Is loose leaf tea better than tea bags?

It looks nicer. It smells nicer. It is more suitable for a gift or for an Instagram post.

But...

Is loose leaf tea really better than tea in tea bags?

To understand that, we need to dive deep into the tea history.

Where does tea come from?

Tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant (tea plant) infused in hot or cold water (“cold brew”). Tea can be divided into black tea (in China known as red tea), green tea, white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea and aged tea. All the tea types are made from the leaves of the same plant and vary between each other in oxidation levels.

Tea drinking is a habit that was first initiated in mainland China and the first records of cultivating and drinking tea date from the third century of the Common Era. Thanks to its numerous health benefits, tea was first used as a medicinal plant and considered as a medication for many illnesses. It has been appreciated by the Imperial Court and offered as a tribute to the emperors, starting from the Tang dynasty. It was appreciated by Buddhist monks to accompany their meditation and by the men of letters. Tea drinking has become an elaborate ceremony and even tea making contests have been held to promote mastership in the tea making skill.

China started exporting tea worldwide in the 16th century and held for a long time an unquestionable monopoly on tea export. The tea exported at this time was mainly the black tea from the Yunnan region. In the 18th century the amounts of tea exported to Britain were so huge that it became an issue for the British government who paid for tea in silver coin. The outcome of this imbalance was the devastating British policy of paying for tea in opium which led to creating a mass opium addiction in China. The resulting Opium Wars ended with the humiliating Treaties of Nanking (1842) and Tientsin (1858) obliging the Chinese to accept being paid in opium.

What is the CTC processing method?

In parallel, the British started creating tea plantations in their colonies, India and Sri Lanka. In 1820 they imported tea plants from China to the Assam region in India and brought over Chinese tea farmers to learn their tea processing techniques. By the end of the 19th century India became one of the main tea producers in the world and thus effectively put an end to the Chinese monopoly in this field.

As the British were used to drinking tea with a lot of milk and sugar, they weren't interested in having a good quality product but in lowering the production costs. Apart from the best teas from the Darjeeling, most of the Indian teas were processed using the CTC method which has no respect for the delicate tea leaf - CTC stands for crushing, tearing and curling.

Initially the CTC method was only used for coarser leaves but it was popularized with the advent of tea bags. Tearing and crushing leaves into tiny bites makes it easier to squeeze them into tea bags.

 Who invented tea bags?

The tea bags invention is attributed to a New York tea trader, Thomas Sullivan, who used them as a packaging for tea samples. While he thought that his customers would remove the tea from the bags in order to taste it, instead they steeped them in hot water and asked Sullivan for more tea "in bags."

From then on, this method of serving tea picked up and led to the advent of mass produced, industrial tea.

Is tea in teabags worse than loose leaf tea?

While it is certainly possible to find good quality tea in tea bags, most of the tea bag tea on the market is inferior quality tea from multiple origins processed using the CTC method.

In such cases, there can be no notion of terroir (i.e. pure origin tea) or tea tasting.

To the contrary, loose leaf tea more often comes at least from one country if not from one terroir and its quality can be easily assessed by simply looking at the leaves.