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What’s the Difference Between Loose Leaf Tea and Tea Bags?

What you need to know about the nation’s favourite drink

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The average Brit drinks almost 900 cups of tea a year, but how much do you know about the nation’s favourite drink? Here, we answer one of the drinks industry’s, nay, life’s, biggest questions. What is the difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags?

What are the differences between tea bags and loose leaf teas?

The chances are, the answer will differ, depending on who you ask. We quizzed a host of the country’s tea experts to find out why some people favour loose leaf over the convenience of tea bags.

tea pots

Cut, Tear & Curl, or ‘CTC’

Florence Holzapfel, Tea and Coffee buyer at Fortnum & Mason told us: ‘The biggest difference is that they contain different grades of tea. The tea grades commonly used in tea bags are from a different processing method known as ‘Cut, Tear and Curl’. CTC creates fine leaf tea with a larger surface area which means it brews faster, but loses some of its flavour.

‘Loose leaf, by contrast, preserves all the richness and complexity of the tea.’ So much of the difference lies in the production process. ‘A happy medium are our silky tea bags, which offer tea bag convenience with loose leaf flavour,’ says Florence of F&M’s offering.

Do tea bags use lower grade leaves?

Joe Shervell, owner of, agrees that there is a difference in the grade of leaves used for loose leaf and bagged tea. ‘The main difference between loose leaf tea and bagged tea is the grade of the tea used.

‘Generally speaking, tea bags will use low grade tea (called ‘dust’ or ‘fannings’). It’s important to note that ‘low grade’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad quality’ or ‘bad tasting’. It just indicates the condition of the tea leaves used. By contrast, loose leaf teas generally use the whole tea leaf.’

Sebastian Michaelis Master Blender at Tetley disagrees. ‘Teabag and loose tea come from the very same leaves plucked in the tea gardens of India or Sri Lanka, the only difference is how they are cut and handled in the factory,’ says Sebastian.

‘Loose tea comes from pressing and rotating the green leaf between two metal plates that curl and twist it into shape. To make teabag size tea, the leaf falls between two large rollers lined with sharp teeth, which produces smaller, more granular pieces.’

Stronger tea from tea bags?

Tetley’s Sebastian suggests that those who enjoy a builder’s brew or classic English breakfast with plenty of flavour may be better suited to bagged tea. ‘Teabag tea has a larger surface area, which allows it to brew and infuse quickly to deliver a stronger flavour and plenty of body.

‘Most English Breakfast or ‘Builders Brews’ have a thick, malty and richer flavour because of this. Loose tea traditionally producers a lighter brew with more nuanced interesting flavours. Both are great, it only depends on what suits your tastes for that time of day or your mood.’

Are tea bags made from dust?

It’s often said that bagged tea is made from the dust created from loose leaf production, but is this true? Apparently not. Although the word ‘dust’ is relevant when talking about tea bags.

‘There is a misconception about teabag teas being the after-product of normal tea manufacture – “the sweepings off the factory floor”. Tea bags often use CTC teas because of the strength and body they provide, and they are intentionally produced at the tea factories to be this size and shape,’ says Sebastian Michaelis of Tetley.

‘CTC’s are divided into different sizes, one of which is described as ‘Dust’ because it’s the finest grade made – not a helpful description. The most common size used in tea bags is called ‘Pekoe Fannings’, which is larger. We very stringently measure the size of all teas we buy to minimise any smaller particles falling through the bag (although there’s always a little bit).’

Why choose loose leaf?

It’s all about the circulation of the leaves allowing for a deeper, or more interesting flavour. Nancy Clack, Owner of Nancy’s Teashop told us: ‘A proper cup of tea calls for loose leaf tea.

‘Loose leaf tea circulates better in the pot whereas with tea bags, the leaves remain stationary meaning the tea is not as well brewed.’

We hope that clears things up for you a little. Stay tuned for our full C&TH Guide on How to Drink Tea.