The market for loose leaf tea in the United States is growing strongly as tea drinkers from all walks of life rediscover the taste, health benefits and value of loose leaf tea.
But one must ask the question: why is loose leaf tea less popular in the United States than in the rest of the world? The answer lies in the combination of the political and economic history of our country and the presence of the low quality tea bag.
The Colonies Reject Loose Leaf Tea
Although tea drinking originated in China, consumption of tea based on good taste, health benefits and the sense of well being one achieved by tea drinking spread to the western world. The American colonies embraced the habit of tea drinking after tea was introduced by Dutch traders in the 17th and 18th centuries and became one of the largest tea drinking regions in the world on a per capita basis. Colony consumption of tea dwarfed that of the parent country England.
The French and Indian War, or Seven Years War, after which the British ruled supreme in most of North America, represented the decisive turning point in British-colonial relations however. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ratified Britain’s undisputed control of the seas and shipping trade, as well as its sovereignty over much of the North American continent east of the Mississippi River (including French Canada).
But the British expected the Colonies to pay for the war (the British borrowed heavily from European Bankers to finance the war) and this fact planted the seeds of rebellion.
During the years leading up to the American Revolution, Britain, through a policy of salutary neglect, had allowed the colonies by default the right to manage their own affairs. The subsequent efforts on the part of royal officials to rectify this deficiency and collect unprecedented amounts of revenue violated what many American colonists understood as the clear precedent of more than a century of colonial-imperial relations.
New world institutions of self-government and trade, having matured in an age of salutary neglect, would resist and ultimately rebel against perceived British encroachment. Taxation policy became a central point of contention, because it tended to threaten both the prosperity and autonomy of colonial society.
Between the Seven Years War and the Revolution the British enacted a series of heavy handed taxation and other policies that attempted to raise revenue and regain control over the wayward colonies. Many of the acts focused on tea and the result was revolution.
On the night of December 16, 1773 Massachusetts Patriots disguised as Indians illegally boarded the Dartmouth, a cargo ship bearing 342 chests of East India Tea valued at about £10,000. In defiance of Governor Thomas Hutchinson and British tax authority in general, the intruders dumped the entire shipment into Boston Harbor, precipitating a crisis that would lead to revolution.
The Boston Tea Party was an act of uprising in which Boston residents destroyed crates of British tea in 1773, in protest against British tea and taxation policy. Prior to the Boston Tea Party, residents of Britain’s North American 13 colonies drank far more tea than coffee. In Britain, coffee was more popular. After the protests against the various taxes, British Colonists stopped drinking tea as an act of patriotism. Drinking of loose leaf tea in the United States is only now recovering.
Replaced by coffee and the convenient tea bag, consumption of loose leaf tea would remain dormant until the start of the 21st Century.
Enter the Tea Bag
During World War II, tea was rationed. In 1953 (after rationing in the UK ended), Tetley launched the tea bag to the UK and it was an immediate success. The convenience of the tea bag revolutionized how Britons drank their tea and the traditional tea pot gave way to making tea in a cup using a tea bag. The success of the tea bag accelerated in the United States as well and soon came to dominate the tea drinking market.
In a tea bag, tea leaves are packed into a small (usually paper) tea bag. It is easy and convenient, making tea bags popular for many people today. However, the tea used in tea bags has an industry name, called “fannings” or “dust” and is the waste product produced from the sorting of higher quality loose leaf tea.
What is Good About the Tea Bag?
About the only thing good about the tea bag is the convenience factor. In the past, many Americans were willing to sacrifice taste and quality for convenience. This trend is now changing.
It is commonly held among tea drinking experts that the tea bag provides an inferior taste and tea drinking experience. The paper used for the bag can also be tasted, which can detract from the tea’s flavor. Because fannings and dust are a lower quality of the tea to begin with, the tea found in tea bags is more tolerant when it comes to brewing time and temperature. But the taste suffers in quality.
The main difference between loose teas and bagged teas is the size and quality of the leaves . Tea leaves contain chemicals and essential oils, which are the basis for the wonderful flavor of tea. When the tea leaves are broken up, those oils can evaporate, leaving a dull and tasteless tea as well as losing many of the health benefits of loose leaf tea.
There is also the space factor. Tea leaves need space to swell, expand and unfurl. Good water circulation around the leaves is important, which doesn’t typically happen in a tea bag.
Loose leaf tea comes in greater variety than bagged tea when one considers the multitude of blends and flavors that are loose leaf tea offerings. There is at least one or more tea blends for the palette of any individual tea drinker.
Additional reasons why bag tea is considered lower quality include:
• Dried tea loses its flavor quickly on exposure to air. Most bag teas contain leaves broken into small pieces; the great surface area to volume ratio of the leaves in tea bags exposes them to more air, and results in stale tea.
• Loose tea leaves are likely to be full formed and larger and are robust for multiple infusion of the leaves. This results in a lower cost per cup.
• Breaking up the leaves for bags disperses flavored oils and other oils that support health benefits.
• The small size of the bag does not allow leaves to diffuse and steep properly.
The Reemerge of Loose Leaf Tea
Every day more tea drinkers are realizing the benefits of loose leaf tea: high quality, fresh taste, better health and well being and greater variety offered. As a result the popularity of loose leaf has grown tremendously among discriminating tea drinkers.
Loose leaf tea is now enjoyed by millions of tea drinkers throughout the United States who are looking for a beverage that offers significant health benefits combined with good tasting varieties and a low cost per cup.
Is Loose Leaf Tea Expensive?
The answer is no because high quality loose leaf tea can support multiple infusions. Many tea drinkers look at the cost per tin of loose leaf tea and conclude it is expensive. However when viewed on a cost per cup, loose leaf tea is as economical as bagged tea and you receive higher quality tea. Much of the cost for bagged tea is a result of the bagging process and the packaging of the bags.
What About Storage?
Tea in bags has a shorter shelf life than loose leaf tea because the fannings in bagged tea tend to dry out faster.
Loose leaf tea has a longer shelf-life that varies with storage conditions and type of tea. Black tea for example has a longer shelf-life than green tea but all loose leaf tea, properly stored, will maintain freshness for a long time. Tea stays freshest when stored in a dry, cool, dark place in an air-tight container. Black tea stored in a bag inside a sealed opaque canister may keep for two years.
So, join the loose leaf tea drinking revolution for good taste, health and well being. It is something that even the British Empire can not stop!