The Truth About Tea Bags: Should You Use Them or Not?
Tea bags are often the boogeymen of the tea world. We talk about them plenty and often recommend avoiding them in favor of loose leaf tea. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in the tea world.
Tea bags are convenient, no mess options that make brewing faster and easier. They’re often preferred by people who are new to tea. They’re also commonly looked down upon by tea masters because of issues with quality.
There’s a lot of discussion surrounding tea bags and whether they are a good choice when it comes to tea drinking. Here, we’ll show you the truth about tea bags and how you can use them to your benefit.
What Are Tea Bags?
Tea bags are typically small, porous pouches that contain dried leaves, flowers, or herbs. They are infused in hot or boiling water to brew tea. Tea bags are available for a wide variety of teas including true teas and herbal teas.
True teas are all teas made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant and include white tea, green tea, oolong tea, pu-erh tea, and black tea. Herbal teas are made from all other plants and include popular favorites such as ginger tea, apple tea, and chamomile tea.
Tea bags are made of filter paper or food-grade plastics. They are occasionally made of silk, although silk is considered to inhibit full flavor development. In Asia, the term tea bag often refers to the paper wrapping or envelopes that contain loose tea leaves. The tea leaves are removed from the packaging and steeped as loose leaf teas.
Tea bags essentially work as a simplified tea infuser. They often include a string that enables easy removal and a small tag with brewing instructions. Most are made of paper fiber and other biodegradable materials.
History of Tea Bags
Tea bags have been used for centuries in the tea industry. The bags were initially developed in the 8th century under the rule of the Tang Dynasty. The first tea bags were made of paper that was folded and stitched by hand into square bags. The paper was used to preserve the flavor and aroma of the tea.
In the western hemisphere, tea bags were first used in the early 1900's. Two women—Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren—filed the first patent for a 'tea leaf holder'. They used stitched mesh fabric to enable to tea leaves to expand and infuse flavor while also making tea brewing more convenient.
Another of the first manufacturers of these tea bags was known as Thomas Sullivan (1). He initially used silk before switching to gauze, which he discovered infused tea leaves more efficiently.
The first company to manufacture tea bags using machinery was the tea company Teekanne in Germany in 1929. By 1930, William Hermanson patented the heat-sealed paper tea bag. It wasn't until 1944 that the rectangular tea bag was invented. Up to this point, all tea bags were small and shapeless sacks. By 1953 the British tea company Tetley began to mass-produce tea bags.
In modern times, tea bags are available in the small, rectangular shape and in larger sachets and sacks. Circular tea bags are available with no strings to help limit waste. Teas are also commonly sold in tea tins and large bags similar to coffee bags.
Benefits of Tea Bags
The main benefit of tea bags is that they add convenience. It's easy to pop a tea bag into a hot cup of water or to-go mug and get on with the rest of the day. There's no fiddling around with tea tools or having to wash extra dishes afterward. The handy attached string makes clean up easy as you can just toss the tea bag into the garbage or compost pile.
Another benefit of tea bags is that there is no mess. You simply remove the bag and voila—a perfect cup of tea without mucking up the kitchen. If you've used loose tea before, you know that you need a tea infuser or tea strainer to remove the loose leaves. That means you'll have extra equipment you need to clean. Tea bags take the hassle out of making tea by streamlining the process.
Perfect for Iced Tea
Tea bags are particularly well-suited for making iced tea. Brewing iced tea can be a big job, especially if you're adding in fresh fruit or flavorings. Brewing with tea bags makes the process simpler and faster so you can get on to other preparations for a big celebration or backyard tea party.
Drawbacks of Tea Bags
Don't Contain All Healthy Compounds
Unlike whole leaf teas, tea bags generally contain broken leaves, dust, and fannings created during the CTC or cut-tear-curl method of production. The leaves are placed into large rolling machines that break down whole leaves into smaller pieces that fit into tea bags.
Unfortunately, that means that tea bags may not contain the whole tea leaf. Thus they don't contain all of the healthy compounds such as l-theanine and antioxidants that help to detox and improve overall health.
Don't Fully Infuse Flavor
The problem with tea bags is that many of them are too small and they subsequently constrict the tea leaves. Tea leaves release flavor by expanding in water. When the leaves are restricted, they don't fully infuse flavor. That means that tea bags often make tea that doesn’t taste good.
Getting the Most Out of Tea Bags
Just because tea bags have some drawbacks doesn't mean you can't use them. Drinking tea is all about enjoyment. If you're in a hurry and need to use a tea bag, go for it. Just make sure to follow these guidelines to select the best tea bags that preserve flavor and aroma.
Large, Loose Sachets
Since small tea bags result in inferior flavor, using large sachets instead helps to minimize this drawback. Loose sachets ensure the leaves have plenty of space to expand and infuse flavor. Pyramid shaped tea bags are particularly useful since the tea leaves are free to float around both sideways and vertically.
Look for tea bags that are unbleached to prevent the alteration of flavors from chemicals. Tea bags that are heat sealed are better than those with metal staples as the metal can affect flavor. If you're looking to cut down on waste, opt for tea bags that don't contain excess wrapping or strings and tags.
High Quality Leaves
Whether you choose black tea bags, green tea bags, or even powdered matcha green tea, the quality of the leaves makes the difference in brewing. This is true whether you plan on making a cup of tea using loose leaves or tea bags. You can also purchase tea that is certified fair trade to ensure healthy working and growing conditions are established.
Always purchase tea from a reputable company to ensure the best flavor. The tea company should prominently list where the tea comes from and how it was grown. Teas grown in the Philippines will taste different than those grown in China or Africa. That's due to terroir—the idea that climate, earth composition, and other environmental factors affect flavor and aroma.
Tea Bag Verdict
Tea bags are convenient and minimize the mess typically associated with traditional brewing methods. While we still recommend using loose leaf tea whenever possible, you can use tea bags in a pinch.
Tea bags are great when you're in a hurry and simply don't have time for cleanup. Make sure to select tea bags that are large enough to allow the leaves to fully expand and infuse flavor. Opt for tea bags that contain whole leaves to get better flavor and health benefits.
When it comes down to it, the healthiest tea is the tea you drink. Don't skip a hot cuppa just because you don't want to pull out the tea tools. Simply pop in a high-quality, large sachet tea bag and sip to your health.