When you're in a grocery store, you might notice that most of the tea is bagged, the kind you simply drop into a cup of hot water and let steep for a few minutes. Yet if you've ever been into a specialty tea shop, nearly all of the tea is loose leaf -- shopkeepers measure out a certain amount of leaves from bins and put the tea in a larger bag or tin. You then take your tea home and prepare it with a tea pot or tea strainer. What's the difference between bagged tea and loose leaf tea? Is one better than the other?
Tea lovers claim that the best kind of tea is loose leaf. Loose leaf tea is traditionally picked and processed, whereas bagged tea is normally produced by the CTC method described earlier. Because of the tiny, dust-like quality of bagged tea, many of the nutrients available in the bigger leaves are lost. The small bag also causes some problems with tea experts. To get the most in flavor and nutrients out of tea, more space and water circulation is needed for the leaves to expand and unfurl. This isn't very easy with bagged tea since the tea is "trapped."
This isn't to say bagged tea is terrible. You can still produce a decent cup from bags, and it's slightly more convenient (and much less expensive) than drinking loose leaf tea.
Once you've chosen your tea, how should you prepare it? How long should you brew the tea? Does it matter how hot the water is?
Most people take water for granted when brewing their tea, but the temperature at which tea is prepared can affect the quality of the tea. The water used for black tea is the only water that should be completely boiled at a temperature of about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Oolong tea is typically brewed with water heated to a slightly lower temperature of 190 degrees Fahrenheit (almost boiling), and green and white teas are steeped in steaming water, or water with a temperature of about 170 degrees Fahrenheit. The length of steeping time also varies depending on the type: black and white teas take 4-5 minutes to steep, oolong takes about 3-4 minutes, and green can take as little as 30 seconds to 2 minutes.