There are plenty that subscribe to the view that loose leaf makes the best cup of tea, is this really the case? Or can this debate be likened to the cork versus screw top debate in the wine world, where some traditionalists believe fervently that a wine bottle must have a cork for quality but research has shown a screw top preserves the wine just as well and has no effect on the quality of the glass of wine, the key thing is the quality of the wine to start with. So can the same argument be applied to tea? Is it the quality of the tea leaf that matters not how it is packed?
Until early in the twentieth century all tea that was drunk was loose leaf. In the 1900s a tea and coffee merchant from New York, Thomas Sullivan, as a way of cutting costs, started sending out samples of tea in hand sewn muslin bags. His intention was that the bag would be opened and the tea sampled but some clients didn’t do this and hence the idea of the teabag was born. Teabags started appearing commercially about 1904.
It was soon discovered that in order to maintain the quality of tea brewed from teabags, the loose tea needed to be cut finer and into smaller pieces. For tea leaves to fully infuse they need room to expand and as there is less room for leaves to expand in a teabag the leaves need to be smaller. Tea merchants also realised that as the tea is hidden in a bag the customer cannot see the tea and hence the quality of it, this combined with the need for a smaller leaf meant inferior quality tea crept into being used. Then over the rest of the twentieth century the teabag grew in popularity due to convenience and price (again kept low by the poorer quality tea being used), resulting in the image of loose leaf tea as the posh aunt to the inferior yet handy teabag.
In recent times there has been a concerted move to put the quality back into teabags and give the consumer quality and convenience. At Mama Tea we use the same quality of herbs in our teabags as we would in loose leaf tea, the only difference being that the herbs are cut to an exact size to allow the best expansion and infusion in the bags. Some companies are experimenting with newer styles of nylon bags and a larger cut of leaf in an attempt to align themselves with the quality associated with loose leaf tea. The tea leaves still need to be cut for these newer style of bags, just not as finely as for the “standard” teabag, and the resulting cup of tea will still be dependent on the quality of leaves used and the accuracy of cut-size relative to the bag size.
So in answer to the initial question, is loose leaf tea against teabags similar to the cork against screw top debate, the answer is yes, it is all to do with the quality of the raw ingredients. If you use the same quality of tea for loose as you do for teabag, and cut it to the correct size, you will get the same quality cup of tea. Ironically what started as a cost cutting exercise for Thomas Sullivan, of putting loose tea in muslin bags instead of tins, has become more expensive to produce for those of us that use the same quality for loose and bag, as we need to cut the tea accurately and loose leaf no longer needs to come packaged in a tin!