Hey! You, with that tea bag - STOP RIGHT THERE.
Oh, don't get me wrong - tea bags are amazing inventions, triumphs of modern living and so on (and we wouldn't stock them if we didn't think so). It's just that...we couldn't help noticing the lack of loose leaf tea on your shelves over there. You know, the "fancy" stuff. What's that you're saying? You can't see the point in faffing around when you can just pop a bag into the pot and have done with it? Oh dear. Ye of little knowledge of the joys of a proper brew. Grab that cuppa (you've poured it now, you might as well drink it) and get yourself sat down - it's time to learn about serving tea as nature intended.
1. Pick Wisely. Was your organic tea picked by human hand, or machined off using something like this? Handpicking involves pinching off the first two leaves and the top bud, collecting the freshest, most flavoursome part of the plant. Unsurprisingly, machine-plucking is a lot faster, but grinds up everything in the way. Machine-shredded tea leaves are usually only good for grinding up even further - perfect fare for your common or garden tea bag.
2. If It Ain't Broken... The delicately bitter combination of flavours that you know of as "tea" is made of oils that are released into the hot water. These oils will evaporate from dry leaves, and the more surface area your leaves have, the quicker this will happen. Ground-up tea is almost all surface area - so it loses its flavour fastest. Whole tea leaves don't have this problem - they lock the good stuff deep within them until you're ready to get brewing.
3. Flavour. Never had leaf tea? Then you've never tasted tea as a single flavour. In most cases, teabags used blended tea leaves - but even when they don't, even when you're sticking to a single variety, you're still not drinking just the tea. You're drinking the taste of the tea bag paper. You're drinking whatever is seeping out of that fancy little string you use to dunk your tea bag up and down. You're tasting the stitching that holds the bag together, or the staple, or the glue. It's all in there, turning a simple cup of tea into a subtle cocktail of industrial chemicals. Loose leaf tea, on the other hand, is tea. That's the flavour. Tea. (And maybe a little bit of cup. Hey, you can't have everything.)
4. Room To Brew. This is not to diss the clever advances in recent tea bag technology (like the increasingly popular pyramid variety) - but really, a tea bag is a straitjacket. Your tea wants to roam free, it wants to whirl hither and thither, releasing everything it's got - but the bag won't let it. Maybe it's less messy when you fish the sodden tea bag out at the end, but you haven't given your tea a chance to express itself. Is that fair? We say NO. (Poor tea.)
5. Cost. You wouldn't think it when you browse the aisles of your supermarket, but loose tea is cheaper than its bagged equivalent. So why the common assumption it's more expensive? Because in a way, it is. Confused? Here's the reason: leaf tea is usually higher quality, so when you buy a box of the stuff, you're paying a little more than a box of average-quality tea bags for something that is considerably better. For a truly fair test, you should find exactly the same variety in loose & bagged form (eg. your favourite green tea) and put them side by side. Try it. It's illuminating.
6. Hassle. Yes yes. Tea bags are easier to dispose of, whereas loose tea has to be strained out. That's why we have tea bags, and that's why we never use loose coffee either....oh, wait a minute. I totally forgot: we happily, willingly put up with the hassle of using coffee grounds instead of quick'n'easy instant - but we give loose tea the cold shoulder because of the same thing, even though there are plenty of accessories for making the process even easier? For shame, tea-critics. Why this unfair disparity? Probably because we all know the difference in quality between instant and fresh coffee. The same applies with tea, only the message hasn't quite sunk into modern society yet. Maybe it's time that happened?
7. Reuse. In China, a cup of tea is usually a thing that lasts all day - not because people sip their tea slower, but because they keep topping it up with hot water. Tea leaves hold more flavour for longer, and usually make a very powerful first cup of tea - so strong, in fact, that it's common practice to pour away the first cup because it's too bitter. When you buy leaf tea, you're buying something that can be reused. Want to do that? Make a cuppa with leaf tea, then strain the leaves and put them in the sunshine on something absorbant like a piece of kitchen towel. Once they're completely dry (to avoid attracting mold), they're good to go again tomorrow!
Convinced (or intrigued)? Why not have a go with some of these?