What is the difference between loose-leaf tea vs. tea bags?

Are tea bags lower quality than loose-leaf tea? Ever wondered if you should switch to loose-leaf tea? Learn whether loose-leaf tea or bagged tea is right for you.

3 cups of tea with comparison of CTC tea, loose-leaf tea from a tea bag, and loose leaf tea with empty tea bags

Many people believe that tea merchant Thomas Sullivan accidentally invented the tea bag when he sent his customers tea samples in silk pouches. However, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren were brewing an invention in a Milwaukee kitchen seven years before Thomas sent out his first pouch.

In 1901, Roberta and Mary applied for a patent on a “Tea-Leaf Holder”. The woven cotton bag was “folded over upon itself” and stitched together to hold tea leaves inside. The tea pouch allowed the drinker to filter tea leaves and prepare only the desired amount of tea to avoid waste.

A century later, the tea bag has taken off. In the UK, 96% of tea consumed is bagged. But the U.S. prefers ready-to-drink tea (iced tea makes up 85% of tea consumption) and “Chinese consumers prefer fresh tea in loose formats,” according to Mintel, a global market research firm.

Let’s learn the difference between loose-leaf tea and tea bags to help you figure out which one is right for you.

What is the difference between loose-leaf tea vs. tea bags?

Loose-leaf tea usually comes in a box or metal can with a resealable lid. The tea is floating around leisurely in its container and hasn’t been portioned out into tea bags. Loose-leaf usually requires a vessel for brewing, such as a teapot and tools for straining.

Side by side comparison of loose leaf chai next to tea bags of chai

Tea bags are paper or cloth pouches containing one serving of tea. The term “tea bags” has become synonymous for tea that comes in tea bags.

RELATED: Check out the Tea 101 article: What is tea?

There’s a perception that loose-leaf tea is better value and quality but less convenient than tea bags. Is this stereotype true?

SIDE NOTE: If you’re looking for the term “tea bagging” that’s a different matter altogether. Refer to Wikipedia or urban dictionary for more information.

What is whole-leaf tea?

Whole-leaf tea is tea with the entire leaf intact. Loose-leaf tea is usually made up of whole leaves or broken leaves. Tea bags typically contain tea processed using the crush, tear, and curl (CTC) method.

Close up look ofwhole-leaf loose-leaf tea
This is loose-leaf chai. Its leaves are much larger than what you find in CTC tea.

How do you tell if a tea is a whole-leaf tea?

When you brew loose-leaf tea, notice if the tea leaf unravels into an intact leaf. If the leaves are crushed or broken, then it’s not whole-leaf tea. Simple, right?

Tea leaf grading comparison chart illustrated with pictures of different sizes of tea leaves
Tea leaves are graded based on 4 categories: whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings, and dust. Learn more about Tea Leaf Grading.

Is loose-leaf better than tea bags?

Tea connoisseurs with upturned noses will tell you that whole-leaf is superior. Articles from tea vendors (a biased source), such as The Tea Spot, Tea Sparrow, and Humming Cup, loudly pronounce that tea bags are inferior.

That’s why I interviewed tea expert Lynayn Mielke*, certified tea specialist and owner of East-West Tea Emporium @ Thrive in Annapolis, to ask whether loose-leaf tea is always better. Lynayn explains that many years ago, the cut, tear, curl, (CTC) process of breaking down tea leaves and stalks resulted in “fannings” and tea “dust”. These leftovers made their way into tea bags.

“There is a reason why tea bags came out: convenience, mass production, and consistency,” according to Lynayn. The standardization resulted in Lipton tea that tastes the same in Louisville and New York City. Some people associate this mass-produced tea as lower quality. But a lot has changed, Lynayn says, with consumers demanding higher-quality tea and tea bags.

Comparison of 3 types of dry tea with CTC tea, loose-leaf tea from a tea bag, and loose leaf side by side

RELATED: Check out the chai taste test that compares crushing and toasting spices to determine whether the extra effort is worth it.

Are tea bags generally lower quality than loose-leaf tea today?

High-end tea companies offer whole-leaf and broken-leaf teas in cotton or food-grade nylon to provide the combined benefit of loose-leaf tea with the convenience of tea bags.

You can find good quality tea in pyramid-shaped tea bags that “gives the leaf a chance to unravel and move around”, according to Lynayn, which helps the tea infuse in water.

Pyramid tea bag with loose leaf tea on a mini saucer
A example of a pyramid tea bag made with food-grade nylon

“In Sri Lanka, I watched the process of making CTC for the UAE and Russia. That CTC tea was organic, high quality, and delicious,” Lynayn told me. “I would not say it was a lesser quality. The leaf was broken which means there is a greater leaf surface area, which means there is greater area for caffeine, good polyphenols, anti-oxidants to come out.”

Comparison of 3 types of tea on a tablespoon with CTC tea, loose-leaf tea from a tea bag, and loose leaf with dry and brewed side by side

SIDE NOTE: In addition to paper tea bags, Chinese people use pseudo-tea bags, where tea is vacuum-packed in double-lined plastic baggies, hot sealed to keep the tea fresh. The tea is portioned into one to two servings. It still requires a teapot and strainer to enjoy.

Basket with small plastic tea bag filled with loose teas
Chinese-style “tea bags” with loose-leaf inside ready to brew

How to decide whether you should brew loose-leaf or tea bags?

Use this chart to figure out whether loose-leaf tea, CTC tea bags, or loose-leaf pyramid tea bags are right for you. Save the chart as a handy reminder.

Loose leaf tea vs. tea bags comparison chart illustrations with pros and cons
Figure out which tea is right for you. It can depend on the time of day or your mood (e.g. mornings are better for loose-leaf tea whereas tea bags are better when you’re on the go).
Empty tea bags filled with loose-leaf tea, including one tea bag tied with twine
You can use empty tea bags (biodegradable and not bleached with chlorine) to make your DIY tea in tea bags). It can make loose-leaf tea more convenient.

FAQ about loose-leaf tea vs. tea bags

Is loose-leaf tea cheaper than tea bags?

Here are the prices of the teas I purchased:

  • Loose-leaf chai costs $2.19 per ounce from the grocery store (Safeway)
  • Loose-leaf chai costs $0.96 per ounce from an Amazon seller
  • Loose-leaf chai in pyramid plastic tea bags costs $3.28 per ounce from the grocery store (Safeway)
  • CTC chai in conventional paper tea bags costs $1.13 per ounce (from Trader Joe’s)

Pricing depends a lot on brand, type of tea bag, and the store. Overall, it appears that the CTC tea in paper tea bags costs the least, probably because it uses a lower grade of tea leaf and is mass produced.

But loose-leaf tea isn’t far behind. Loose-leaf tea in bulk from Amazon was cheaper than tea bags from Trader Joe’s.

Further, loose-leaf in pyramid tea bags is the most expensive, which is no surprise it’s the fanciest option. So, you can likely get your preferred quality of loose-leaf tea and package it in your own tea bag for the lowest cost option (though it requires more upfront work in exchange for convenience when brewing).

Annotated image of CTC, pyramid tea bags, loose-leaf tea with pricing comparison

How much loose-leaf tea should I use for one cup?

The beauty of loose-leaf tea is that you get more control over how concentrated you want your tea. You can brew a stronger tea by using more tea leaves for the same volume of water.

Lynayn recommends the following measurements for her clients. The British like stronger tea so she usually recommends 5 g of loose-leaf tea for 6-8 fl. oz. / 180-250 mL of water. For Americans, she recommends 3-4 g of tea for 6-8 fl. oz. / 180-250 mL of water.

When I brew loose-leaf green tea, I tend to use about half a tablespoon / 5 g for 10 fl. oz. / 300 mL (about one large mug of water). When I brew loose-leaf black tea that I intend to add milk to, such as masala chai or English breakfast, I use a heaping tablespoon / 10 g for 8 fl. oz. / 250 mL of water in a tall mug and top off the tea with a lot of milk.

3 cups of tea with comparison of CTC tea, loose-leaf tea from a tea bag, and loose leaf tea

How do you measure loose-leaf tea?

You can use measuring spoons or a scale to weigh the loose tea leaves if you’re not confident with eyeballing. These days, I “measure” my loose-leaf tea using a soup spoon or my fingers for a generous pinch.

Is loose-leaf tea healthier than tea bags?

Decades ago, tea bag manufacturers used glue and certain fabrics to make tea bags. Steeping in hot water, these materials leached into the water, adding undesirable flavors and chemicals to your tea. Luckily, tea manufactures are using food-grade materials to make tea bags today, which makes them as safe as loose-leaf tea.

There’s nothing special about loose-leaf teas that make them healthier as long as tea bags are food to ingest. Disposable tea bags seem wasteful, which makes loose-leaf tea healthier for the planet.

Comparison of 3 types of tea with CTC tea, loose-leaf tea from a tea bag, and loose leaf with dry and brewed side by side
Dry, pre-brewed tea leaves compared to post-brew tea leaves. Notice how the CTC tea clumps when wet.

*Lynayn Mielke

P.S. If you want to get in touch with Lynayn Mielke, who is an acupuncturist and nutritionist in addition to tea connoisseur, you can contact her at [email protected] Lynayn offers “You, me, and tea” 90-minute coaching sessions where she formulates custom tea recommendations for clients.

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About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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