! You simply pour a packet of tea crystals into hot or cold water and they supposedly create the perfect cup of tea, instantly. While it takes away the traditional element of actually steeping tea, this is a great option for people who live an on-the-go lifestyle and like to get their daily dose of tea in any situation. Check out Pique and Cusa for a variety of organic instant tea options!


    Loose leaf means that the leaves are freely packaged in one container.  Whole leaf teas, broken leaf teas, and sometimes tea pieces are packaged as loose leaf. You will need a way to steep the tea (learn how to select tea ware or shop mugs and tea infusers). The main rule with steeping loose leaf is to use a method that allows for full expansion of your leaves!

    loose leaf tea
    Tea bags are efficient, cost-effective, and convenient for transporting. While they aren't ideal for re-steeping or full leaf tea, tea bags will do the job for herbal blends which are often cut and don't require room to expand, quick and bold cups of black tea, and rooibos blends (rooibos is a smaller cut leaf that doesn't require expansion). 

    Silken pyramid sachets are a kind of hybrid between loose leaf and tea bags, created to allow a fuller steeping experience - more room or leaf pieces or full leaves to expand, and greater transparency as if to answer the question: "what's in that tea bag!?". There are a variety of options coming out on shelves in the U.S. that are in pyramid silken sachets - and they're great for on-the-go or at-the-office steeping. Generally, broken or leaf pieces are packaged in sachets. 


    At the end of the day, if they taste good, don't have artificial flavors, and don't leave your mouth dry - we'll drink most teas out there.  We love experiencing the leaf with whole leaf teas, but also enjoy the on-the-go convenience and value of using single-serving sachets and premium tea crystals. So, steep away friends! :)


    Whether you’re a tea head or a tea novice, the Sips by Tea Shop sells all types of tea from the best tea brands. We’ll teach you how to make the perfect cup of tea, whether you’re using loose leaf tea or bagged tea, whether you want the benefits of black tea or the benefits of green tea, or whether you prefer hot tea or iced tea. Need an extra energy boost? We’ve got caffeinated teas like black tea and green tea. Want to savor a comforting mug at night? We have herbal and caffeine free teas. Discover the world of tea with white tea, oolong tea, pu’erh tea, rooibos, cacao tea, and more.

     shop tea

    But we want to know...what are your preferences? If you don't currently have any, what are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below, learn how to steep your tea, or click the button below to create a free tea profile and stay up to date on new tea lessons, learn about fun tea recipes, and gain access to special brand offers + giveaways. 


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