Is There a Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Tea?

Is there a difference between cheap and premium tea? In this article, we’re going to compare a green tea you would find in a teabag with premium loose leaf green tea. We’re going to identify the disadvantages of cheap teabag tea, and see if it is worth it for the money you save.

First, let’s start out by opening up a teabag and seeing what’s inside. While there is technically tea inside of this teabag, it’s typically made from the leftover parts of the tea production process. The young, fresh leaves of the tea plant are picked and used for premium loose leaf tea and then the stems, older leaves and leaves from later harvests are often ground up to be sold in teabags. A lot of teabags will also contain artificial flavorings to compensate for the lackluster flavor.

Low quality teas are not only less appealing in terms of appearance, they are worse in terms of flavor and nutrient content as well. Over the fall and winter, the tea plant builds up nutrients and then releases them in the spring harvest sprouts. These sprouts are the most desirable because they are the highest in nutrients and flavor. They also tend to be the highest in caffeine Especially when the tea plant is shaded before the harvest. The leftover leaves and stems are used to make cheaper teas. The flavor and nutrient content will decline with each harvest, and lower quality teas will be made from the second, third and even fourth harvests.

To compare the flavor, we opened up the teabag into warm water and let it brew for a minute. The teabag itself can actually negatively affect the flavor of the tea. In addition to adding paper, plastic and even glue to the tea, it also restricts the tea leaves from expanding and fully releasing their flavor. We wanted it to be a fair comparison, so we opened up the bag and prepared it in more of the loose leaf style.

What you’ll notice is that the color produced is this brownish orange color. With green tea, you really want to look for a green or yellow color in the infusion. If you end up with an orange or brown, it generally means that it will be quite bitter or unpleasant to drink. The color usually signifies the tea is low quality or it has been overbrewed. When you compare the color to premium loose leaf Japanese green tea, you notice a difference right away. This loose leaf tea was brewed for the same amount of time in the same temperature water. As you may notice, the larger leaves are able to expand and release their flavor into the water. The color is a yellowish green which is typical for Japanese green teas. There are certain Japanese green teas like Fukamushi that take on a jade green color, but for the most part the green teas will have a yellowish green color. 

When it comes to taste, the difference becomes even more extreme. You will hear tea critiques describe the flavor of teabags as being very flat or one dimensional. What that means is that the flavor only goes in one direction. It can taste like wood, earth or grass. The flavor of a teabag can also be quite bitter. Finally, teabags can have a weaker flavor. This is likely because as the leaves are chopped up to be put into the teabag, they deteriorate quicker. You want to go for larger leaf loose leaf teas with less surface area, as they will tend to preserve their flavor better for longer. The most sensitive components of the tea are the essential oils. These are the volatile compounds that give teas their flavors and aromas and they disappear quickly. 

When we take a look at the loose leaf tea, we see a broad spectrum of taste profiles. A premium loose leaf green tea can be described as fruity, vegetable, nutty, citrusy, sweet, savory and sometimes all at once. When you use lower quality leaves from later harvests and grind them up like this, you lose a lot of the complexity. Loose leaf teas also have the benefits of being useful for more than one brewing. Teabags often run out of flavor in the first brewing, and therefore you can only use them once. Loose leaf tea can be used 4-5 times and if you prepare it in a teapot, you can easily share each brewing with a few friends.

When we break down the price of premium loose leaf tea, you end up paying around $33 for 100 grams of tea. Because you only use 5 grams of tea to make a whole pot, that becomes about $1.60 per session. Considering you use the tea leaves 4-5 times, you’re looking at 30-50 cents per cup. That number gets cut in half when you go for a more inexpensive loose leaf tea like Hojicha or bancha. So compared to expensive wine which may be $5 per glass or more, expensive tea seems to be much more of a reasonable indulgence. Compared to many teabags you may get in the supermarket, 30 cents per cup of tea doesn’t sound too bad either. When you consider how much better of a tea experience you can get with loose leaf tea, it seems to be an easy decision. You also don’t need to worry about all the waste created with teabags, all you need is leaves and water. You can even compost the tea leaves when you are done with them. When you use loose leaf tea and prepare it in a teapot or a strainer, you can start to explore the vast world of tea. There are so many methods and flavors waiting for you to explore, you just need to get started!