Why Drink Loose-Leaf Tea? Value, Quality, Sustainability

by cazort

Reasons I prefer loose-leaf tea to tea bags, including price, quality, and sustainability. See cost-per-cup comparisons if you are not convinced!

As a tea drinker and the creator of RateTea, I am a major advocate for buying and drinking loose tea.

I feel confident that once you switch to drinking loose-leaf tea, you will never go back to tea bags, with the possible exception of using them now and then for convenience when you're traveling, at an event, or somewhere where it's impractical to brew loose-leaf tea. Loose tea offers superior flavor, better value for price, and opens up a world of possibilities for the tea drinker. It is also more sustainable--better for the environment!

Why loose tea? The main reason is that when you buy tea bags, you are paying primarily for an industrial packaging process; when you buy loose tea, you're paying for the quality of the tea leaf itself. Which would you rather be paying for?

Price & Value: How much money can you save?

Here I compare the cost-per-cup of tea bags to loose-leaf tea.

Tea bags - cost per cup:

A typical box of tea bags in the supermarket costs around $3 for a box of 20 tea bags, which amounts to 15 cents a cup. High-end brands like Two Leaves and a Bud or Mighty Leaf cost much more, running around $8-$9 for as few as 15 sachets. This is over 50 cents a cup.

Loose-leaf tea - cost per cup:

A pound of tea will typically brew 200-250 cups of tea, depending on the strength you like. These calculations are based on using the generous amount of 2.5 grams of tea per cup, a little more than a teaspoon of typical teas--which is enough for a strong cup.  For reference, many teabags use as little as 1.4 grams of leaf.

The typical cost for good-quality loose-leaf tea is around $5-$8 for about 1/4 pound of tea, which is between 100 and 125 grams (many companies also sell in grams). This works out to be between 10 and 15 cents per cup. But these teas tend to be comparable in quality to the 50-cent-per-cup teas above. Artisan teas (which are not typically available in tea bags) can cost up to $20 for the same quantity, but this is still less than 50 cents per cup. When buying in bulk, it is possible to get strong black teas of good quality for as low as $7 a pound. This costs less than 3 cents per cup!

Loose tea is much cheaper than tea bags! If you switched from $3 for 20 tea bags to $7 for a pound of loose-leaf tea, and you drank 3 cups of tea a day, you'd save over $130 a year.  For families, offices, or people drinking huge amounts of tea, you could save much more.

Loose tea can save you money!
Loose tea can save you money!
Photo by Alex Zorach

Do you drink loose tea?

How to brew loose leaf tea?

Tea infusers help greatly! I recommend a permanent brewing basket.

Brewing loose tea is easy, and there are many different methods that can help you do so. One of the most convenient and universal ways to brew loose-leaf tea: a basket infuser. A basket infuser is a mesh filter that sits inside a mug or teapot. You place the tea leaves in the basket, place the basket inside the mug, and pour the water over the leaves. When you're ready to drink the tea, take the basket out and the water will drain out, leaving your cup ready-to-drink.

You can then keep the leaves in the basket and brew the tea again, making multiple infusions of your tea.

There are many other ways of brewing loose-leaf tea, however. Another great way is to brew the tea loose in a teapot, and then pour the tea through a strainer into a cup. Some teapots have built-in strainers for this purpose. There are also tea balls, fine metal balls that enclose tea leaves and sit inside a mug or teapot; however, some whole-leaf teas do not work well in tea balls because they do not have enough room to expand.

When you brew loose black tea, you can use boiling water, but when brewing loose green tea, it's best to use water that has cooled from boiling.

Tea Infusers Open Up The World of Loose-Leaf

Here is my favorite tea infuser, a workhorse that is easy to get started with, but durable, and satisfying even to connoisseurs. It comes in black, red, green, and blue.
Finum Brewing Basket, medium , black

Finum Brewing Basket Given the delicate tissue structure that makes up the filter, the product may be used for fine teas and coffee alike. The combination of high quality plasti...

View on Amazon

Loose-leaf Xue Ya or Snow Buds Green/White Tea
Loose-leaf Xue Ya or Snow Buds Green/White Tea

You don't need a filter for large-leaf, whole-leaf tea!

Whole-leaf tea (not broken-leaf) can be brewed directly in a mug!

Some high-quality teas, like the Taiwanese oolong tea in this picture, are made with intact, whole leaves, often with two leaves and a bud still attached to the stem.

When brewing these teas, the leaves stay together so that you don't even need a strainer or filter. The leaves can be easily fished out with a spoon if they get in the way of drinking the tea or if you desire to keep the tea from steeping for too long.

This brewing method, mug brewing, is popular in Asian countries. People usually don't spoon the leaves out--instead they refill the cup with hot water when it is about half empty, and continually sip the tea so it remains roughly the same strength as it continues steeping.

Tea Gardens in Ooty, India
Tea Gardens in Ooty, India

Loose Tea is More Sustainable

High-quality loose-leaf tea promotes environmental and economic sustainability

Loose-leaf tea is a more sustainable option, in terms of both economic and environmental impact, for a variety of reasons. When you buy tea bags, you are putting your resources towards a lot of unnecessary packaging. Much of the packaging is not recycled and is not biodegradable, but even if you buy an environmentally-conscious brand with fully biodegradable packaging, and you compost or recycle all of it, you're still paying for unnecessary packaging.

Buying loose tea also helps promote economic sustainability in the communities that grow the tea, because a greater portion of the price you pay reaches the original producer. This is especially true when you buy high-quality artisan teas, where a greater portion of the skill resides with the producers.

Buying loose-leaf not only helps you, but at the end of the day you can feel good about your choice because you are also helping to protect the environment and promote economic sustainability as well!

I recommend this book if you're interested in learning more about tea.
Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties

Beautifully illustrated... this definitive guide will appeal to die-hard tea enthusiasts. -- Library Journal The reference work we've been waiting for has arrived: a comprehensi...

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More About Tea

All about tea: types of tea, tea companies and places to buy tea, how to select the best tea, etc.
A comparison of tea and coffee, on the grounds of caffeine content, health effects, cost, acidity, and other benefits. I admit my bias, as I'm a tea lover.
RateTea is a social and community website where anyone can rate and review teas.
Updated: 10/30/2014, cazort
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frankbeswick on 11/18/2014

Tea lover to tea lovers, Attention! There is now Scottish tea, Dalreoch, a loose leaf, white tea grown in Perthshire. I never thought you could grow it so far north, but it apparently is very pleasant, but at the equivalent of £10, about 15 dollars, a cup, it ought to be. For those of us who have got rich on our writing earnings, you can buy it at Fortnum's, the elite London store.where the rich, famous and aristocratic shop. See you all there then!

Mira on 11/17/2014

Thank you, Alex!

cazort on 11/16/2014

It's true, in some cases, that you get the lowest quality (or at least the lowest grade--which is not exactly the same thing) of leaves in a tea bag. This is true of the basic flat tea bags that most mainstream brands sell, stuff like Lipton, Bigelow, Twinings, etc.

But there are quite a few products on the market selling higher-quality, whole-leaf tea, or at least larger broken-leaf tea, in tea bags. Usually they market these as "pyramid sachets", or something similar, giving the leaf more room to expand. Some brands selling tea like this include Novus Tea, Two Leaves Tea, and Mighty Leaf. Many companies also have a line of higher-quality teas like this. A problem though is that these tea bags are costly--often a box of 15-20 costs between $6 and $15. For that price, you can get a lot more loose-leaf tea of similar quality. You can even see the difference with some of the companies that sell the same teas in loose-leaf form and in pyramid bags; you save a lot by buying loose-leaf.

Mira on 11/16/2014

I feel you're getting only the least good leaves in a tea bag, because it's all tiny bits and they can use anything. Is that true, or is it a misconception? I certainly prefer to see the leaves expand when I make tea.

frankbeswick on 11/16/2014

What you say makes perfect sense and is informative.

cazort on 11/16/2014

Thank you! I agree with you both, there are lots of teas that are only available in loose-leaf form, and they tend to include nearly all the top-quality teas.

I do like organic teas...but there is one caveat to that. I've been wanting to make an article about this here on Wizzley at some point, but haven't gotten around to it yet. This is that organic certification is costly and requires a lot of recordkeeping, so it's more accessible to large-scale operations. Large-scale operations usually practice monocultures that, even if organic-certified, are pretty mechanistic operations that aren't great for the environment.

In the tea world, especially in remote regions of China, there are many small farmers that can't afford organic certification, but process their tea with traditional methods that don't involve any synthetic chemicals. Also, in some regions, like the ancient tea forests of Yunnan, there are problems with invasive plants in the tea forest, so farmers may spray herbicides selectively on non-native weeds, in ways that precludes organic certification--and as much as I'm not a big fan of herbicides, I wouldn't have as big a problem with that because it's being done in a way that protects the local ecosystem, and not coming into contact with the tea.

For this reason I like to seek out artisan teas, traditionally-processed teas from small operations, and I think that's a little more important to me than whether or not it is organic certified. For some tea types, like dragon well green tea, which are widely cultivated (and often done so involving synthetic chemicals), I think organic certification might be more important.

katiem2 on 11/15/2014

I drink loose leaf tea because I love tea, have always loved tea and it is the heart of quality tea. I prefer organic actually no I only drink organic unless there is no other option and for me that is rare as I travel with my own... Tea is good medicine. Tea is my favorite food, Green, Oolong, and White are my favorite in that order with nothing added. Oh my don't get me started. I am Scottish and my Grandmum once told me as a young girl lassie stay away from that American swill those mice on a rope... she was referring to tea bags.... lol

WriterArtist on 10/30/2014

I have always found loose tea more tasty compared to the tea bags. In addition, you have more flavours and varieties. With this range of selection, you can never go wrong.

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