Like a lot of western tea drinkers, my first cup of tea was from a grocery store teabag. It must have been unremarkable, because I don’t remember it. And it must have been bitter, because I didn’t have tea again until I was introduced to Chinese whole leaf tea.
If I hadn’t been introduced to whole leaf oolongs by a sweet Taiwanese friend, I might have decided I didn’t like tea at all. Considering that Chinese tea has become such a passion of mine, I feel very lucky to have been introduced to tea outside the bag. Here are some good reasons why it might be time for you to leave mass produced tea bags behind and make the switch to single origin tea.
Most tea bags don’t tell you what you’re drinking.
There are several important factors that contribute to the taste of tea: the cultivar of the leaf, the region where the leaves are grown, the date at which they are harvested, and the way in which the tea leaf is crafted. All these factors and more directly affect the quality and taste of the tea. Much like wine is classified by cultivar of grape and region to better inform the drinker of the flavor they might expect (for example, a Napa Valley Chardonnay or an Argentinian Malbec), a tea drinker that knows the cultivar, region, harvest date, and crafting method of the tea can better predict the flavor of the brew.
Usually, tea bags only list the basic category of tea, which is not enough to tell you what type of tea you’re actually drinking. Finding a tea only labeled ‘black’ is the same as if you were to walk into a wine shop and find that the bottles lining the shelves simply read ‘white’ or ‘red’, and nothing else.
There is actually a historic reason for this. Traditionally, English tea companies imported tea from many different sources. After 1834, their tea came primarily from India, but also from a few other colonized regions around the world. The teas would fluctuate in taste and quality, so they would employ tea “tasters”, who were responsible for blending the different teas into one homogenous flavor that matched the flavor of their existing brand.
As many as 30 different teas can be found within a blend. From tea author Michael Smith, “The taster’s blend must match up with previous history...in order to achieve a continuity of flavor, almost in the same way that a blended wine must have no recognizable difference from its predecessor.”
The invention of the tea bag allowed this process to expand on a mass scale. It transformed the range of natural tea flavor into uniform packets that lined the shelves of grocery stores across the country, and tasted the same no matter where a customer bought them.
This tea bag production process requires the tea leaves to be crushed into ‘fannings’. These are pieces of leaf so small that they essentially resemble dust, or powder. Crushing a leaf increases the surface area, and the flavor of the tea is released immediately when it meets the boiling water.
Using tea fannings not only made the blender’s duties more streamlined, but also the tasting process more uniform. After all, a tea bag’s brand has to be identical from box to box, without variation. When Twinings altered the flavor of their Earl Grey tea bags in 2011, customers very publically protested, indicating that British tea drinkers value consistency over all.
While there might be some comfort in consistency, this means that the range of flavors tea bag companies have to offer are limited, and not a true reflection on the variety of natural flavors tea can offer. These days many tea bag companies rely on artificial flavors to maintain that consistency: which brings us to the next problem.
Many tea bags include artificial flavors, designed to mask unavoidable bitterness.
Tea bag companies are required by the laws of supply and demand to produced a massive amount of tea bags to make a profit. They are able to do so by harvesting from huge tea plantations that lie close to the equator, where massive quantities of tea are produced in the summer when the tea grows very quickly.
The downside of a bulk harvest of mature tea leaves is that they are extremely bitter. This is partially due to tannin, a natural flavonoid found in many forms of plant life and foods (for example, within the skins of grapes used for red wine). The more the leaf grows the more tannin it tends to produce. An abundance of tannin in the leaf produces a distinct dry and bitter taste that can overpower any other flavor the tea might have, especially if the tea is brewed for too long.
This is why it’s typical for English tea to be taken with milk and sugar, and why Americans drink iced tea with sugar. Without the addition of sweeteners, the strong tannic taste of these mass produced teas can be unpleasant to drink.
As tea became more popular in England and Europe, it became commonplace for companies to scent their tea blends with distinct fruit or flower flavors. Earl Grey, a tea known for its signature citrus taste, is popularly believed to be named after the Earl Charles Grey. According to many stories about the tea (though no two stories say the same thing), somehow the extracted oil from a bergamot fruit was added to a dark black tea in the presence of the Earl, and it has remained one of the world’s best known tea flavors.
These days there’s little chance that modern day Earl Grey tea bags are made with real bergamot oil. The cost of the bergamot required to scent and flavor the hundreds of thousands of pounds of Earl Grey per year is too high to be feasible. The same is true of many flavored tea bags commonly found in the grocery aisle. The peach flavor in that “Peach Green” has nothing to do with real peaches.
There’s nothing wrong or harmful in enjoying a flavored tea, just like there’s nothing wrong or harmful about enjoying fruit-flavored candy or soda. However, fruit-flavored candy doesn’t try to convince you that it’s “all natural”. You’d be surprised to see how many tea bags with added flavoring in the grocery aisle claim just that. Which brings us to the next point...
Flavorings are not the only additives in some teabags.
Thankfully these cases are rare, but there are cases of tea bags being adulterated in India. Investigations have found chemical colorings, sawdust, dyes, flakes of iron, sand, and even previously used tea leaves within the contents of tea bags from key areas of Indian tea production.
The colorings added to teas in India are meant to improve the color, since a strong dark color convinces people that they are drinking a strong, quality tea. Iron flakes are added to increase the weight of the tea so it can be sold at a higher price, and it would seem that sawdust, sand, and “spent” tea leaves find their way into the tea bags from the factory floor. There are strict standards in place to deter this type of fraud, but there were still new cases of tea adulteration found just last year.
Watchdogs like the USP Food Fraud Database carefully track cases like this and the chance of encountering contaminated teas are slim, but unfortunately, still possible.
As mentioned above, most tea bag companies do not provide any information on where the tea was grown, harvested, or handled. The lack of information makes it very difficult for anyone concerned with food safety to confirm that the tea bags they buy are filled with 100% tea.
Luckily, single origin teas are becoming more readily available on the market. You may not be able to find single origin tea in your standard grocery store, but the peace of mind of knowing your drink was responsibly produced is worth the extra effort it takes to find them.
Most tea bags are not cost effective.
Teabags come in a wide variety of quality and prices. However, no matter how much you spend on a teabag, they usually yield just one flavorful brew.
This was an intentional choice on the part of early tea bag entrepreneurs, as they proudly advertised that finally the English tea drinker no longer had to worry about using too much or too little leaf to brew. The amount was fixed perfectly for one cup and one cup only. Later on, tea bag companies converted to using only fannings in their tea bags. The smaller pieces of leaf not only allowed for a faster brew, but also a more precise measurement of the exact weight of tea in each bag.
As ubiquitous as the tea bag is today, most people don’t realize the tea bag is a fairly recent invention. The earliest patent for the tea bag (or “tea leaf holder”) was filed in 1901. Before the tea bag, western tea drinkers used loose leaves to brew their tea, although these leaves were usually chopped, rather than whole. It wasn’t until 30 years or so after World War II that the English embraced the new invention and utterly changed their tea drinking habits.
In contrast to the modern English tea brewing style, Chinese tea preparation (known as gong fu cha) uses whole leaves in small vessels. In gong fu cha, the whole leaf releases flavor gradually, brew after brew, allowing the drinker to produce several brews. Often, the second or third brew is stronger in flavor than the first.
Among Chinese tea drinkers, this knowledge is quite common. But when the tea bag became the normal form for tea in the west, people became so used to getting a single brew from a single bag that even today, western tea drinkers are surprised to learn that whole tea leaves can produce multiple brews. Practically, this means that in terms of value and flavor, tea bags don’t really deliver.
To break it down, consider the price of a single tea bag. Even in a high grade tea bag, a tin of 50 bags might cost $12 or so, averaging out to 24 cents per bag. This is only possible because the tea within the bag is even cheaper than that. Tea that is so inexpensive probably contains bitter flavors, and is only capable of one brew. In part, this is because the process of grinding tea leaves into fannings produces more bitterness and limits the amount of flavor. But it’s also because the least expensive teas are harvested in the summer, when fast growth makes bitterness unavoidable.
To compare, consider an everyday whole leaf tea, at $22 for a quarter pound (about 30 servings), with a cost per serving of about $0.73. Not only are you likely to have a more complex, natural flavor, and less bitterness, you can re-brew that single serving of leaves at least 3 to 5 times, bringing the cost of each cup to only 18 cents.
So which would you choose? A single cup of a predictable, bitter tea? Or several cups of a smoother, richer, and more complex tea?
With all this said, the tea bag itself, as a device to assist in brewing your tea, is without a doubt convenient and reliable. It’s the tea inside the tea bags that is typically cheap and sub-par, and there are ways of producing tea bags that deliver on better flavor.
Not all tea bags are created equal.
For reasons pointed out above, the average tea bag is just that: average. Taste and quality are secondary concerns when large companies make tea for the mass market.
However, it’s completely possible for tea bags to contain fresh, high quality tea, it’s just not the norm. For those tea drinkers that want to upgrade their tea habits, but don’t want to give up the simplicity of brewing with a tea bag, there are options.
You can always bag loose teas yourself, to make sure you know what’s going in them. We always pre-pack a few of these biodegradable tea bags while we’re traveling, for easy cleanup.
Or, choose from our selection of our favorite single origin teas, pre-bagged for your convenience from the same harvests as our loose leaves. For black tea lovers out there, we recommend our Golden Monkey, First Pick, smooth and rich with notes of cocoa. For those with a preference for lighter teas, we recommend our Light Roast Formosa, light and sweet with strong hints of orchid and gardenia.
For those of you out there ready to make the switch to whole leaves, we’re happy to report that we carry Golden Monkey, First Pick and Jin Xuan in whole leaf form as well. Check out our post on easy ways to brew loose leaf tea to get started.
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