I never gave tea-types much thought, until I lived in Hamburg, Germany (2000-2007). Tea was something that automatically came in teabags – I popped it in a teapot or cup, added hot water and let it brew. For me, varieties of tea (up to the year 2000) consisted of Tetleys, PG Tips and herbal (mostly chamomile) and ALWAYS came in a bag!
When I moved to Germany, a whole new world opened: Tea shops are common in towns and cities, and Hamburg, being the largest port in Germany, had more than its fair share (in fact, a quick search on google showed me well over 100)! With more tea varieties than I had ever seen before in my life! And very few in bags! Rows and rows of large jars adorn these shops, and you can ask about the origin or flavours of any of them – and/or have a sniff! Every time I return, I come back with kilos of it! From whole leaf Lemon Verbena, to mixes of loose teas with roses…. It is part of my life and routine now (although I admit, I am more of a coffee drinker!)
Another Reason to Avoid Tea Bags: PLASTIC
Apart from a whole new world of taste, flavour and aroma, there is another good reason to move from bags to loose tea: Tea bags, believe it or not, often contain PLASTIC. According to The Ethical Consumer, the alternative, Polylactic Acid (PLA), can contain material from genetically modified sources. PLA teabags should go into council food waste, as they won’t break down in most home composting conditions. The best way to dispose of plastic tea bags is to rip them open and compost the leaves, but put the bag into the bin. Keep an out for hidden plastics in sachets or string-and-tag bags. A list of plastic-free teabags can be found here.
So, whats the difference?
Whole Leaf Tea Vs Tea Bags
“Whole-leaf tea” means tea that’s primarily made up of whole, unbroken leaves.
Tea bags are made from lower-grade teas (fannings (broken leaves) and dust), which means that the surface area is larger, and the essential oils (which make tea more flavourful and aromatic) evaporate, resulting in a flavourless, stale tasting tea. As a result, maintaining freshness in tea is a big challenge with typical teabags – especially if they are packed in a paper box with paper wrapping (This is why tea bag boxes are usually then wrapped in plastic for the supermarket).
Because of its larger surface area, loose-leaf tea (not brewed in a tea bag) required more room to steep: As they infuse, the leaves absorb the water and expand, allowing the water to flow through the leaves and extract the full palette of vitamins, minerals, flavors, and aromas from the leaves. For this reason, some (semi-) whole-leaf tea makers are compromising with larger bags, even pyramid-shaped bags, which allow the leaves to expand more than they do in traditional bags.
Principally, teabags are blended for standardisation. A cup of Tetley’s tea from a Tetley’s tea bag will taste the same year after year. This is because it’s blended to a specific recipe with teas from around the world, in order to ensure standardisation of taste and product. As a result, consumers often prioritise this consistent taste and price, rather than considering the quality and character of the tea flavours. And there is nothing wrong with this!
At the other end of the spectrum, loose-leaf tea is individual: It could be a tea from from a specific region or even a specific grower. As such, its flavours, aroma, and even its appearance varies over the years and seasons. On the whole, individual growers, regions, methods and styles of processing and variations in the growing seasons are can become known for their distinct flavours and aromas – this results in a wider range of flavours and varieties (and explains why one can spend a good hour in a tea shop in hamburg sniffing and considering before making a purchase!).
(You can read more about Tea Leaf Grading here (because it is far more complicated than the above!)
Where to start?
Here, I have to say “follow your nose” – but given the smaller number of shops in the with ceiling to floor jars of tea, waiting for you to sniff and try: start with what you know.
What do you drink now? If you like black tea; try a whole-leaf version. If you like a particular flavour; look for that (and don’t be afraid to ask a shop (online or otherwise) for advice and guidance!). Start with what you know… then expand the leaf size!
Buy a tea infuser – these come in all shapes and sizes, from small, sometimes comical, cup-sized solutions to tea strainers to tea pot-sized solutions… whatever you feel happy with! Like any kitchenware, all of these vary in price and brands, but the principle is the same for all – the more space: the more flavour.#
I recommend buying one (or more!) glass or ceramic containers with a good seal for loose tea for home storage – this will keep it fresh for longer! (PLEASE do not ask me how many of these I have…..).